Who could forget Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes, widely regarded as the best performance by a thoroughbred ever? And that move around the first turn at Pimlico wasn’t bad, either. Simply stated, Secretariat was God’s greatest equine creation.
Seattle Slew is my personal favorite, still the only horse to have won the Triple Crown while undefeated. His greatness was even celebrated in defeat; a nose loss to Exceller in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup was arguably the gamest performance ever.
That same year produced racing’s last Triple Crown winner. But to this day you can’t mention Affirmed without completing the phrase with Alydar. The golden chestnut vs. the liver chestnut was the greatest rivalry the sport has known.
So then why was the recently concluded Triple Crown series the best I have witnessed in the modern era? Because it had everything.
And, so, the colt made history as the first Juvenile winner ever to win a Derby; his trainer Carl Nafzger won his second julep cup and punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame on Union Avenue as Calvin Borel raised the bar exceedingly high for future celebrations on horseback.
Two weeks later Street Sense got to gawking a little and lost his Triple Crown bid by a nose, snatching defeat from victory’s jaws as Curlin made one of the more dramatic stretch runs in the history of the sport. Many said that Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in 1989 had nothing on this pair. No one argued.
Then, exit Street Sense from the Belmont, enter Rags To Riches, a filly, one who gave the 139th Test of a Champion an identity that would last in perpetuity. There have been only three females to win a Belmont, and she did it by reprising Curlin’s Preakness role, as she out-stared him all the way to the finish post.
Four wide all the way around “big sandy” after a stumbling beginning, a final quarter-mile in :23 4/5 following a half-mile in :50 and three-quarters in 1:15 the cherry on top.
Are you kidding? This can only be described as magical.
Time has come for the country’s best three-year-olds to freshen up and prepare for the battles of late summer and fall, culminating with a trip to Monmouth Park on the last Saturday in October. Invasor and all the rest had better have their running shoes on.
This three-year-old class is the best racing has seen in a very long time. From a performance figure perspective, collectively they have had no peer group in recent memory, the best of them running as fast as any Grade 1 older horse can run. That’s quite a feat for a sophomore in spring.
All connections have decisions to make and they’re interesting to ponder. You would think, for instance, that this year’s Haskell would serve not so much as a prep for the Travers but rather for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The Haskell would seem like a natural return spot for Hard Spun, given the early speed Garrett Gomez wouldn’t let him show in the Belmont. Maybe now Mario Pino will get his regular mount back. Pino’s Preakness mistake--if you want to call it that; I call it circumstantial reaction--might serve him well at speed kind Monmouth Park.
Given that Street Sense is pointing for the Travers, it is more likely Nafzger will choose to prep in the Jim Dandy. That path worked for Unshaded and trainers, as stated before, are creatures of habit.
The high profile Triple Crown trail is virgin territory for Steve Asmussen but he has proven to be a good student of history. Knowing Curlin as well as he does, Asmussen probably will send him to Monmouth, thinking he’d rather meet Hard Spun than Street Sense before taking on Invasor over the same track in the fall. Curlin has Monmouth style.
And so what of the filly?
Rags To Riches currently is pointing toward the Coaching Club American Oaks. From there she could take several paths. Look for her to take a more challenging path than the Alabama, since two of the big three Derby horses are likely Monmouth bound.
There are two good reasons for Rags To Riches to run at Saratoga. Both Michael Tabor and Todd Pletcher have left the door wide open when it comes to meeting males again. In taking on Street Sense, perhaps defeating him, it would give Rags To Riches a victory over all three.
The owners and their trainer have a keen sense of history. Ruthless, the filly that won the inaugural Belmont, also won the Travers, the only female to have won both races. Now doesn’t that sound like a historical challenge worth pursuing?
If this year’s Triple Crown colts, and this special Triple Crown filly, keep doing their thing, the great Invasor had better not stub his toe. Not with this crop, the best we’ve seen in three decades.