Triple Crown Done (And Denied), Focus Now On Foster Night

Photo by AMBER CHALFIN | Contributing Photographer
Union Rags with John Velazquez beat Paynter, who was ridden by jockey Mike Smith, to win The Belmont Stakes for trainer Michael Matz and owner Chadds Ford Stable. Atigun finished third for trainer Ken McPeek.

The end of the Triple Crown season has long been a time of transition, while also being one of frustration for a run that is now destined to cover a stretch of at least 35 years.

After a series that featured a pair of riveting wins by I’ll Have Another in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the Preakness, the hopes in the Thoroughbred racing nation-and-beyond for an end to the 34-year-old Triple Crown drought were dashed on the eve of the Belmont Stakes, its final jewel, by news that the Derby winner would miss the race because of a tendon injury. More air rushed from the Belmont balloon a short time later with word that I’ll Have Another would be retired.

That was followed by 24 hours of interesting coverage on the impact of the news of I’ll Have Another’s defection on the Triple Crown and the horse industry that included more than a little hysterical hand-wringing by some once-a-year racing writers over the dark implications for racing’s future posed by I’ll Have Another’s unfortunate events.

Then the Belmont Stakes was run. And it was a good race with a terrific finish and a deserving and well-received winner in Union Rags, one of the brightest stars of this year’s 3-year-old crops who lost all hope in the Kentucky Derby after a bad start.  He had finished faster than anyone in the run through the Churchill Downs stretch on Kentucky Derby Day, but that was only good enough for seventh place.  Few headlines are written for athletes, equine or human, who finish in that spot.

The nature and spirit of the Belmont Stakes turned out to be far brighter than the dire projections. Belmont Park still attracted nearly 86,000 fans to watch Union Rags run down Paynter in the final yards to earn redemption for his Derby disappointment.  NBC reported that television ratings for the Triple Crown’s final jewel were 13 percent higher than last year’s viewership.

A Triple Crown winner would have been nice, and it will be wonderful when it happens.  And it will happen.

But the arrival of the horse that finally has the magic mixture of speed, talent and luck to sweep the three-race series will not cure-all the horse industry’s ills, though it would surely provide a wonderful, if temporary, spot in some warm sunshine.

I remember reading as a kid that the Triple Crown was too difficult and the Thoroughbred breed too fragile to allow another sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. At that point, it had been more than 20 years since Citation dominated his age group to earn the Triple Crown in 1948 and many voices wondered if we would ever see another Triple Crown winner.

Then came Secretariat’s mythic, record-shattering three-race run in 1973, and it was followed shortly by Seattle Slew’s unbeaten run through the series in 1977 and Affirmed’s dramatic Triple Crown showdown with Alydar a year later.

Clearly it would have been wonderful to see I’ll Have Another take his shot at racing immortality in the Belmont, and even more exciting to see what the future might hold for a colt that seemed to be improving with every start for trainer Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill.  The colt’s future will not be a bad one as his main duty over the next 15 to 20 years will be to show up for a long line of pre-arranged dates with well-bred mares of outstanding physical conformation.

But any debate over I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown bid is now another racing story of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”  But fellow members of this 3-year-old crop can enhance both his memory and stallion career with strong performances in races against each other this summer and in matches against older, more seasoned horses in the fall.

The latter is always the real measure of quality for 3-year-olds, and the post-I’ll Have Another leaders of the division after the Triple Crown are Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister, Union Rags and Belmont runner-up Paynter. And don’t give up yet on Creative Cause, Dullahan and Hansen – all early 3-year-old heroes who will have opportunities to restore the shine to their somewhat tarnished reputations in the weeks ahead

And now that the 2012 Triple Crown is behind us and Kentucky Derby 139 is in the neighborhood of 325 days away, Churchill Downs will serve as a fine springboard for the remaining months of the 2012 racing calendar with this Saturday’s “Downs After Dark” racing program.

The night of racing is headed by the $400,000 Stephen Foster Handicap, a race that has become one of America’s top events for older horses that are pointing toward the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Its 2012 renewal – its first under the lights – has attracted perhaps the strongest field of older horses assembled in the U.S. this year.

Fans of the Metropolitan Handicap won by the Dale Romans-trained Shackleford on Memorial Day would quibble, but the Foster will give that race a run for its money. I’ll happily settle for calling the Met Mile the best one-turn race of the year, while the Stephen Foster field will be the best two-turn gathering for older horses in 2012.

Wise Dan – winner of last fall’s Clark Handicap and quite possibly the best older horse in America – heads a Foster field that has also attracted Alternation and 2011 Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro, the 1-2 finishers separated by a nose in the recent Pimlico Special; Santa Anita Handicap winner Ron the Greek; the very fast Nates Mineshaft; and Mission Impazible, the Churchill Downs-loving runner-up in both the 2011 Foster and Clark Handicaps for trainer Todd Pletcher.

Three other stakes races on the night will feature Royal Delta, last year’s champion 3-year-old filly, in the Fleur De Lis Handicap; a possible appearance by reigning 2-year-old champion Hansen in the Matt Winn for 3-year-olds; and a good group of 3-year-old grass fillies in the Regret.

Saturday will be the first time Churchill Downs has held one of its most important races under the lights and the results of each of those races will help shape the landscape for battles for the Breeders’ Cup and Eclipse Award championships later in the year.

After the conclusion of the Triple Crown season and the disappointing run by his Dullahan in the Belmont Stakes, trainer Dale Romans was asked about the Triple Crown campaign. “I’m glad it’s over,’ Romans said. “But I can’t wait until next year.”

I’ll second Dale’s emotion. But until Derby 139 and a new Triple Crown season arrive, nights like this week’s Stephen Foster Handicap Saturday at Churchill Downs will be more than enough to keep me happy. I hope to see you there.