June 6, 2012

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Eleven times in the past 34 years a three-year-old has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown only to fail in the Belmont Stakes.  As trainer Kenny McPeek noted this week, “Strange things happen in the Belmont Stakes.”  The race is so different from the first two legs, that those two races have turned out not to be such good preps for the Belmont Stakes. How else do you explain a plug named Da’ Tara winning the 2008 Belmont Stakes, while the heavily-backed Big Brown was eased on the backstretch.  Shouldn’t it have been the other way around?

As a racing geek, I rarely have anxiety going into a race, but I do for the Belmont Stakes when so much is at stake and when so many hearts have been broken in that race since the unflappable Steve Cauthen guided Affirmed to his exciting win over Alydar in 1978.

There were three Triple Crown winners in the decade of the 1970s, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.  Prior to that, there was a 25-year break without a Triple Crown winner.  Citation won the Triple Crown in 1948,  a decade which produced four Triple Crown winners (Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation).  It seems like Triple Crown winners come in bunches, but not very often.

For those of us who are Oaklawn fans, and racing fans all over the country, the loss by Smarty Jones to Birdstone in the 2004 Belmont Stakes was the most depressing moment in our racing lives.  Smarty started his three-year-old racing season at Oaklawn and continued his brilliance through wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.  The stories around him were all wonderful.  It was the perfect story until Birdstone appeared on the outside of the final turn at Belmont Park.  Smarty had a big lead, but the run to the finish line at Belmont Park seemed like from here to eternity and when Birdstone ran down Smarty, you could have heard a pin drop in racetracks and simulcast centers from one coast to the other.  It was an unbelievably bad ending to the nicest racing story of the century.  No horse since Secretariat has created so much excitement.

I’ll Have Another has not developed the kind of following Smarty had. There is a curiosity about his chance to win, given the fact that he seems to be the only three-year-old in the same class as Arkansas Derby-winner Bodemeister.  But with no Bodemeister in the field to target, the race seems to make him eerily suspect.  We’ve had our hearts broken too many times.  Most of us are insulating ourselves against another Triple Crown tease.

The Triple Crown, of course, is the major racing story annually.  There will be sports fans watching the race on Saturday who may not watch another race this year.  They may be amused, but they will turn racing off shortly thereafter and not anticipate much more.  Largely that is because the surrounding stories of a trainer who has been allegedly on the dark side of the sport will resonate loudly and still make racing tainted and not on the legit.

In my mind it’s too late for the NYRA or whoever is calling the shots there right now to come up with the special procedures for the Belmont Stakes to gain new respect from racing fans.  The stories about trainer O’Neill have already been aired and most are just waiting for the hammer to fall.  Instead all of those participating in this year’s Belmont will be facing a brand new set of circumstances leading up to the race.  They will be coming figuratively out of a hotel room instead of their bedroom.  It will be like an away game for all involved.  Once again weird things are happening at the Belmont Stakes.  That’s not to say that Belmont and those who oversee the procedures at the track (I can’t keep up with who is in charge there anymore), don’t want the best.  Someone has convinced them that there is an element of integrity they can develop by having a special Belmont barn and procedures.  The theory is, If they change the procedures for all of them at the same time, then all is equal and the race retains its integrity.  I doubt that anything but controversy develops.  Traditionally horses have come to their race from a stall which has been home.  If the weird things happen, the blame will more than likely be laid at the new procedures.  The fact that weird things happen in the Belmont all the time could easily be lost.

I love tradition.  That’s largely why I’ve learned to love Oaklawn for such a long stretch.  Our owner, Charles Cella, has held tightly to tradition under tremendous pressure.  He has proven to be right a whole lot more  than he has been wrong.  I hate to see tradition cast aside under the guise of “good intentions."   I’ll root for I’ll Have Another, but know that Optimizer and Atigun represent folks who participate regularly at Oaklawn and hope that, if the weird things happen, somehow they are the beneficiaries.

Over the past weekend I experienced two events which helped put some perspective into my life.  One is called Relay For Life.  I have been intimately involved in this fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society since 1999, but it always has an impact on me.  I see new people dealing with cancer diagnoses and I see that others have been victimized.  On Friday evening, at the infield at Oaklawn, Relay For Life experienced some rain for the first time since 2003, when it was first hosted at Oaklawn.  The rain didn’t deter the many who were there to honor the many in our area who had been forced to deal with cancer.  It shows that you can throw the surprising curve ball into a situation, but that doesn’t mean that the result will be all that different.

Then one day later I had the pleasure of attending my 50th high school reunion in Cleveland, Ohio.  There were 40-50 members of our class who had passed on since we all graduated in 1962, but, although some of those who passed on played major roles during our high school years, the graduates who were able to participate honored all of the class of 1962 and proved that, although some things change, some important things remain the same.  The most important of all was that the class of those in attendance was a tribute to the entire group.

Life moves on and, no matter how the Belmont Stakes finishes on Saturday, those of us who are dedicated to the sport will regroup and shift our attentions to the next day or at least to the next big moments.  Our racing lives may change on Saturday if there is a Triple Crown winner, but there are plenty of big moments still ahead.

We have had plenty of these Triple Crown races which turned into disappointments, but we always seem to bounce back.  A Triple Crown winner will help, but there are lots of races ahead which are needed to help regain the American sports audience.  Since their hearts have been broken, many of those have been turned off. 

I hate to see us have to make the major changes ahead of the race, but it could be worse.  The Triple Crown still stands as the most sought-after, yet elusive honor in American sports.  Other sports have tried to buy into the concept.  But Triple Crown belongs to racing.  Whether we see a winner or not, that won’t change.  Hopefully it will only make the races involved all the more enticing.  We’ve been here before and we’ve seen the results go both ways.  Under any circumstances, the Belmont Stakes will hold more drama than any other race we’re likely to see this year.  Which “déjà vu” will develop?  The odds say something weird will happen.  But if we can have our 12th Triple Crown winner, I’ll Have Another. 

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