‘Throwback’ Triple Crown Gives Way To Foster And Future

Jockey Mike Smith, Trainer Todd Pletcher and President of Dogwood Stable Cot Campbell celebrate Palace Malice’s victory in the Belmont Stakes. It was Dogwood’s first Belmont win, Mike Smith’s second and Trainer Todd Pletcher’s second win.

Jockey Mike Smith, Trainer Todd Pletcher and President of Dogwood Stable Cot Campbell celebrate Palace Malice’s victory in the Belmont Stakes. It was Dogwood’s first Belmont win, Mike Smith’s second and Trainer Todd Pletcher’s second win.

Another Triple Crown campaign has come and gone and our streak without a horse that could sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes stands at 35 years.

It’s not an impossible thing.  There were three horses that swept the trio of Spring Classics in what now should be dubbed the “Spoiled Us ’70s.”  But just as Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (’77) and Affirmed (’78) proved in their varied running styles that the sweep was possible, the more valuable lesson on the true challenge posed by their feat came when Spectacular Bid failed to make the roster of Triple Crown winners a quartet in 1979.

The mighty Bid was one of the greatest American horses of any era and his campaign as a 4-year-old ranks with the best anywhere.  A Blood-Horse poll in 1999 ranked Spectacular Bid 10th among the 20th Century’s Hot 100.  Ahead of him were (in order) Man o’War, Secretariat, Citation Kelso, Count Fleet, Dr. Fager, Native Dancer, Forego and Seattle Slew.  Below him were Tom Fool, Affirmed, War Admiral, Buckpasser and, well, you get the idea.

But soaring hopes for the now “easy game” of winning the Triple Crown crashed in the homestretch at Belmont Park, where the Bid gave away a big lead and was passed by both the victorious newcomer Coastal and runner-up Golden Act, who had finished third in the Derby and second in the Preakness.

Spectacular Bid finished his three-year racing career with a record of 26-2-1 in 30 races and was so dominant late in his career that his career finale was a walkover in the 1980 Woodward Stakes.  No other horse was entered to run against him.

The big gray was close to perfect by almost any measure, but he was not good enough to win the Triple Crown.  And if Spectacular Bid couldn’t pull off the sweep, why should we be stunned that the streak of disappointment he started in 1979 will continue at least until 2014.

There were high hopes for an end to the drought this year when Phipps Stable and Stuart Janney III’s Orb splashed home for an impressive victory in Kentucky Derby 139 at Churchill Downs.  But he followed that bright and optimistic moment with losing efforts in the Preakness (4th) and Belmont Stakes (3rd) and the streak rolls on.

Racing fans of all levels of enthusiasm and sophistication would love to see the roll of the names of Triple Crown winners expand beyond its current 11.  Count me in that group, but if there was to be no Triple Crown winner in 2013, it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying conclusion to the five-week series than last week’s upset by Palace Malice in its final jewel.

Palace Malice with Mike Smith in the Winner's Circle for the 145th running of The Belmont Stakes  for trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Dogwood Stable.

Palace Malice with Mike Smith in the Winner’s Circle for the 145th running of The Belmont Stakes for trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Dogwood Stable.

If there had to be three different winners in these Triple Crown races, the winners and their connections were a collection of owners, trainers and jockeys that that essentially made this year’s classics a “throwback Triple Crown.”

Let’s take the races one-by-one:

Orb scored an emphatic victory in the Kentucky Derby for his co-owners/breeders, members of one of racing’s few “old money” families still active in the game.  Phipps Stable’s Dinny Phipps and Janney are cousins whose family’s unsuccessful pursuit of the Derby stretched back to 1928.  The family’s Derby hopes had included the likes of Bold Ruler, Buckpasser and Easy Goer, but even with those champions they had never gotten a scent of Derby roses.

Lexington-born trainer Shug McGaughey grew up with Derby dreams and spent a good many years on his climb up racing’s ladder looking at Churchill Downs’ Twin Spires on cold, grey autumn mornings while dreaming of the first Saturday in May.  He had saddled only one horse in the racing since his best shot, favored Easy Goer, was beaten by rival Sunday Silence in the 1989 Derby, but his turn finally arrived when Orb struck the front in the late stages of  Derby 139.

Toss Bluegrass legend Claiborne Farm into the mix, as Orb was the 10th Derby winner to be bred or raised at the century-old Paris, Ky. institution.

Some of the Derby’s romance faded when Orb was outrun in Baltimore, but who could suppress at least a small smile after Oxbow led from start-to-finish for a trio of American racing icons in Calumet Farm, trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Gary Stevens.

Calumet, a true racing and breeding legend that has raced eight Kentucky Derby winners and bred nine, is now under the leadership of Kentucky-born billionaire Brad Kelley and Oxbow’s Preakness provided the Lexington farm with its first victory in a Triple Crown race since 1968. The 77-year-old Lukas, winning his 14th Triple Crown race and his first since 2000, broke a tie with fellow Hall of Famer “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons for all-time wins in the series. And Stevens, a Hall of Fame rider who emerged at 50 from seven years of retirement, boosted his Triple Crown win total to nine with his first triumph in the series since 2001.

Then came the Belmont, where runner-up Oxbow and Orb, who finished third, fared well, but the day belonged to longshot Palace Malice, pioneer owner W. Cothran “Cot” Campbell and 47-year-old jockey Mike Smith.

The 13-1 Palace Malice earned redemption after predictably wilted to finish 12th after setting an unexpected blazing pace in the Derby.  Smith was aboard for the Derby ride, but trainer Todd Pletcher ended a one-race experiment with blinkers, a piece of equipment that surely contributed to his strange Derby run.  This time Palace Malice relaxed behind the early pacesetters, took over with a quarter-mile to run under the 47-year-old Smith and cruised home to win by 3 ¼-lengths.

The result validated Smith’s Hall of Fame credentials and status as a jockey who is frequently at his best when the spotlight is the brightest.  And the win might have been the career highlight for Campbell, an 85-year-old former Aiken, S.C., ad man who pioneered racing’s owner partnership model with Dogwood Stable.  It’s the second classic win for Campbell and Dogwood, who had won the Preakness with Summer Squall in 1990.

While the continued absence of a horse that could sweep the Triple Crown series frustrated many fans, it is difficult to describe three races with a roster of winners that included such respected and treasured figures as the Phippses, Janney, McGaughey, Calumet Farm, Lukas, Campbell and jockeys Stevens and Smith as a disappointment.

Just call it a “Throwback Triple Crown” and savor a five-week period during which this group that has meant so much to racing over a span of nearly a century took turns in the spotlight.

The 3-year-olds that participated in the Triple Crown races will now take a collective breather and look toward races like the Travers at Saratoga and Monmouth Park’s Haskell Invitational and, after that, races against older foes that will test and affirm their talent and quality.

Many of the top older horses in training will compete Saturday night at Churchill Downs in the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap, a Grade I event and a “Win and You’re In” race on the road to this fall’s $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.   The evening will feature ceremonies during which McGaughey and winning jockey will accept the engraved trophies earned in Orb’s Kentucky Derby triumph.

The Foster field includes 2012 Foster winner Fort Larned, defending winner Ron the Greek, 2011 winner Pool Play, multiple stakes winner Successful Dan and rising star Take Charge Indy.  Three other stakes races will be featured during the first of three consecutive “Downs After Dark” Saturday night racing programs, with two-time champion and defending winner Royal Delta due to run in the $175,000 Fleur De Lis Handicap.