06/06/2013 12:53PM

Jay Hovdey: 1993 Belmont evokes memories joyous and sad

NYRA photo
Julie Krone makes history winning the 1993 Belmont Stakes aboard Colonial Affair.

A guy can get in trouble for forgetting an anniversary, only around this house that can mean the marking of a date entirely different from a specific Saturday in the foggy past when vows were exchanged and somebody kissed the bride.

It has been 20 years since Colonial Affair emerged from the gloom of a rainy New York afternoon to carry Julie Krone and the colors of Centennial Farms to victory in the 125th running of the Belmont Stakes. Krone was the first woman to ride the winner of a Triple Crown race, which apparently was a big deal at the time and gave her the right, when asked, to say, “Yes, I did.”

The “I do” came later.

It is hard to avoid reminders around this house, from the visage of horse and rider beaming down from the Fred Stone print, to the “Colonial Affair” saddle towel with the green “4” draped over her mother’s tack trunk, to the shadow box with the petrified carnation from the victory blanket, to the jockey’s trophy awarded that year which is, of all things, an English silver café au lait pot from F. Gorevic & Son of New York, labeled “London, 1935.” At least I’m not the oldest thing in her collection.

[BELMONT STAKES: Live updates and video from Belmont Park]

The memory of the day has to last because the mortal members of the cast fade away. Scotty Shulhofer, who brimmed with confidence in his colt as he legged up his jockey, died in December 2006 at age 80 after a Hall of Fame career that included a second Belmont with Lemon Drop Kid in 1999. Don Little Sr., the founder of the Centennial syndicate, was a vigorous 77 when he died in February 2012 from injuries suffered in a fall while riding in the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla.

More recently the Thoroughbred world lost Colonial Affair himself, who was standing at stud in Argentina when his death was announced in April. A son of Pleasant Colony, who famously lost the Belmont in an attempt to sweep the 1981 Triple Crown, Colonial Affair was even better at 4 than 3, winning both the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont to be among the leading vote-getters for the 1994 Eclipse best older male.

The jockey, happy to say, is in fine health and will be on the edge of her seat Saturday for the 145th running of the Belmont Stakes. Krone keeps her cards close (although I do follow her to the window), so at this point it’s hard to say if she likes her old pal Shug McGaughey to bounce back with Derby winner Orb, or for Rosie Napravnik and Unlimited Budget to make a splashy all-female statement, or for Gary Stevens to keep making the rest of the 50-year-olds out there feeling young with Oxbow. Krone is still 49.

“Is Mikey riding the race?” she wondered.

Yes, he is. Mike Smith, Krone’s longtime friend and winner of the 2010 Belmont aboard Drosselmeyer, will be back aboard Dogwood Stable’s Palace Malice on Saturday in an attempt to cleanse the palate after their performance in the Kentucky Derby. Students of sensible pace howled to the heavens when the son of Curlin took his handsome new set of blinkers as a cue to go as fast as he could for as far as he could at Churchill Downs, which was only about a mile of the mile and a quarter, before fading to finish 12th behind Orb.

Palace Malice’s half-mile split of 45.33 seconds was not the fastest in the history of the Derby, but it was the fourth fastest, going back to 1875. For the record, those green blinkers are staying on a hook back at the Todd Pletcher barn Saturday afternoon, which is just fine with his jockey. Smith was asked if he is anxious to give the colt another chance.

“Boy am I,” he replied. “I think he ran a sneaky good race in the Derby. He didn’t just fold at the top of the stretch, he hung in there and kept trying. If he can relax and get in a good rhythm, he should be able to go on and maybe surprise some people on Saturday.”

Having finished a close second in the Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland’s synthetic surface, Palace Malice was expected to enjoy the wet, tightly rolled surface he encountered on Derby Day.

“He did,” Smith said. “I think it was the sound behind him that got him going, because he just tucked his tail and took off. He couldn’t see what was chasing him, but he knew something was back there.”

The fright-flight instincts of the Thoroughbred are deeply ingrained, and when one of them decides to flee there is literally no stopping him. The slapping clatter of hooves on the sloppy table-top of a sealed track can be deafening, especially when magnified by 18 pursuers in a bowl of sound amplified by a Kentucky Derby crowd.

“I think he thought somebody was shooting at him with a machine gun,” Smith said. “That’s how it sounded.”

As far as 20th anniversaries go, Smith would just as soon forget about the worst parts of 1993 Belmont Stakes, if people would quit reminding him. He was riding Prairie Bayou, fresh from winning the Preakness and favored in the third leg of the Crown, when the colt fractured his left foreleg on the backstretch. The reins were yanked from Smith’s hands and he fell, after which Prairie Bayou continued to stagger down the track on three legs. The fractured was compounded, leaving vets nothing to do but mercifully euthanize the colt.

“Turning for home I was looking for Mike, because I knew he’d be coming,” Krone recalled of that day. “When we all pulled up he was the only one missing, and then I saw all the commotion on the backstretch.

“I had given Mike a picture of him with Prairie Bayou taken the year before at Saratoga,” Krone added. “He loved that horse. When I saw him after the race I could hardly say anything except ‘I’m so sorry.’ He was surrounded by reporters, crying.”

Smith will let us know when he gets over it.

“When it comes to that day I like to think about Julie winning,” Smith said. “It’s too sad to think about the other thing. If he hadn’t lost his life it wouldn’t have been near as bad. But he was my favorite.”

Which is why disappointments like the more recent Derby roll off Smith’s thick hide. Palace Malice is back to fight another day.

“Todd’s said he’s been training real well,” Smith said. “I suppose it would be a great surprise if he won, but it really wouldn’t be a shocker to me. Stranger things have happened.”