No Stopping 2013 Triple Crown Heroes

So, we’re breeding fragile horses who cannot stand up to rigid racing and training programs. At least that’s what we keep hearing.

The days of tough, durable horses are over, replaced by brittle-boned steeds with weak lungs and delicate constitutions who need to be coddled and cloistered away from the rigors of racing as often as possible. At least that’s what we keep hearing.

Hogwash.

When people look back at the 2013 Triple Crown, they will not see spectacular times or monstrous speed figures or 10-length romps. But that doesn’t mean they should stop looking, for there is a lot to see and take away from the three races, which should convince at least some of the doubters that today’s Thoroughbred lacks the fortitude of its ancestors.

Not only did the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont winners – Orb, Oxbow, and Palace Malice – run in eight of a possible nine Triple Crown races, they exited the final leg as tough, sound, and energetic as they went in. And that was after having competed in a total 19 races in 2013 alone, 18 of them two-turn races and 17 of them graded stakes, including 11 grade I’s.

Starting back in January, Orb has run 1 1/8 miles, 1 1/16 miles, 1 1/8 miles, 1 1/4 miles, 1 3/16 miles, and 1 1/2 miles. And he won four out of six. It is rare to see a 3-year-old competing in a 1 1/8-mile race in January and never backing off or going off form throughout the entire Triple Crown trail. And this came after racing four times in a three-month period as a 2-year-old.

Oxbow hasn’t had more than five weeks off between races since last October, racing at seven different racetracks at seven different distances in six different states from New York to California and as far south as Louisiana and Arkansas. He’s had to break from posts 10 or 11 four times and got hung wide each time. He’s had to overcome six rider changes, premature moves, bad rides, and the dreaded 1 post in the Derby, and with all that, his two best races were his last two. A speed horse/stalker by nature, he was asked to come from last in a 10-horse field in the Arkansas Derby, then in the Kentucky Derby, he was the only horse close to the brutal pace set by Palace Malice who was able to finish in the top half of the field. He has raced a total of 75 furlongs since December and has run hard in every one of them. But even that hasn’t been able to tire him out.

And what kind of a messed up 3-year-old campaign did Palace Malice have? Following a gut-wrenching third, beaten a half-length, in his two-turn debut in the Risen Star, he had a nightmare trip in the Louisiana Derby when he was blocked the entire length of the stretch, and then had to come back in two weeks in the Blue Grass Stakes in a 14-horse field on (first-time) Polytrack in order to even make the Derby field. He ran his heart out, having to do all the dirty work trying to run down the talented Rydilluc, who had opened a big lead on the turn. After catching him and putting him away, he lost focus, spotting the tractor tire marks and jumping over to his left lead. He still finished second, getting nipped right on the wire by the late-running Java’s War. He then came back in three weeks with that Debacle in the Derby, getting blinkers on and setting some of the fastest fractions in the history of the Derby over a sloppy track not conducive to fast times. It was by far the fastest fractions ever set in the Derby over a sloppy or muddy track. He skipped the Preakness, turned in two sensational works, and then proceeded to score an easy 3 1/4-length victory in the Belmont.

So, although Palace Malice did not compete in all three Triple Crown races, he did have an exhausting and improvised campaign and those fractions in the Derby had to take something out of him.

In all, these three horses have made a total of 30 career starts at 10 different racetracks and at 10 different distances from five furlongs to 1 1/2 miles. They have combined to finish in the first four in 25 of the 30 races. Of the ones in which they were worse than fourth, Oxbow was pulled up and vanned off in his career debut, was a fast-closing fifth in the Arkansas Derby when Gary Stevens took him back to last in his first ride on the colt, and ran an excellent sixth in the Kentucky Derby, taking the lead in that blistering pace. Palace Malice was seventh in that throw-out Louisiana Derby, a race most people felt he would have won or been right there had he gotten through on one of two occasions, and was 12th in the Kentucky Derby after setting suicidal fractions of :45 1/5 and 1:09 4/5. So, in reality, none of these horses has ever run a bad race.

And it must be noted, as far as their slow times in the Triple Crown, on all three occasions it rained the day of the race or the day before, and the track was either sloppy, drying out, or just plain deep.

No one is claiming this is one of the better crops we’ve seen, but as for the three Triple Crown race winners, there have been few horses as tough and honest. It is highly doubtful they will emulate the Triple Crown crop of 2007, in which Curlin, Hard Spun, and Street Sense all made the Breeders’ Cup Classic, finishing 1,2,4, respectively. But you know they are all going to give it 100 percent every time they step on the track.

Palace Malice in fact came out of the Belmont in such good shape and was so keen to train, the usually conservative Todd Pletcher was forced to work him a half-mile two weeks later.

Orb was sent to the Fair Equine Therapy Center at Fair Hill to recharge the batteries, and Bruce Jackson said the colt is doing super.

“He’s had a few treatments in the hyperbaric chamber and has put on a good deal of weight since he’s been here,” Jackson said. “He had a hard campaign and just needed a little R&R. He spent a week grazing in the paddock and walking through the trails and forest, and he started back in training this week. His energy level is excellent and he looks great.”

As for Oxbow, the “Little Engine That Could” has been “full of himself” according to Wayne Lukas, who, like Pletcher, is going to have to work him ahead of schedule.

“He’s got so much energy right now I’m going to have to work him in a couple of days,” Lukas said. “He is such a tough sonofagun. He’s what you call old-school. I tell you what, if the ($150,000) Swaps Stakes (July 4) was still $500,000 and grade I like it used to be we’d run in it; that’s how good he’s doing.”

It is too early to rate this crop of 3-year-olds in comparison to other crops and too early to assess the three Triple Crown race winners until we see how they do in the big summer races and how they fare against older horses in the fall. But for now, it is reassuring to know there still are horses with the toughness and durability of the stars of the past who not only can survive the grueling Triple Crown campaign but actually thrive during it. For that alone, Orb, Oxbow, and Palace Malice should be admired and given the respect they have earned.   

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