May 21, 2012
Where do we go from here? It’s been 34 years since a Triple Crown winner and we’ve walked this ground before. Over this period the Rolling Stones song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, has been the anthem of the Triple Crown. Come June 9 much of the sporting world will stop for a while to see what happens in the latest try for the elusive Triple Crown.
In the meantime, Oaklawn fans and popular Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, managed to fly under the radar over the weekend at Pimlico, cashing in on some memorable moments of their own.
Probably the most significant of the wins for Oaklawn players came in Friday’s Pimlico Special, when Oaklawn Handicap winner Alternation outnosed one of racing’s most heralded bridesmaids, Nehro, at the end of a very contentious mile-and-three-sixteenths. In Friday’s race Alternation did not have the benefit of making his own pace. As far as a sixteenth of mile from the finish, there was some serious doubt that he could run down the pacesetting Endorsement. In what turned into a finish in which a blanket could have been thrown over the first five finishers, Alternation got the nod by inches over the fast-closing Nehro. The win allows Alternation to hold on to his grip at the top of the older horse division, but the race pretty much assured that this is the most competitive division in racing. Nehro, Endorsement, Mission Impazzible and Hymn Book, who were all close at the finish, are not likely to be ducking any competition in the near future and the final decision on this group will be made much later in the year. Nehro has now finished second in the Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky Derbies, as well as Saturday’s Pimlico Special. This can’t go on forever, can it?
Ironically, the most serious competition Alternation could encounter for seasonal honors may come from his stablemate Caleb’s Posse, who will very likely be the post-time favorite for the Metropolitan Mile Handicap at Belmont Park on Memorial Day. Of course the argument could still come up about Caleb’s Posse being simply a one-turn sprinter, but it would be a moot point if his major competition for an Eclipse Award was in the same shedrow. One might expect that of a Todd Pletcher or Steve Asmussen, but not from a Donnie K. Von Hemel. There’s another who is flying under the radar.
Speaking of the radar issue, how about D. Wayne Lukas, who long ago made his reputation as a leading horseman? It was so long ago that many forgot. The many do not include Oaklawn fans who have welcomed Lukas with open arms in recent years and enjoyed the successes he has had here.
On Saturday, the Lukas magic shown with back-to-back winners. First Hamazing Destiny took honors in the Maryland Sprint Handicap, the first stakes win for the six-year-old son of Salt Lake who first caught everyone’s eye when he blitzed to a remarkable win in his career debut for trainer Mac Robertson. Lukas was quick to purchase the talented runner and has worked hard to get Hamazing Destiny to fulfill his potential and enjoy his first stakes score, in the face of numerous frustrations. Hamazing Destiny has come close many times, but finally got the win many expected of him a few years ago.
Then Lukas followed up in the James Murphy Stakes on the turf with the three-year-old Skyring, whose pedigree had suggested turf a long time ago. Lukas had given Skyring a chance to be a Triple Crown type earlier this year, but now has a proven turf performer on his hands. Skyring is a son of former turf star English Channel, sire of Lukas’ “Derby horse”, Optimizer. My guess is that turf is where Optimizer is headed as soon as the Triple Crown races have been completed.
It was good to see Lukas have those moments on Saturday, although once again the mare, Absinthe Minded, proved to be primarily an Oaklawn horse, when she failed to duplicate her Oaklawn form in the subsequent DuPont Distaff Stakes on Saturday. Had she won, there were a number of Oaklawn fans who would have cashed on the “Lukas Pick-Three”. But Absinthe Minded failed to show the speed Oaklawn fans are used to seeing and she finished last in the field. It’s true that race was disappointing, but it doesn’t keep the day from providing a “Lukas moment” that local fans here appreciated on their way to the cashier’s windows.
The race everyone will talk about is the Preakness. I’ll Have Another will get plenty of ink in the next three weeks. I can’t help but think that, for less than two lengths, we would be talking about a potential Oaklawn Triple Crown winner. Bodemeister gave a great accounting of himself and will now go to the sidelines. Trainer Bob Baffert appears ready to send a colt named Paynter to the Belmont rather than Bodemeister. Fans saw Paynter win an allowance race on the Preakness Day card, but he will not instill the excitement of his stablemate when the field gathers for the third jewel in the Crown on Saturday, June 9.
Few races in America are contested at a mile-and-a-half and there will be plenty of discussion about how that race might be run prior to June 9. For Oaklawn fans the team of Lukas and Optimizer will probably be on hand and might be the only Oaklawn representatives in the field. Considering the unusual nature of the Belmont Stakes, who knows which horses to throw out of consideration? There are a handful of talented ones whose connections skipped the Preakness in order to have a fresh horse for the Belmont Stakes.
If you believe in Murphy’s Law or are superstitious, you might expect the worst for I’ll Have Another. He will never again be under the radar. He has never been the wagering favorite in any of his races, but he will be on that day. At least over the past weekend most Oaklawn fans benefitted from those which flew under the radar. I’ll sure have a ticket on I’ll Have Another on Belmont Day, but I’m going to be suspicious. Just to be safe, I’ll also have a ticket on Lukas and Optimizer. I remember Victory Gallop taking the Triple Crown away from Real Quiet in the final jump of the 1998 Belmont. Anything can happen when “Oaklawn” horses are in the field.