Sunday, July 29, 2018

Triple Crown Victory Is a Double Edged Sword

Unequivocally, Thoroughbred racing is a game that offers the sports world a little of everything but guarantees nothing.

I am reminded of the pain on colleagues’ faces that evening at Churchill Downs when the racing gods denied Zenyatta a perfect ending to a perfect career.

I remember asking Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News, “how could this happen?”

“It’s the reason we keep coming back,” he said sagaciously.

What is also indisputable is that what Justify achieved over a period of 112 days was the greatest achievement ever in the sport’s long and storied history.

To accomplish what he did takes true greatness. But the time frame of this unique achievement was an accomplishment that cut both ways. Justify, we hardly knew ye.

And for that, his greatness, for me, must be spelled with a lower case g, not in caps. My capital Gs require a bit more longevity, a bigger body of work.

Many millions of dollars may not be what they used to be but a value of $75 million for today’s race horse boggles the mind no less than the $6 million that bailed out Meadow Stable in 1973.

If you’re in this game long enough, or even if you’re not, you know it has two disparate parts; the sport and the business. Sometimes they are the same. But at the highest levels of the game, they don’t come close.

The irony is that when one of those equines who breathes different air arrives on the scene, he’s whisked away in a twinkling.

When Justify’s value was assessed in what seemed like 10 minutes after he had become racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner, the second ever to do so while undefeated, and was a singular Kentucky Derby victor dating back to 1882, the literati wondered if he’d ever race again.

After a hush-hush period came the ah-ha revelation of an ankle filling and it was “well, there it is, the beginning of the end.” Ankle fillings are no big thing providing, of course, there’s time to treat them properly.

Money can buy time but then time is money, isn’t it? Especially in Justify’s case.

While relatively minor, ankle fillings can be the tip of larger icebergs. I was cynical before I devoted some time to research.

This injury apparently is not a wrench or a sprain that can be walked off in many cases until the filling is gone. That period usually is accompanied by tapping the ankle and injecting a lubricant to promote healing.

But ankle fillings can indicate one of three things: a chip, a suspensory issue down low, or a cannon bone, also down low, all which manifest themselves as ankle fillings.

A chip removal is a relatively easy procedure, not so the other two, depending on severity: The common thread that runs through all cures is time. It could take 90 days before a horse can safely be tacked up again.

With too much uncertainty and a questionable time frame, retirement was the only realistic answer. Clearly, there was not enough time to prepare for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on November 4.

As it stands, the only thing missing from Justify’s racing profile is a victory over older horses. Turf would have been nice, too. But no races vs. elders leaves the question open, even if it’s impossible to envision an “A-game” loss.

Under the circumstances, the connections are doing the right thing by Justify.

The unfortunate aspect is that a decision was made relatively early that this magnificent chestnut beast would not race at 4, begging the question:

Would racing fans, and by extension the sport, have been better if had Justify not won the Triple Crown?

The last two Horses of the Year, California Chrome and Gun Runner, raced as older horses, as did sensational near-Horse of the Year, Arrogate.

Triple Crown champion American Pharoah did not race at 4 but he left the stage with his magnificent Breeders’ Cup Classic tour de force.

California Chrome’s people were very enthusiastic and were highly motivated to see him run at 5, lured by the inaugural, uber rich Pegasus.

But Arrogate and Run Runner were late season phenomena and were looking to add to their stud value.

There are no such concerns for Justify and now there’s just too much money available in the breeding shed, which hurts the sport.

Prior to the 3-year-old retirements this decade, three other Triple Crown champions retired at 3.

But Gallant Fox ran in 17 races, winning 11, and Secretariat raced 21 times, winning 16, including his grassy Canadian International finale. Count Fleet, like Justify, retired after the Belmont but he, too, ran 21 times and also won 16 races.

In 112 glorious afternoons, Justify ran six times and won them all, four at the highest levels of the sport.

Justify is a great horse and looked the picture as he was paraded in front of the stands and circled the paddock at Del Mar on Saturday. The reality that we won’t see him race again, well…sucks.

Social media has been replete with comments this week, such as: “OK, Justify has been retired. NOW can we get on with the rest of the racing season?”

And that’s the good news and bad news about life and being a fan of Thoroughbred racing. What choice do we have but to move on?


The mantel of divisional leadership now falls on defending juvenile champion Good Magic, who everyone would be talking about had a chestnut freak not emerged from the West.

Good Magic was the only horse with the temerity to give Justify a battle, twice. And the fact that they never met on a dry track will always haunt his fans, myself included.

Even though Chad Brown is a Mechanicville, NY native and has the Derby of Midsummer circled on his calendar, the way Dale Romans has the Derby of Spring circled on his, Good Magic must win the Haskell Invitational.

Of the Travers preps already run at Saratoga this weekend, it’s obvious that Belmont Stakes third Hofburg made the best impression, winning Friday’s listed Curlin Stakes with authority. Equine confidence is no myth.

Tenfold, used early to engage a gritty loose leader, Flameaway, showed class, ridden as if he were the best horse by Ricardo Santana Jr. in the G2 Jim Dandy, even while he lost focus badly in deep stretch, something he can ill afford going forward.

Tenfold was prepared expertly by Steve Asmussen, who has lost none of his Samson qualities, rolling into Saratoga in high gear despite a recent shearing.

It is likely that Vino Rosso ran only spottily over the drying-out Spa surface. He did finish boldly late, just missing place, and galloped out strongly. His was an excellent effort to build on as he goes another furlong on August 25.

Written by John Pricci

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