In the last 15 years, seven horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown only to fall at Belmont. Some have been very close defeats, such as Real Quiet losing by a nose to Victory Gallop in 1998 or Birdstone upsetting Smarty Jones in 2004; both horses would have won with better jockeying. Some have been utter catastrophes, such as War Emblem finishing last in 2002 or Big Brown pulling up at the stretch in 2008. But as Silver Charm, Charismatic and Funny Cide would also find out, a mile and a half is a hell of a long race to win.
There are many reasons that explain the 34-year drought that's been in the back of every sports mind this week, droves of articles pointing them out have been written by many. But one reason, not often touched-upon, is the Derby’s refusal to shrink the starting field. A horse race normally is restricted to 14 horses running, and most fields are far smaller. Yet the Derby allows up to 20 to run. And at least four times since 2001 this has possibly cost us a Triple Crown winner.
2001: Point Given draws the outside post and tires out early with one of the fastest paces in the race’s history, finishing 5th and allowing Monarchos to win with only the second official sub-2:00 time ever. (Third, if you believe that Sham also did it when placing to Secretariat.) Point Given responds with dominating performances in the Preakness and Belmont and will win Horse of the Year. A smaller field would have likely allowed Point Given to win the Derby.
Point Given, the only horse in history to have won four $1,000,000 races in a row, shown here inspiring super swag after winning the 2001 Belmont Stakes.
2003: Empire Maker gets bumped repeatedly and has to go wide, and cannot catch a surging Funny Cide. Funny Cide wins the Preakness, but Empire Maker, having skipped it easily, wins the Belmont to a booing crowd. They should have been booing the Derby organizers for indirectly denying Empire Maker, the best 3-year-old that year, the Crown.
2005: 50-1 shot Giacomo somehow wins, while Afleet Alex has to weave through traffic to show. In the Preakness Afleet Alex nearly dies after Scrappy T cuts in front of him on the backstretch but recovers to easily win, and repeats in the Belmont with ease. This is easily the biggest what-if. Neither Giacomo nor Closing Argument (place) would have been in the field if it were smaller.
2007: Street Sense is the favorite and wins, and second choice Curlin shows even after drawing post two and having a terrible trip. Curlin narrowly defeats Street Sense in the Preakness, but loses by a head to Rags to Riches in the Belmont. Curlin goes on to become the greatest horse of his generation, and is the all-time leading money winner in North America (about $10.5M). As with 2005, cutting out a few horses would have eased Curlin’s trip. And Rags to Riches wouldn’t have been near Belmont if Curlin was going for a Triple Crown.
Curlin, being lead to the paddock to be saddled for the 2007 Breeders' Cup Classic at Monmouth Park, which he won. Hard Spun (bay with white star), who finished second, is visible behind him.
I’ll Have Another would have been my pick to win and the first horse in any exotic. I correctly picked against War Emblem (Medaglia D’Oro, place); Funny Cide (Empire Maker); and Smarty Jones (Rock Hard Ten, 5th - hit a trifecta). Big Brown I picked only because I thought the field was horrifically weak, which it was; I would have had zero confidence in him against a better field. This was the first Triple Crown possibility where I actually liked the potential winner as a good horse.
He’s now been scratched, which blows the race wide open. Bring on both the glue factory jokes and the conspiracy theories about how the NYRA waited until Friday to announce it, to minimize the losses from all the casual fans not going to tomorrow’s race (grandstand tickets are non-refundable). Like most conspiracies, I put no stock in it. But it’s yet another blow to the industry. Maybe this will cause it to change its ways. That’s not for today’s article though.
At Pimlico, I was confident enough to only put three horses in my trifecta bet; here I will pick four. A quick look at the other horses eliminates half the field. Atigun has put up an 89 Beyer, but his last race was in an optional claimer on Derby Day. Plus, his breeding’s for a mile. Much of the same can be said about Guyana Star Dweej, he's of an 84 Beyer. Unstoppable U and My Adonis have early speed but no staying power. Five Sixteen has exactly one win, and that was a maiden where he earned a 78 Beyer. Optimizer has repeatedly proven he can’t beat good talent. Ravelo’s Boy hasn’t raced in four months and has exactly one 80+ Beyer.
That leaves four other horses to choose from. Union Rags, the beaten second choice in the Derby, is an easy choice; his terrible trip there can be explained away by the aforementioned 20-horse field. Owning a Grade 1 victory on this surface also helps. Street Life has excellent closing speed, though his inability to beat a weak crop of NY horses is disconcerting. Had I’ll Have Another ran I would have tossed Dullahan, but now I have to keep him. On paper he looks good and rested, and like Street Life he has great closing speed. But his two victories have both come on polytrack, and I’m wary of assigning too much credit to his Derby show.
My win pick will be Paynter, whom I actually saw on the Preakness undercard. I was very impressed with his allowance romp and 106 Beyer, second best in the field. If any horse can go wire-to-wire in this race it’s him, especially with no early speed.
Prediction: Paynter (win); Street Life (place); Union Rags (show)
Owner Bob Baffert, jockey Mike Smith and Paynter after their allowance win at Pimlico on May 19, 2012.