WinStar Creates a Wild Ending

No one knows how long the 2016 Triple Crown will remain in the public’s memory banks, but for now at least it should be remembered for its eccentricities, following one of the most memorable and emotional Triple Crowns in history.

With the Belmont Stakes still fresh in everyone’s mind, let’s start with the closing act and its unconventional story lines.

First and foremost you have without a doubt the most unusual trainer switch in Triple Crown history.

Here is the plot. WinStar Farm has a deep closer trained by Steve Asmussen named Creator, in the Belmont, which appears to be devoid of any early speed, leaving either of the two Todd Pletcher entrants, Destin or Stradivari, to control the pace and the race. But WinStar has a remedy for the situation, and his name is Gettsyburg, who WinStar also owns, but just happens to reside in the barn of Pletcher. Now, they can’t have Pletcher run the speedy Gettysburg as a rabbit, because his two horses have different ownership and it wouldn’t be the sporting thing to do, especially having Pletcher run a horse who likely would compromise the chances of Destin and Stradivari.

So, they do the only thing possible. They snatch Gettysburg away from Pletcher and send him to Asmussen, making it all a neat and tidy package. It proves to be an inspired move. They now have the rabbit to assure a brisk, or at least honest, pace for Creator and occupy any horse with designs on stealing the race. Just like that, Pletcher’s two horses no longer are in control of the pace, and the chances of one of them wiring the field and even running one-two the whole way around are greatly diminished.  

What does this mean for Pletcher? No one can say for sure, but there is now a pretty good chance of him being shot in the foot by his own weapon.

Again, no one can say for sure what would have happened if Gettysburg had remained in his old stall munching hay on Belmont day, but one can certainly deduce by the way things transpired that the 55-1 Gettysburg did indeed help become Pletcher’s Waterloo. Although he didn’t exactly tear up the track early, Gettsyburg’s opening quarter in :24 and half in :48 2/5 were solid enough to assure an honest pace and prevented the tracking Destin from taking command of the race and slowing the pace to a crawl. Although the three-quarters was run in 1:13 1/5, the mile time of 1:37 4/5 equaled the third fastest mile split in the past nine years and was the same mile time American Pharoah ran last year.

Considering that Destin, who was within a length of Gettsysburg for the first mile and didn’t wrest control until they straightened for home, would be beaten a nose on the wire by Creator, it is safe to assume that a slower uncontested pace would have assured a victory for a colt who ran his heart out and the race of his life. But of course there is no way to know for sure. It's not that Gettysburg cost Destin the race, as the runner-up had a good stalking trip, but it did prevent him from taking total control of the pace and the opportunity to slow it down to a crawl, which would have made it more difficult for Creator to catch him in the final stride. Remember, we're talking about a matter of inches after a mile and a half. If Destin was allowed to set fractions on his own in :49 and change or :50 and 1:14 1/5 instead of chasing a pretty good horse in :48 2/5, 1:13 1/5, and a solid 1:37 4/5, it would be difficult for anyone to claim that it wouldn't have made up that nose difference.

WinStar owner Kenny Troutt put it simply: “We needed a fast pace up there as much as we could get, and Gettysburg did a great job.” That pretty much says it all.

After the race, Elliott Walden of WinStar announced that Gettysburg would be returned to Pletcher. That’s like having your ex-wife return to you after she cost you millions in alimony. To paraphrase Pletcher's response to the offer to return Gettysburg to him, "Thanks, but no thanks." He did actually tell Walden, "I think it's better if it doesn't happen." When asked if he thought the outcome of the race would have been different without the presence of Gettysburg, Pletcher said, "I guess we'll never know." Even Pletcher, who is known for his carefully calculated words, couldn't hide his feelings.

Asmussen said Gettysburg will be sent to WinStar. “He needs to be rewarded and pampered a bit,” he said. “He needs a couple of days at the spa. He was a valiant horse on the lead. He carried them a long way.”

It all read like an O. Henry short story, but kudos to WinStar for using all its resources and applying a chess move no one had ever witnessed before. They even switched jockeys, going from Ricardo Santana Jr., who guided Creator to victory in the Arkansas Derby, to local rider Irad Ortiz Jr., who gave Creator a perfect ride, saving ground on the turn and then easing out nearing the quarter pole. There was no doubt all the stars were aligned for Creator on this day, especially with Exaggerator, Lani, and especially Suddenbreakingnews getting prolonged wide trips, which normally is the kiss of death in the Belmont Stakes, and Governor Malibu, who briefly looked like a winner coming up the inside, getting stopped twice in the none other than Gettysburg.

Then, just minutes after the race, the skies opened up followed by a bright rainbow adorning the skies over Belmont. Hmmm, stars aligned, heavenly occurrences, Creator. I won’t take it any farther than that.

Finally, what are the odds of the first three finishers of the Belmont Stakes all being grays? That is yet another bizarre aspect of this race, as is WinStar owning the breeding rights to Exaggerator. Although he is still worth a great deal as a stallion based on his Preakness and Santa Anita Derby victories, you still can say that for WinStar, it was a case of every silver lining has its cloud.

To continue the ironies of the race, there was Steve Asmussen winning the Belmont over Todd Pletcher in much the same manner Pletcher deprived Asmussen of a Belmont victory when Rags to Riches narrowly defeated Curlin in 2007. And we had WinStar Farm winning the Belmont in much the same manner they lost it in 2014 with Commissioner, who was nailed right on the wire by Tonalist. In case you forgot, Commissioner was trained by Todd Pletcher.  

And how appropriate for Asmussen to be inducted into the Hall of Fame the same year he wins the Belmont and finishes third in the Kentucky Derby. And by the way, who was the hard luck horse in the Kentucky Derby, getting wiped out at the head of the stretch while making his move? Creator, of course.

Finally, care to guess where Destin was broken as a baby? You got it, WinStar Farm. You can’t make this stuff up.

Then there was the story of the Preakness winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Exaggerator’s jockey Kent Desormeaux, who commanded the majority of the headlines and NBC’s air time by going into rehab for his longtime alcohol problem about a week and a half after his resounding victory in the Preakness. The only one who obviously didn’t consider this a feel-good story was Exaggerator, who decided to spoil the ending by running the only terrible race of his career at odds of 7-5.

Looking back at the entire Triple Crown, who was the only horse to compete in all three races and actually improve with each race? Yes, it was the horse everyone was mocking before the Kentucky Derby, the Japanese invader Lani, the horse perceived by many as a harlequin, who provided the media with many moments of levity each morning. But it’s time we started taking horses like Lani and Casino Drive and Cesario seriously, just as they do in other countries around the world. The Japanese training methods may amuse and bewilder us, but whatever they are doing, it is working.

Lani had much to overcome in all three races, in which he ran respectably in the Derby, much improved in the Preakness, and superbly in the Belmont to finish third, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths, while flying at the finish in the last two, despite suffering huge ground loss in all three races. He actually ran 80 feet farther than Creator in the Belmont, which equates to a difference of about nine lengths. So Lani gets the unsung hero award for this year’s Triple Crown.

Going back to the beginning at Churchill Downs, everything looked to be on course for another historic Triple Crown when Nyquist captured the Kentucky Derby to remain undefeated, while scoring his fifth grade I victory, a remarkable achievement.

So what happens? The Preakness comes up a sea of slop and Nyquist goes out there in a suicidal speed duel, sandwiched between two other speed horses, and proceeds to run the fastest opening quarter in Preakness history over a quagmire of a track. It was a classic case of overconfidence and believing the horse was invincible. He ran his heart out, trying to re-rally after being passed by Exaggerator. As we all know, he came down with a temperature and high white blood count the following day, which knocked him out of the Belmont, leaving the third jewel of the crown without the Kentucky Derby winner.

We also had trainer Dale Romans involved in a bad auto accident while leaving Churchill Downs after the Derby, in which he and the other passengers were fortunate to escape without any serious injuries. Romans then went to Baltimore and finished second in the Preakness with Cherry Wine.

Every Triple Crown is a saga unto itself, with its own characters, story lines, and new equine athletes to admire. We are well aware they all can’t be Cinderella stories and read like fairy tales. Sometimes, the glass slipper winds up fitting the feet of the stepsisters. Sometimes, the pumpkin doesn’t turn into a golden carriage. But that doesn’t mean the stories aren’t compelling, the characters unforgettable or the winners special to those who wagered on them.

Yes, there was the disappointment of Nyquist’s defeat and illness and Exaggerator’s poor effort. Fortunately, America still was feeling the effects and euphoria of last year’s emotional Triple Crown journey and couldn’t let go of the horse with whom the entire nation fell in love. That was able to sustain everyone over the five-week period, especially returning to New York and reliving the bedlam at Belmont. But in the long run we did have all three Triple Crown races won by a Derby winner – the Florida Derby winner won the Kentucky Derby, the Santa Anita Derby winner captured the Preakness, and the Arkansas Derby winner took the Belmont.

The 2016 Triple Crown is in the books. How many will read the chapter in the years to come is for history to decide. Right now it is time to close that book and turn our full attention to California Chrome, Beholder, Frosted, Songbird, Tepin, the return of Nyquist, and the other stars of the Turf.

One thing is certain, there are plenty of fairy tales still to be written.

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