Triple Crown Heroes Absent As 3-Year-Olds Look To Season’s Second Half

As the 2011 racing season rolls into its second half, the spotlight on the sport from the Triple Crown run is fading and the primary players of that three-race saga have either departed the stage or are hanging somewhere in the wings.

Gone is I’ll Have Another, the winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the Preakness, whose racing career ended two days before a planned bid for the Belmont Stakes, the final jewel of the Triple Crown. The tendon issue that ended the racing career of owner Paul Reddam’s horse resulted not only in his retirement, but his departure from the country.

After U.S. breeders displayed only tepid interest in the classic-winning son of Flower Alley, Reddam sold I’ll Have Another to Japanese breeding interests for $10 million. So not only is I’ll Have Another gone, he is long-gone in terms of possible future impact on American racing.

The winner of the Belmont, the unlucky Union Rags, suffered more misfortune following his dramatic victory that eased some of the pain from his horrendous journey at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day. The temporary leader of the 3-year-old class after his gutty, but very slow, Belmont win suffered a ligament injury while training toward the June 29 Haskell Invitational at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park, and will be out of racing for the rest of the year.

The good news in this story is that the colt’s prognosis is good and the team behind Union Rags plans a return to competition for the grand-looking colt in 2013.  But his sudden absence takes a little more air out of the sport’s second half.

With the Triple Crown stars out of the picture, many racing fans were looking to Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister to become a force in the year’s second half.  He ran tremendous races in both Triple Crown appearances and figured to be a heavy favorite in next week’s Haskell, the $1 million race that is the first big post-Triple Crown event for 3-year-olds.

Bodemeister could still dominate the second half of the season, but he’ll have to wait until after the Haskell.  Trainer Bob Baffert announced over the weekend that Bodemeister would miss that race after coming down with a high temperature in his Santa Anita barn. The illness, which Baffert said had affected other horses in his barn, would set Bodemeister back a couple of weeks.

The absence of those major stars is a disappointment for Triple Crown fans who had looked forward to the second half of the year after the dramatic races of the spring, but the Haskell still holds plenty of interest if Monmouth Park officials can hold the race together for a few more days.

Scheduled to appear in the 1 1/8-mile race is Dullahan, the third-place finisher in the Derby who ran a disappointing seventh as the favorite in the Belmont. Some critics have already written off trainer Dale Romans’ colt as a force on traditional dirt following his run at the Belmont. While his two career victories have come on Keeneland’s synthetic Polytrack course and he has run very well on grass, he also ran well at Churchill Downs in the Derby and last fall’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, so it’s a bit early for Romans to forget dirt surfaces.

It’s very possible that Dullahan might not have cared for the Belmont course known as the “Big Sandy,” or that a sizzling Belmont Week worked by the colt might have taken a toll on Belmont Stakes Day. Plus, Romans already has a budding turf monster in his barn in a 3-year-old colt named Silver Max, so he might as well give Dullahan one more try on the natural footing.

As the Haskell appears to be a bid for redemption for Dullahan, it will probably provide that opportunity to a couple of well-fancied Derby hopes that were beaten soundly at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.  With Bodemeister offstage for the race, it appears that reigning 2-year-old Hansen, ninth in the Derby, and Wood Memorial and Kentucky Jockey Club winner Gemologist, who ran 16th in the big race, could appear in the starting gate at Belmont Park.

And Baffert could still show up on the Jersey Shore with a strong contender in Paynter, who narrowly lost the Belmont Stakes to Union Rags. The Baffert camp has long regarded Paynter as big star waiting to rise, and the Haskell could provide that opportunity to justify that enthusiasm.

Another colt that could enhance his reputation with a big run in the Haskell is Neck ‘n Neck, a runaway winner of the Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs in mid-June. Trainer Ian Wilkes’ son of Flower Alley ran decently against top company over the winter in Florida, but not well enough to merit serious Kentucky Derby consideration.

Neck ‘n Neck’s 7 ½-length Matt Winn capped a Churchill Downs meet in which the colt won twice.  Those victories could be a sign that he’s a late-blooming good horse, but there’s a chance he could be a Churchill Downs “horse for the course.” Wilkes colt is 3-for-5 beneath the Twin Spires, but winless in five races everywhere else.

Now, a couple of updates on jockeys injured during the recently-completed Churchill Downs Spring Meet. Jockey John Velazquez, who suffered a broken collarbone and other injuries in a homestretch spill on the June 16 Stephen Foster Handicap nighttime card, returned to the saddle last Monday to work a 2-year-old for trainer Todd Pletcher at Saratoga.

Velazquez, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby aboard Animal Kingdom and piloted Union Rags to his Belmont victory, is not expected to return to a full riding schedule until at least a couple of weeks into the upcoming racing meet at Saratoga.

Best wishes to Shane Sellers, who continues to recuperate from a fractured right shoulder blade suffered in a fall on Friday, June 29.  Sellers’ mount ran into the temporary rail on the Churchill Downs turf course.

Agent Fred Aime said Tuesday that Sellers is “feeling great” and should resume exercising horses by the end of July. He said Sellers would likely focus on his business in Kentucky when he resumes riding, and gear-up for a hoped-for strong finish on the year at Keeneland and Churchill Downs.

Sellers, a three-time leading rider at Churchill Downs, returned to the track this spring on a full-time basis for the first time in several years. He won 14 races, good for an eighth-place finish in the Spring Meet riding standings.