A Knife Which Cuts Both Ways

May 31, 2012

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Trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel has experienced some real ups and down lately with the stars of his stable.  Alternation, winner of the Oaklawn Handicap, held on tenaciously to narrowly defeat the hard-charging Nehro in the Pimlico  Special.  On Monday, in what some believe was a good candidate for Race of the Year, Shackleford managed to just hold off Von Hemel’s charge Caleb’s Posse in winning the Metropolitan Mile at Belmont Park.  Clearly this is a case of the knife cutting both ways.

Stylistically these two older horses are quite different, though both have places at the head of the class among older runners. Alternation traded his front-running style, which brought about Oaklawn wins in the Essex, Razorback and Oaklawn Handicaps, for a grinding style, which provided the decision over the fine field in the race at Pimlico.

Caleb’s Posse, who has made his reputation as a one-turn specialist, trails his field to the top of the stretch, then moves to the middle for his rally.  He has used that strategy three times in New York this year and finished second each time.  In losing to Shackleford, he was losing to a horse he had defeated last year in the Breeders' Cup Mile.  There is nice money in finishing second in Grade 1 stakes races in New York, but his career is past the accumulation of earnings.  He is shooting for a title and the losses hurt his chances.

Alternation, on the other hand, is gaining so rapidly in reputation that he may very well be the one in line for an end of the season title.  He’s been facing the best they can line up against him and handling them.  There might very well be a call soon for a matchup which sees him in competition against Shackleford, winner of the Preakness last year and a villain at the Von Hemel barn.  It’s the kind of race which racing geeks love to see.

But the truth is - nothing which happens in racing can match what will happen on Saturday, June 9, at Belmont.  We have been heart-broken numerous times at runners pursuing the elusive Triple Crown, so we’re doing the best we can to insulate ourselves against that prospect.  But deep down inside, those of us who have been waiting for over 30 years to see another Triple Crown winner are hoping our wait comes to an end and I’ll Have Another adds his name to the most exclusive list in sports—Triple Crown winners.

Once I’ll Have Another’s Belmont has been completed and we run through the roster of key three-year-old races, including the Haskell, Jim Dandy and Travers, it will be time for the three-year-olds to take on their older rivals and the races involving the likes of Alternation, Caleb’s Posse, Shackleford and others will take on a great deal more significance.

These are fun times for true racing fans, since the races set up championship-level confrontations which make this sport so exciting for us each year.  But to draw new fans to our sport, we need some significant things to happen, the first of which is for a Triple Crown winner to surface. 

The most dramatic Belmont Stakes I ever saw occurred in 1998 when Victory Gallop, winner of the Arkansas Derby, closed resolutely on the outside and eclipsed the Triple Crown dreams of the Real Quiet fans in the final jump.  Of course the saddest moment in the Belmont Stakes falls to the 2004 edition of the race when the wonderful story surrounding Smarty Jones ended in the final sixteenth of a mile to Birdstone.  It was the only time in my memory when an owner apologized to the public for winning.  Everyone loved Smarty Jones and his loss was felt from coast-to-coast.  The Victory Gallop upset never involved horses which had captured the imagination of the racing public.

Since Smarty Jones the only horse to catch the attention of the American sporting world was Zenyatta, but, for lots of reasons, she never had the advantage of the Triple Crown races in her resume.

I don’t know that I’ll Have Another has captured the American racing fans love yet either.  There is the suspicion surrounding the entire crew about the record of trainer Doug O’Neill and the fact that I’ll Have Another has yet to be the wagering favorite in any of his races.  What impact on the entire racing game a win by I’ll Have Another will have is a guessing game.  But it would be better than a loss.

I’d sure hate to see it snatched away in the final strides.  But racing is that way.  Ask Donnie K. Von Hemel.  This game can be fickle and the knife can cut both ways.

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