It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Belmont

NEW YORK CITY, June 3, 2008--At Tuesday’s press luncheon for Belmont 140, the audience was shown a montage of the three Triple Crown winners of the 1970s.

With a wide shot from the pan camera in midstretch during the running of the 1973 renewal, the distance between the mighty Secretariat and his five badly overmatched rivals--estimated at 22 lengths by the estimable race caller Chic Anderson, almost doesn’t do the moment justice.

In the end, the 31-length victory margin would do quite nicely, thank you, reflecting the accurate measure of a winner finishing up his race somewhere in Nassau County, while the rest of the field was beginning to exit the Queens off-ramp.

The audience didn’t react as raucously after seeing Seattle Slew, beneath Jean Cruguet, open his advantage soon after entering the Belmont straight. The applause after his victory was little more than respectful.

That might have been because Slew had long since extracted any dramatic tension from his Triple Crown moment, the end of his foregone conclusion, one that Rick Dutrow hopes will be repeated this Saturday, as he promised it will.

Perhaps if the videotape of the ‘77 Belmont had been picked up sooner, in mid-backstretch, the audience would have seen Slew putting away two premature challenges from rivals who tried to beat him right then and there. But he vanquished them, and held the late runners safe during a never-in-doubt stretch outcome.

Then came racing’s last Triple Crown winner, the one from 30 years ago, the one won by a horse with the curious name of Affirmed-Alydar. Because you can’t tell the story of one without the other. They brought out the best in each other, and Affirmed’s best was consistently inches better than his rival, arguably the greatest in the history of the sport.

When that team put on its equine Barnum and Bailey show at the finish of the ’78 running, the audience erupted, master of ceremonies Randy Moss putting the rivalry and that Triple Crown moment in perspective.

“There’s not a real racing fan,” Moss said, “who couldn’t tell you precisely where he was when those races were being run.”

“I thought I had him at the three-sixteenths pole… I was a neck in front” said Hall of Fame jockey Jorge Velasquez on the ride over into midtown from Belmont Park.

“I tried to tighten it up a little bit--I didn’t want to foul him,” added the rider later. “But then I saw him coming back--no--he’s going to beat me again.

“I watched the films of those races a bunch of times. Affirmed just hated to get beat.”

The 1970s, the sport’s last golden age, were heady times for thoroughbred racing in America. The great Spectacular Bid, a horse that belongs in the same conversation with the three Triple Crown champions, came along the very next season but not even he couldn‘t finish the deal.

Bid, so dominant at four that he would win the storied Woodward Stakes in a walkover, couldn’t enter the Triple Crown pantheon. Can Big Brown do what the mighty Bid couldn’t? Is he the foregone conclusion his trainer says he is?

“No doubt about it,” reaffirmed Dutrow.

The trainer’s confidence was back to unwavering--if indeed it ever faltered in light of recurring hoof issues--after Big Brown worked a perfect five furlongs a few hours earlier at Belmont Park. The trainer wanted something between :59 to 1:01.

Regular exercise rider Michelle Nevin split the difference almost perfectly before she reached for another handful of rein upon completion of the move, not allowing Big Brown to do more than his handlers wanted; enough, not too much.

It seems as if the Belmont, the race itself, has finally arrived after two weeks of scrutinizing Big Brown’s connections as if a couple of good fellas named Dutrow and Iavarone were being considered as potential presidential running mates.

From a media perspective, the luncheon was sparsely attended. Too bad for press members who only get to cover two seasonal events a year, whether they want to or not. They might have gained some appreciation of the quest here.

Interesting that Patrice Wolfson, owner/breeder of Affirmed with her late husband, Louis, had the same reaction to the burning question that Billy Turner had, as to whether Big Brown was equal to the challenge.

“Their horse has that little extra something,” Wolfson said. “You all saw it, the way he exploded down the stretch at Pimlico. I think it’s time.”

The rider of her horse’s rival agreed. “[Big Brown] already proved he’s the best, and the competition this year is not that strong,” Velasquez said. “If everything goes right, he’ll win.”

Said Dutrow: “The time he missed might actually have helped. He’ll be running for the third time in five weeks. He burned three heels in the Preakness. Time can only help. But he was pissed off; he wanted to go to the track.

“What I see right now is a perfect horse. I see a pretty picture. He’s better now than he was before the Derby.”

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From One Big Brown Fan to Another: Enough Already

Prior to the Wednesday of Florida Derby week, I never had occasion to interview Rick Dutrow Jr. We knew each other, of course, but the relationship didn’t go much beyond what’s known as “the racetrack wave.”

Hello, nice to see you, goodbye.

Obviously, I knew more about the reputation than the man; getting ruled off for abusing cocaine, a handful of suspensions related to the use of permitted medications, and empirical visuals that most of his horses run “too good.”

But midway through our interview inside his Palm Meadows barn this winter, I was getting good vibes off the guy. That means something to anyone born under the sign of Pisces.

Dutrow looks you in the eye, answers questions directly, saying that he deserved some of the penalties he received, but not all of them. There wasn’t even a hint of trainer-speak from Dutrow. He was a breath of fresh air.

In those 30 minutes, I developed a newly found respect for him as a horseman because of his game plan, the confidence he showed in his approach to training, but with enough humility to call his Hall of Fame buddy, Bobby Frankel, not so much for advice but as a sounding board.

Frankel told him to have confidence to do just what he was doing, that no one knew what the horse needed better than his trainer.

That was minutes before I met and fell in love with the coolest, neatest and friendliest Triple Crown aspirant ever to look through a bridle.

As the Triple Crown chase gained momentum, so did Dutrow’s confidence. He knew what he had, he assessed the competition accurately and made a physical and emotional commitment to one of about 200 horses under his care.

Even with the re-emergence of a quarter crack--not a serious ailment but popping up at a serious time--Dutrow has not been deterred from speaking his mind about Big Brown’s chances to become racing’s 12th Triple Crown champion.

A “forgone conclusion,” he said.

Confidence is a block upon which you build. And Big Brown’s trainer has become a poster boy for confidence. But when does confidence become over-confidence? At what point does good will turn into negative energy?

Dutrow’s remarks about the connections of Smarty Jones, saying that John Servis over-trained him for the Belmont, and that Stewart Elliott over-rode him to an 11½-length victory margin the Preakness were indelicate, at best. At worst they were way over the line.

But as far as taking stock of Casino Drive when he came off the track Thursday morning, saying that in no way could the Japanese star beat Big Brown given what he saw, Dutrow has earned the right to express that opinion.

Dutrow is not expressing any opinions that differ from what you could hear any trainer standing at the rail over their early morning coffees. Only most wouldn’t say on for the record.

Of the seven deadly racetrack sins, jealousy wins by open lengths every time.

While Dutrow might not have incurred serious wrath from most racing and casual sports fans, he is starting to turn good karma into bad. Because of his achievements and personality, fans have warmed up to Big Brown, pulling for him to make history. But if Dutrow keeps this up, that could change.

Sometimes Dutrow thinks very well on his feet. When asked whether he thought a rival jockey would sacrifice his chances just to get “the big horse” beaten, he said he couldn’t imagine why any jockey would do something like that. C’mon.

Apparently Dutrow’s forgotten Jerry Bailey’s glaringly aggressive ride on Eddington in Smarty Jones’s Belmont, or might not be old enough to remember seeing Angel Cordero Jr.’s exhibition aboard Shake Shake Shake in the 1978 Travers, won by Alydar via disqualification.

Should Big Brown fail to make history, seeing Dutrow get his comeuppance would be a satisfactory emotional hedge for many. And that’s too bad. Despite all of this, there’s still something about Dutrow that doesn’t offend me the way trash talking in any other sports do.

I realize that I probably wouldn’t feel this way if I hadn’t met Dutrow because a horse named Big Brown, at a time when a two-race wonder was trying to make history by winning the Florida Derby from post position 12.

Meanwhile, my 92-year-old Sicilian nana is rooting for Dutrow to win the Triple Crown because she appreciated the fact that he turned his life around. That alone is good enough for me.

But he’s already been good for racing. Do you think, for instance, that radio sports talkers Mike Francesa and Chris Russo would have spent two hours on horse racing a week in advance of the Belmont if Dutrow weren‘t a hot button issue?

But let me give Big Brown’s trainer some advice when he meets with the media this morning outside Barn 2 at Belmont Park. Try to keep ancillary damage to a minimum. Enough already.

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Dutrow and Turner: Life in a Parallel Universe

ELMONT, NY, May 22, 2008---It had just begun to rain when I parked the Subaru outside barn 44 on the Belmont Park backstretch. Given the weather and relatively late hour, 9:30 a.m., much of the barn’s activity was limited to shed-walking.

With the Triple Crown chase on, I decided to talk to someone who might know a thing or two about such things.

When I first met him, in John Esposito’s parking lot outside the gates of Belmont Park in the fall of 1976, his career was somewhere between the “Turnpike Turner” era and "The Only Trainer in History to Win a Triple Crown with an Undefeated Three-Year-Old" age.

Does Billy Turner think that Rick Dutrow will follow in his footsteps, and that Big Brown will follow in Seattle Slew’s?

Like Dutrow, Turner looks you dead in the eye.

“It’s time,” he said. “It really is."

When I found Slew’s trainer, he was on the backside of barn 44, on his knees inside stall 39, personally applying cold laser therapy to Captain Fluffy, a three-year-old filly who ran on the second day of the Belmont meet and suffered a very deep cut to the back of her left front ankle.

It was touch and go for a while, said Turner, but it looks like she‘s going to be all right now.

Back then, Turner always was known as a great care-giver but was underappreciated as a trainer because he had the audacity to speak truth to power and was battling personal demons. His critics played politics with the off-track issues and so they never gave him his due as a horseman.

Turner lived his profession on the cutting edge. In the early 1980s he was one of the first local horseman to use acupuncture fairly extensively. He was also among the earliest to study the use of Equine Biomechanics.

“Gait analysis came later, but ultrasound allowed you to know that if a two-year-old worked faster than forty-nine or fifty, he’d come back with a [sore] shin. [Poor bone density] with a too-fast work might result in a condylar fracture.”

Big Brown has been compared to Seattle Slew because it’s been said both were beating up on inferior rivals during their Triple Crown campaigns. “Slew might not have been beating great horses, but this group seems to beat each other up all the time. I liked Pyro, but he fizzled out.”

And Big Brown? “I’m impressed,” Turner said. “I saw him go the track the other morning. He’s a big, strong son of a gun. Compared to Slew, Big Brown’s easy-going, tractable. You had to sit quietly on Slew and just nurse him along.”

Both colts had to work fairly hard to win the Derby but had an easier time of it in Baltimore. Both trainers took it one race at a time but neither took their eye off the big prize.

Turner told me that winter the Preakness could be the race that trips Slew up. At the beginning, the two weeks between Derby and Preakness was a concern for Dutrow, too. But both men trained their horses to win a Derby with the Triple Crown in mind. Training an undefeated horse is a special pressure all its own.

Turner has empathy pains not only for the pressures of winning but the fact that Dutrow is winning his battle with cocaine addiction. Turner is a recovering alcoholic.

“The drug period crippled an entire generation. It was the cocaine era. Sidney Watters lost a son, Dooley Adams, the great steeplechase jock, lost a son. Both Maloney boys. Rick is a survivor and a good horseman. Not every trainer can be a good horseman.

“When they came and took me out of here, I was given about a week or two to live. I was lucky. And when I got out of recovery, Mr. Ritzenberg gave me a horse, Mrs. Randolph, Mr. Polk. They all gave me horses when I first came back.

“One of the horses was Tell A Secret. She broke her maiden at Saratoga. She turned out to be the dam of Roses in May.”

So, will Big Brown do it? “The most competition will come from the Japanese horse. He’s a very good horse. And that mare [Better Than Honour]? She might be the greatest producer of our lifetime.”

A traditionalist, Turner has another reason to root for company in his special place in thoroughbred racing history.

“The original concept was to have a horse that was solid, mature and sound enough to show up on those three given Saturdays. Maybe if he wins it, they’ll stop talking about trying to change [the Triple Crown]. As it is, we’ve let the breeders off the hook."

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