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Look out for that safety pin
Elliott Walden knows what Richard Dutrow Jr. is going through right now. Ten years ago, Walden held his breath following the Preakness Stakes, hoping a nasty skin rash would not prevent Victory Gallop, a colt Walden trained, from participating in the Belmont Stakes. Victory Gallop had finished second to Real Quiet in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but then missed training time with an ill-timed malady that left unsightly bumps on his left side. It wasn't a quarter crack, the injury that recently has befallen the Dutrow-trained Big Brown. But Walden, like Dutrow, faced a similarly perilous high-wire act to make the race.
"It was a big deal for the first two weeks after the Preakness," Walden recalled in a phone interview this week. "The last week, he really came around. He missed probably three days of training, then I had to jog him two or three days. The skin rash was right under where the saddle went. I finally felt good after his breeze. That's probably how it'll be with Big Brown. How he works, and how he trains after the work, will determine how he does."
It worked out for Victory Gallop. Five days after his lone workout between the Preakness and Belmont, he got up in the very last jump to nose out Real Quiet.
The stakes are even higher this time. Big Brown is undefeated in five starts, including the Derby and Preakness. On June 7, he will attempt to become Thoroughbred racing's 12th Triple Crown winner, and the first in 30 years. Just like Walden with Victory Gallop, Dutrow is hoping to sneak in one workout with Big Brown between the Preakness and Belmont. Will Big Brown end up like Victory Gallop and Touch Gold, horses who prevailed despite setbacks leading up to the Belmont? Or might Big Brown follow in the footsteps of Majestic Prince, Canonero II, and Spectacular Bid, who failed in their attempts?
Majestic Prince, like Big Brown, was unbeaten through his victories in the Derby and Preakness in 1969. But in the weeks between the Preakness and Belmont, there was much contention in his camp over whether he should go on and attempt to sweep the Triple Crown.
"There is nothing I want more than to win the Triple Crown," Frank McMahon, the owner of Majestic Prince, told The Blood-Horse magazine after the Preakness. "We better wait and see, however, how he comes out of this race. He hasn't had a break since he won his first race last Nov. 28, and these last two have been hard races."
Kent Hollingsworth of The Blood-Horse wrote that the morning after the Preakness, "it had appeared that Majestic Prince would not go in the Belmont." Hollingsworth described a scene where John Longden, the former jockey who trained Majestic Prince, went to the Pimlico stall where Majestic Prince resided and said to the colt, "Well, I think we're going to give you a rest."
Three days later, however, McMahon said, "There is nothing wrong physically with him, no bows or anything like that. He's a little tucked, lost some weight, but we have three weeks for him to get ready."
A crowd of 66,115, a Belmont Stakes record at the time, turned out to see if Majestic Prince could do it. But something was clearly amiss. Bill Hartack, his jockey, rode a cautious race in the Belmont. Majestic Prince normally lurked just off the pace. But in the Belmont, he was fifth of six for the first half-mile, then rallied half-heartedly to finish a distant second to his arch-rival, Arts and Letters.
Majestic Prince never raced again.
Hartack, according to his friend, the trainer Gary Palmisano, years later said, "The owner ruined him running in the Belmont after he bowed winning the Preakness."
So, should Majestic Prince have run? That was the question Sports Illustrated asked in a cover story about Canonero II after he failed to win the Belmont in 1971 following victories in the Derby and Preakness.
Canonero II, who prepped for the Derby in Venezuela, won the Derby despite being quarantined in the heat and humidity of Miami for four days, during which time he lost weight and developed thrush, a foul-smelling hoof ailment that impacts the frog, in his right hind foot. He ran right through it.
The Belmont brought out a record crowd of 82,694, many of them natives of Venezuela. Ten days before the Belmont, though, Canonero II developed a skin rash. Then the thrush worsened, forcing it to be cut away.
Canonero II was sent off as the 3-5 favorite. He led for the first mile, but then faded to finish fourth during a final quarter-mile that took 27.40 seconds.
After the race, the noted veterinarian Dr. William O. Reed told Sports Illustrated that Canonero II was only 75 percent for the race.
Like Canonero, Spectacular Bid lost the Belmont after winning the Derby and Preakness in 1979. The reasons for that loss are still being debated nearly 30 years later.
What is unquestioned is that Ronnie Franklin, Spectacular Bid's teenage jockey, rode a careless race, setting quick fractions (a mile in 1:36) for a 1 1/2-mile race. But the day after the race, Bud Delp, Spectacular Bid's trainer, told The New York Times that Spectacular Bid had stepped on a safety pin in his stall the morning of the Belmont and punctured a hole in the frog of his left front foot. The pin, Delp said, apparently came loose from the protective bandages Spectacular Bid, like all horses, wore in his stall. Delp had said nothing about this incident before the race.
"When I drove up to his barn at 5:45 a.m. I soon discovered he was lame," Delp told The New York Times. Delp said the pin "went up about 1 1/4 inches."
"I took the pin out and he bled a little, but he was walking OK," Delp said. "I walked him for about 45 minutes and then jogged him a bit, and there was no sign of lameness.
"When Bid didn't get worse, I decided to run him," Delp said.
Delp's claims were questioned, however, by Dr. Manny Gilman, who was Belmont Park's chief veterinarian at the time.
"I'm not saying Mr. Delp is telling a story," Gilman told The New York Times. "All I can tell you is what I saw. The horse went out for the race all right and he came back all right."
Sometimes, though, the story has a happier ending. Like Victory Gallop, Touch Gold made it successfully across that high wire.
Touch Gold tore a large chunk out of the rear portion of his left front foot when he stumbled badly at the start of the 1997 Preakness, in which he finished a gallant fourth. The foot needed extensive post-race work. David Hofmans, the trainer of Touch Gold, brought in Ian McKinlay, the same foot specialist who is now working on Big Brown.
McKinlay "came up with an innovative way to patch Touch Gold's foot," Hofmans recalled this past week.
"I was able to go right on with Touch Gold," Hofmans said. "The foot was a concern, but Ian was able to fix it and give me confidence."
The week of the Belmont, McKinlay put a new patch on the hoof.
"He's very hands on. He came by every day," Hofmans said. "His first concern is to make sure the horse is comfortable. If he says to quit, it's irreparable. I have nothing but respect for him."
And why not? Touch Gold went out and won the Belmont, denying Silver Charm, the Derby and Preakness winner, a sweep of the Triple Crown.
"It was an unbelievable accomplishment on everyone's part," Hofmans said. "Going through what we did, and being able to vindicate Touch Gold after what happened in the Preakness, made it even more satisfying."
- additional reporting by Jay Hovdey