Haskin's Belmont Report: Why the Crown is Harder Now

After 34 years and 11 failures, this is the year the Triple Crown will be conquered…right? It’s so close you can taste it. Unfortunately, the taste hasn’t lasted very long, quickly dissipating somewhere between the quarter pole and eighth pole of the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

Well, once again, the tantalizing taste has returned. We are so close the adrenaline is already pumping. You can visualize it happening and can even project the feelings of euphoria that will encompass you when it does. You convince yourself I’ll Have Another is the one that the racing gods, or whatever divine powers in which you choose to believe, have decreed to be the chosen one.

Generations of racing fans have never seen racing’s ultimate quest achieved. Many weren’t even born the last time it was done. But like most other quests, the longing for something often turns out to be more stimulating than actually achieving it.
If I’ll Have Another does stamp his name in the history books, what will become of future horses attempting to sweep the Crown? Will anyone care? Will the novelty and historical significance be gone in this quick-fix and move-on society?

Those thoughts are way too deep right now. In this moment, everyone wants it badly and racing needs it badly, as temporary a tonic as it may be.

But after so many failures, the question must be asked: Is I’ll Have Another, or any other horse these days, equipped to handle the Belmont Stakes, which has gone through a metamorphosis in recent years, making it tougher to win than it was decades ago?

I’ll Have Another looks as equipped as any other horse we’ve seen since Spectacular Bid. He has the temperament, the pedigree, the class, the versatility, and the tactical speed to excel over Belmont’s grueling 1 1⁄2 miles.

So, why the question mark? Simple, because the entire nature of the Belmont Stakes has changed as has the entire nature of training 3-year-olds. Because we have so many late-developing 3-year-olds and so many trainers looking to salvage something out of the Triple Crown, the concept of competition has changed. Whereas during the Triple Crown decades ago the Belmont Stakes was mainly a coronation for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who pretty much faced small fields consisting mainly of horses he’d already beaten, today’s Derby and Preakness winner must face a large field consisting of a number of fresh faces and horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), but skipped the Preakness. Add to the number of legitimate contenders those that run just for the sake of running and you have two major obstacles—fresh, talented horses and a cluttered field, often consisting of several no-hopers with little or no stakes experience.

To demonstrate the dramatic change in the Belmont Stakes, the 11 Triple Crown winners faced 42 opponents in the Belmont, while the 11 Derby and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winners since Affirmed who failed in the final leg of the Triple Crown faced 92 opponents in the Belmont.

Not a single Triple Crown winner faced more than seven opponents in the Belmont. But of the 11 failed attempts, five of them had fields of 10 horses or more, and only three had fields of less than nine.

Of the so-called spoilers, only three ran in the first two legs of the Triple Crown (Victory Gallop, Easy Goer, and Bet Twice, who among them had five seconds and a third in the first two legs), four ran in only one leg of the Triple Crown, and four did not run in any of the previous Triple Crown races.

So, it is apparent that the Belmont Stakes has become much more of an obstacle than it was in the past. Citation could get away with stumbling at the start. Whirlaway, a stone closer, could get away with being closer to the pace in a four-horse field. Secretariat could get away with running his first six furlongs in 1:094⁄5 in a five-horse field. Affirmed, with only four opponents, could get away with turning the Belmont into a virtual match race with the only horse (Alydar) that stood in his way of a Triple Crown sweep. Count Fleet, facing only two opponents, could get away with opening a 12-length lead after three-quarters. War Admiral could get away with being fractious in the gate while facing six rivals. Omaha, facing only four opponents, could get away with being shuffled back after the break. When Sir Barton defeated two opponents, there was no such thing as the Triple Crown.

As great as most of those horses were, it would have been interesting to see if they had gotten away with all that in fields of 10 to 12, consisting mainly of classy, fresh horses pointing just for this race.

I’ll Have Another will be facing a large field that figures to include fresh grade I winners from the Derby, Union Rags and Dullahan, both of whom had bad trips; and up-and-coming stars such as Paynter, who is coming off posting a 106 Beyer Speed Figure, and the powerful stretch runner Street Life, a fast-closing third in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II).

Many feel today’s Thoroughbred cannot handle three grueling races at three different tracks at three different distances in the span of only five weeks. There is nothing to substantiate such a claim, however. It’s not as if many of the horses trying for a Triple Crown sweep, like Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Smarty Jones, and Charismatic, didn’t run winning races in the Belmont. It’s not as if horses such as Easy Goer, Arts and Letters, Afleet Alex, Risen Star, Point Given, and Tabasco Cat, just to name a few, didn’t get better throughout the Triple Crown, with all but Easy Goer winning the final two legs.

Some say the winning Triple Crown is more difficult now because today’s Thoroughbreds are more fragile than those of yesterday. That really doesn’t hold water either. While it may be true to a degree, it only takes one horse to sweep the three races, and surely not every horse in the country is too fragile to put together three top efforts in five weeks. Are horses trained too conservatively because they are not able to handle racing or are horses not able to handle racing because they are trained too conservatively. If horses require five and six weeks now between races, why have eight of the last 15 Kentucky Derby winners been able to come back in two weeks and win the Preakness, and in many cases run better races than they did in the Derby?

Another obstacle that often goes unnoticed is Belmont Park itself. Going 1 1⁄2 miles, most jockeys don’t how to ride there and most horses don’t know to run there. Compared to other American racetracks, Belmont is a freak, designed by sportsmen to emulate the sweeping race courses of Europe. Despite the Belmont distance and the physical nature of the track, tactical speed is still a horse’s most dangerous weapon. Settling into a steady rhythm and relaxing are imperative. Getting hung wide on the turn of no return normally spells disaster. Occasionally, it can be done by a true stayer in an inferior field, but that’s only on rare occasions.

Compared to most of the Derby and Preakness winners since Affirmed who have to failed to sweep the Triple Crown, I’ll Have Another may have the best credentials because none of the Belmont’s obstacles should bother him. He has the tactical speed, he can settle comfortably wherever Mario Gutierrez wants him, he’s bred to get the 1 1⁄2 miles, and he has the right temperament and constitution. Stabled at Belmont for three weeks, he will be familiar with the surface. Gutierrez must also familiarize himself with the track and should take as many mounts as possible. With Gutierrez coming from bullring and Quarter Horse tracks, Belmont will be a rude awakening, even with him having ridden so well at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. But so far, he has adjusted and adapted to everything put before him.

I’ll Have Another will be the fourth Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) runner since Affirmed to attempt a Triple Crown sweep. And Affirmed also ran in the Santa Anita Derby, so that has been the best prep race to at least get a horse this far. The Wood Memorial (gr. I) and Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) produced two such horses. And remember, two of those Santa Anita Derby runners, Real Quiet and Silver Charm, came the closest to sweeping the Triple Crown, losing the Belmont by a nose and three-quarters of a length, respectively.

One aspect of preparing a horse for the Triple Crown that has changed is how to get started. It is interesting to note that seven of the last eight Triple Crown winners began their 3-year-old campaign in sprints. Whirlaway, in fact, made his first five starts at 3 in sprint races. The belief back then was that it was best to sharpen a horse before sending him two turns. Running two turns off a layoff early in the year can often be too taxing on a young horse and does not leave sufficient room for improvement as the distances stretch out. That could be one of the reasons that many of our horses run their best Beyer Speed Figures early as 3-year-olds and never duplicate them.

But all the comparisons of Triple Crown winners and near Triple Crown winners mean very little and are merely fodder for conversation. What we’ve learned over the past three decades is that there is no blueprint on how to win the Triple Crown, and the campaigns of the greats of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’70s bear no resemblance to modern-day racing. And we can safely say the Belmont Stakes then and the Belmont Stakes now are worlds apart.

The only conclusion that can be made in regard to the race as the final leg of the Triple Crown is that it was a lot easier to win it back then. That is why it’s worth the wait until we find a horse worthy enough to conquer all three races. One thing is for sure—whoever finally succeeds will have earned it.

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