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Nashville Scene On the Hoof

The Triple Crown's triple whammy

By Christine Kreyling

For most of the quarter of a century we have been married, my husband and I have hosted a Kentucky Derby party. I'm something of an aficionado of thoroughbred racing, and the Derby is the one race I'm willing to share with a bunch of julep-jolly people who don't know how to read the Daily Racing Form, the sort of people who bet on the horse with the cutest name or the longest tail.

The Derby is a party event. One year, gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson made a trip to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May to do research for one of his "Fear and Loathing" essays. He never saw the race. Thompson's story consisted largely of manic descriptions of sloshed Kentucky colonels puking all over their white suits. This was accurate reporting. The Derby is a carnival best experienced through a slight haze.

On the other hand, I have never invited one soul into my home to watch the Belmont Stakes. The final leg of the Triple Crown--the series of races for 3-year-old thoroughbreds that also includes the Derby and the Preakness--is a race for connoisseurs. I share it with my husband, but only because I have had 25 years to educate him in the arcana of furlongs and bug boys, morning glories and ham-and-eggers.

First staged in 1867, when a filly named Ruthless showed her heels to the boys, the Belmont is the oldest event in the Triple Crown. It's staged on Long Island at Belmont Park, a tony, capacious oval where the Sport of Kings began in this country. No cavorting couples with coolers of beer and boiled-lobster sunburns litter this infield. The organizers' one concession to cheesiness is a Broadway babe belting out "New York, New York" as the field parades to the post.

Because the Belmont field is usually small, the race is more definitive than the crowded Derby and Preakness contests. The smaller number of horses minimizes the bumping and traffic jams that can screw up the most talented favorite.

Gone are the thoroughbreds that raced in the Derby just so their owners would merit box seats. Also missing are the horses that had an excuse for not doing well in the Derby, but still finished far up the track in the Preakness. The Belmont post parade consists of horses that didn't start in either the Derby or Preakness--and are therefore of unknown promise--as well as horses that raced well enough in one or both races to merit a shot at the third.

On June 7 I kicked back with the Form and a flinty Italian white to watch a horse named Silver Charm try, and fail, to win the Belmont Stakes. He was beaten by Touch Gold, a colt that didn't start in the Derby and suffered the trip from hell to finish fourth in the Preakness. Because Silver Charm had already won the Derby and the Preakness, his owners lost out on the $5 million bonus set aside for the winner of the Triple Crown. I was disappointed, but not surprised.

Winning the mile-and-a-half Belmont is not easy. This is long-distance running for American thoroughbreds, whose pedigrees usually emphasize shorter bursts of rabbit-like speed. In the Belmont, strategy usually plays a crucial role in victory and defeat. The race is not necessarily to the swiftest--or even to the swiftest with the most stamina--but to the gamest horse with the canniest rider.

This principle was demonstrated in 1976, when Bold Forbes staggered across the Belmont finish line a nose in front. A small speedball from Puerto Rico bred for a mile or less, Bold Forbes won because of a large heart and Angel Cordero. The rider stole the race by nursing his horse along with a deceptively slow pace and practically carrying the colt under the wire. As the jockey Eddie Arcaro once boasted of a similar theft, "It was not merely grand larceny, it was magnificent."

This year's Belmont demonstrated a more subtle form of jockey savvy. Chris McCarron on Touch Gold outfoxed Gary Stevens on Silver Charm by crafting a highly unorthodox race.

Touch Gold was expected to cruise along in the middle of the pack and track Silver Charm. Instead, McCarron's mount popped out of the starting gate and set the initial pace along the rail. Touch Gold then began dropping back, apparently spent. On the far turn McCarron pulled him wide, losing valuable ground. By the time Touch Gold was straightened out for the stretch run, Silver Charm was on the lead, apparently headed for the winner's circle. But at the heart-stopping finish it was Touch Gold by a head, and Silver Charm's owners were swallowing hard into the assembled microphones.

McCarron's explanation went something like this: "Touch Gold broke quick, and so I let him go. But the track was heavy near the rail, and so I took him back. I sent him wide in the stretch and tried to time it so that we rushed to the lead just at the end. Silver Charm is a very game horse. If he had seen us coming, he might have dug in." The substitution of finesse for force is the technique of riders who are getting on, and McCarron's temples are silvery. McCarron's victory smile for the viewers at home was pure gold-plated guile.

If winning the Belmont is hard, winning the entire Triple Crown is a devilish challenge. Adolescent horses--who've raced so far before and who won't do so very often again--are asked to win three arduous races within five weeks. Their trainers are expected to bring them to an injury-free peak in early May and then maintain that form until the second Saturday in June.

In 1943 Count Fleet won all three races by widening margins of daylight. He faced only three opponents in the Belmont and cantered home by 25 horse lengths. Count Fleet emerged with the Triple Crown--and with injuries so severe that he never raced again. His case demonstrates why only 11 horses in the 100-plus year history of the series have won it. The first was Sir Barton in 1919. The last was Affirmed in 1978.

In between, there have been droughts, but never downpours. During the dry spell between 1948 and 1973, a chorus of columnists began chanting that the Triple Crown asked too much of a fine-tuned modern horse, that the series was impossible to win, and that it was therefore outdated. Then Secretariat pounded down the Belmont stretch, "moving like a tremendous machine" in the words of the track announcer, and won by 31 lengths--more than a quarter of a mile. There were two more Triple Crown winners in the 1970s, but there have been none since.

Before this year's Belmont, the sports columnists were betting that Silver Charm was a lock. Afterward, the pundits again took up their "It can't be done" cry. Both attitudes seem like long shots after a look at the horsey history books.

Since Affirmed's year, nine horses have won two of the Triple Crown races, but none has won the third. Sometimes the problem was a bad tendon or bad luck, sometimes the two-time winner was too tired or not quite good enough to make it three-for-three. Triple Crowns are won because a single race horse manages to dominate the 3-year-old age group for five strenuous weeks. Triple Crowns are lost for the simplest of reasons: Silver Charm just didn't see Touch Gold coming.







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