A period of just over 24 hours last weekend provided a pair of valuable lessons for racing fans around the world.
The first lesson, delivered around midday Saturday (Eastern), is that Triple Crown champions are rare because the task is very demanding and extremely difficult. Then, late Sunday afternoon, a Kentucky-based star named Wise Dan turned in a performance in Canada that appeared to validate notions that he is the best horse now training in the United States.
The previously unbeaten Camelot, bidding to become the first winner of the elusive British Triple Crown since Nijinsky II in 1970, failed in his bid to secure the rare treble when he fell three-quarters of a length short of catching 25-1 shot Encke in the St. Leger at Doncaster.
After taking the 2,000 Guineas at a mile at Kentucky Derby time and following with a win in the Epsom Derby in June, Camelot needed only a victory in the St. Leger at a mile and six-and-a-half furlongs to complete the rare sweep.
Camelot, racing for Irelandâ€™s famed Coolmore ownership team, had a somewhat challenging journey and many initially pointed to jockey Joseph Oâ€™Brien, the 19-year-old son of trainer Aidan Oâ€™Brien, in an attempt to isolate a reason for the defeat of the odds-on favorite.
But, after several viewings of the race (Youtube was made for fans of horse racing and music!), it appears that Camelotâ€™s major problem was the daunting distance at Doncaster.
One could point a finger in the direction of the younger Oâ€™Brien and his choice of tactics, and they might be correct. But after being caught in traffic along the inside for most of the race, Oâ€™Brien swung Camelot out for clear running with better than two furlongs to go. The colt had plenty of time to quicken and catch his rival, but never threatened.
The distance seemed just out of Camelotâ€™s grasp, and there is no shame in that. Like the mile-and-a-half of the Belmont Stakes, the final jewel of the U.S. Triple Crown, the nearly two-mile route of the St. Leger is one that top horses in Europe rarely see these days. Physical and pedigree limitations are frequently exposed in the uncharted territory of those distances, and unexpected winners often emerge.
Thatâ€™s not to say that Encke will not be a top horse next year for Godolphin, the Dubai-based owner that most likely â€“ though not publicly â€“ took considerable delight in denying the Triple Crown to Coolmore, its main sales, breeding and racing rival. But it seems more likely that he might emerge as a Euro version of Belmont winners that have denied U.S. Triple Crowns in what frequently is the shining moment of their respective careers.
Even today, it is difficult to believe that Spectacular Bid â€“ one of the great U.S. horses of the 20th Century, was denied a Triple Crown in 1979 by Coastal. The Belmont winner took eight of 14 races and was a good horse, but there was not another moment in his life that he was better than Spectacular Bid.
The main lesson from foiled 2011 Triple Crowns, both stateside and on British shores, is that the task of sweeping three classic races â€“ each at a different track over a different course â€“ will never be easy. But, as an adage holds, anything that is worth having should not be easy.
Someday, Triple Crown winners will arrive for fans in both countries. Somewhat selfishly, I simply hope it occurs in my lifetime.
With the disappointment of the respective Triple Crown seasons behind us, let us look ahead to Novemberâ€™s Breedersâ€™ Cup Championships at Santa Anita and the enticing prospects for a Kentucky-based horse who could be the major U.S. hope in the annual international competition.
If youâ€™re a regular reader here, youâ€™re aware of Morton Finkâ€™s Wise Dan, who has blossomed in the past year, taking the leap from status as a very good horse to being on the verge of true racing stardom.
He became a Grade I stakes winner last fall with a romp in Churchill Downsâ€™ venerable Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare â€“ a race that is as old as the Kentucky Derby and Oaks. His lone stumble this year was a narrow setback to Ron the Greek in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs in June, but trainer Charles Loprestiâ€™s versatile 5-year-old served notice on Sunday at Torontoâ€™s Woodbine that he is most likely Americaâ€™s best older horse and, most likely, best horse â€“ period.
Sundayâ€™s triumph was an effortless romp in the Ricoh Woodbine Mile on the grass. Jockey John Velazquez barely moved in the saddle as Wise Dan cruised to a 3 Â½-length victory in the $1 million race. Given the ease of his victory over a firm turf course, his flashy winning time of 1:34.07 was startling and he earned a gaudy Beyer Speed Figure of 109 for the win.
Dirt or Turf
Wise Dan now owns Grade I stakes victories on dirt and turf, and the versatile star has scored dominant wins in stakes races on synthetic course at Keeneland and Pennyslvaniaâ€™s Presque Isle Downs. His romp at Woodbine sent Wise Dan into the top spot in the National Thoroughbred Racing Associationâ€™s weekly national Horse of the Year poll, supplanting previous frontrunner Game On Dude.
Decision time now looms for Fink and Lopresti as they must choose between lucrative Breedersâ€™ Cup targets: the $2 million Mile on turf or the $5 million Classic on Santa Anitaâ€™s restored dirt course.
Horse of Year?
Finkâ€™s star could be Americaâ€™s â€œHorse of the Yearâ€ with an emphatic win in either race, but there is that $3 million difference in purses to consider.
â€œHe is an unbelievable horse,â€ Fink said Wise Danâ€™s Woodbine triumph. â€œAfter 40 years of trying, itâ€™s an incredible feeling. I think he is good on anything as heâ€™s proved, but I think he is a little better on the grass. But you canâ€™t turn down a Classic. There are no superstars, I donâ€™t think, around this year.â€
There are no bad choices for Wise Dan, but his ultimate Breedersâ€™ Cup destination will be one of racingâ€™s most fascinating stories of its next two months.