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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Even if it is a classic, who might have the courage to show up in the first leg of 2020’s Asterisk Triple Crown to challenge the mighty triumvirate named above in the nine furlong Belmont Stakes, June 20?

Would Honor A.P. ,whose trainer, John Shirreffs, expressed high interest in running in a mile-and-an-eighth Belmont, dare challenge this group given his colt’s relative lack of experience?

Certainly a one-turn mile-and-an-eighth would suit his long striding beast of a race horse. At this stage, however, the competition might not. Not that the colt won’t have his hoovesful with Authentic at Santa Anita June 6, but that’s not the issue.

The point is that one is a classic, one’s not; one’s a million dollars and the other’s not; one makes you eligible to become the 14th Triple Crown winner in history, even if it is the *Triple Crown of 2020.

The 152nd Belmont has all the earmarks of a Race of the Year, even at this stage. It’s a race all true racing fans would love to see, even if only available on a television monitor near you.

And if you want to bet, this match-up of three horses could offer value if one has a strong opinion, stomach and bankroll to withstand the stress. No one, including the connections, knows which one is superior to the others. That’s why races are run on a track, not on paper.

To this point in the year, all the speculation and imaginings has been fun, a welcome distraction for the world around us. For better or worse, this is the *Triple Crown we’ve got. And I fully intend to embrace all of it.

Imagine, a Kentucky Derby coming 11 weeks after the Belmont Stakes, replete with a “revenge” story-line. The year of the Asterisk Triple Crown begins 31 days from today, featuring three of the top four colts in America.

For a while, it was fun for Thoroughbred fans and stakeholders to create their own perfect worlds. We expect that the next hot topic will be when fans are allowed to see horse racing live again.

If you live in Texas, that question answered by Republican Governor Greg Abbott; it’s the day after tomorrow.

If Lone Star Park is logistically ready to open its doors, it can happen. As of Tuesday morning, no official announcement on simulcasting or live racing has been made. But the law is clear. With no legal stand-alone simulcasting, betting must take place on track.

Even at 25% capacity in permitted counties, opening a racetrack, a bowling alley, bingo hall, rodeo, or any populace event, allowing lots of people to congregate in the latest current Covid epicenter borders on recklessness.

We realize that most politicians would never allow a good crisis to go to waste. But in the name of ideology, it’s not OK to put human beings in harm’s way. At posting, 92,000 lost souls does not qualify as a hoax.

In New York, meanwhile, a spectator free June 20 Belmont was a decision born of horsemen influence and racetrack box office considerations. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s business, and it’s also what’s best for young racehorses in a truncated training and racing season.

Bob Baffert said he would run in a mile-and-an-eighth Belmont, he got his wish and is keeping his word. So much so that he’s bringing two, and unless he’s banking on his pair dead-heating for the win, one no longer will be undefeated.

John Shirreffs said he’d be interested in running if the Belmont were a mile and an eighth. Given a *Triple Crown opportunity, isn’t it better to eschew home court advantage for an American classic at the same distance? Level of competition notwithstanding, this appears a no-brainer.

Since the 2020 Belmont comes two weeks after the Santa Anita Derby, to which Shirreffs has been pointing the very talented Honor A.P., running in both is at once impractical and improbable.

For all four colts, 11 weeks from Belmont to Derby leaves time for whatever would come next. The July 18 Haskell and a yet-to-be rescheduled Travers leap to mind. Those two events, in competition for the best summer three-year-olds every year, would make terrific Grade 1 bridge races to the Derby.

Then, of course, following the second leg of the *Triple Crown, the OCT 3 Preakness, a sixteenth of a mile longer than the Belmont and a sixteenth shorter than the Derby, becomes the 2020 *Test of the Champion.

Barclay Tagg, with the ownership group led by the man who also owned another New York-bred, 2003 Derby winner Funny Cide, have long had a personal Triple Crown in mind; the Derby, Belmont and Travers. That’s still on the table, only not as originally conceived.

With or without Honor A. P., the Big Three are extremely formidable, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a gateful. The distance is attractive, one might get a favorable draw that not only suits the potential race shape but compromises the favorites.

And it wouldn’t be the first time a jockey was instructed to get low for the show dough–and a prized Grade 1-placed Classic black type.

The Derby will always be the Derby and 20 horses in one starting gate will be its usual pari-mutuel feast with, who knows, half the field having a legitimate chance? But that’s three months away. Right now, the Belmont’s superstar trifecta is a race that everyone will want to see.

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22 Responses

  1. You know how I feel, I would have gone for the Belmont..for all the reasons you stated. I can’t argue, however, with his desire to remain loyal to his home track. I so wish SA had run the Derby earlier instead of waiting until June 6.

    Like you said, HAP is made for Belmont. The competition wouldn’t have worried me because I know how good he is. That’s not to say I would predict victory – just that he belongs among the top few of his crop. I just found out that Shirreffs grew up on Long Island, so I have hope that he’ll run HAP at Belmont later in the year.

    As to the SA Derby, I’m expecting a small field, with Authentic the lone speed. It will be interesting to see if Mike Smith keeps his colt much closer to the pace…which could be tough, but perhaps necessary.

    The Belmont is still shaping up to be a terrific race; maybe we can see them all in the Travers.

    1. Betsy, there will be a teleconference among NYRA executives and representatives from the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association tomorrow re; the possibility of opening Belmont for live racing with fans in late June. I’m sure the subject of Saratoga also is likely to be discussed. Will keep you posted.

      1. Thanks, John! That would be amazing, though I don’t know how that would work since I don’t think Nassau or Queens fulfill all of the governor’s requirements. It should be interesting – everyone is eager for info about Saratoga!

      2. As much as I have been anxious to get over to the track again, I’m not sure late June for fans is a good idea, given the age demographics of a typical on-track crowd. Would it just feel irresponsible for someone in their 30s, 40s or early 50s to go, knowing how you could be asymptomatic and still carry this virus, as well as what this virus does to older people? On the other hand, Belmont’s massive size might make it the one venue where this could be done where a typical crowd could maintain social distancing.

        I’d assume they waive admission fees, seeing as how that would greatly reduce person to person contact?

        1. Late June indeed could be too soon for live fans; don’t think it will happen–just my guess.

          Your point is well taken about the size of Belmont and the ability to social-distance responsibly.

          Perhaps we should just celebrate the return of racing for now…

          1. Yep – I’m just delighted that June 3rd is in a little less than 2 weeks! Trying not to spew my roll on CD and SA before we get there!!

  2. Did I miss something during my hiatus?

    I looked up Honor A.P. just to make sure and I was right. He has won only a maiden race in three starts. He was just beaten by a horse who, by the way Bob Baffert is spotting his stars, is the third best in his arsenal.

    How is he being mentioned in the same conversation with Baffert’s undefeated Grade 1 winners and Tiz the Law, who has been ranked No. 1 in the nation for most of the spring?

    Maybe Honor A.P., who seems to be a special talent, will justify the accolades later this season that have prematurely been bestowed on him. But to suggest the faux Belmont will suffer from his absence is a bridge way too far for me.

  3. TJ, two things: Never suggested that the Belmont would be less-than without HAP, but to my mind he’s the best talent out West capable of joining the fray.

    IMO, he is extremely talented and has the scope to develop into the best of his generation by season’s end or, heaven forbid, better than the 4YO class of 2021. His addition to the Big Three would make the Belmont more interesting is all I’m saying. My last reference was to the “superstar big three.”

  4. I live in DFW area so curious to see how Lone Star decides to handle it. Unlike every other state that has racing with no patrons Texas is unique as there is no online betting so no way to make a legal wager at all. In Texas we’ve been waiting the past two months wondering when we will be able to take part in horse racing again. 25 percent admittence sounds good but I don’t see them regulating 25 percent of patrons at Lone Star Park and sending the rest home.
    I think it’s an all or nothing deal in Texas. With that said I wish they would change the law so Texas residents could wager online like the rest of the country.

    1. Thanks for checking in Roland and, yes, we mentioned in the piece the betting was only legal on-track in Texas. I can’t believe that in 2020 that permission would not be granted to conduct simulcast wagering. I’ve been to Lone Star for Breeders’ Cup–loved the racetrack, the sight-lines for live racing especially–and remember a large section devoted to simulcast wagering.

      Parenthetically, can’t remember if it was stand-alone or part of the grandstand structure. Had a good Breeders’ Cup but not on simulcasts the following day. We’ll say a prayer to the God of Parimutuels.

  5. John: For those of us who live in Nassau County, I’m just glad that Belmont is reopening, with or without fans. The beaches out here on the South Shore are also reopening but with a 50% capacity limitation, if someone is really counting. I will be very interested in the results of that conference call. Thanks for keeping us informed. Anyway, its just good to have NY racing back in the mix.

  6. John:

    There are many, myself included, hoping that after tomorrow’s Matt Winn Stk at Churchill you’ll be adding Maxfield to the potential superstar Belmont Stakes lineup.
    I got to know Jim Tafel when Street Sense was a 3 year old. Jim was a true gentleman, as self-effacing as could be, never wanting to dwell on his horses’ successes. Since then I’ve had a soft spot for sons of SS, most recently Mckinzie and Maxfield. If works are an indicator Max should be good to go. Here’s hoping…….


    1. RG, I always root to see the best horses available. Very interested to see his race tomorrow.

  7. Where is the opposition here at HRI to the over-promoted every year last leg in prior years of the TC being shortened in distance? Golly, until this year the BS (not the bs you think, Alice) was the only race in the entire country with twenty entrants and none having gone the distance before presented to the public as a terrific betting race, where opportunities abound to make a fortune with mere dimes.

    Is there a motive by management with the horseplayer in mind?

    Should I purchase the past performances of those entered and attempt to ‘cap the race, or should I stop at the bank and get a few rolls of dimes?

    1. The last leg is now the first leg so shortening the distance makes sense to me. Save your rolls of dimes for the DY since Belmont Stakes has some formidable foes and promises to be chalky. “Nadal on the inside, Charlatan on the outside, now Nadal puts a head in front (Chick Anderson-like call of Affirmed/Alydar).” As for above-mentioned Street Sense with Calvin BoRail, this was a monster. Saw him win Breeder’s Cup in a laugher. Great sire now. Go Maxfield!

    2. That’s why you’re here Wendell, to oppose whatever other people like to do…

      1. John, I think that WMC makes many fine points on these pages. Unfortunately, some of his arguments lose steam due to his disdain for the top trainers, best horses and low-priced winners. You can turn this conversation into a column or series of articles: How do YOU try to beat the racetrack ??? Wendell is comfortable with racing circuits, horses and jockeys that he knows well. Me, too, but I wish to see the best perform against the best. I’m willing to skip races with a 1-5 or 2-5 shot that looks like a near-cinch. But I may use that “sure thing” as the middle leg of a Pick 3, or a Daily Double (if there’s value) or a cold Exacta. It also doesn’t bother me how others wager – contrary to WMC. Play your way but tell others of your positive experience and encourage your friends to join you at the track. Dime Supers and Show bets add up and boost handle. You like excitement and cashing tickets, then you’ve found the right spot.

        My favorite all time race ??? The 1999 Whitney at Saratoga and the battle between Behrens and Victory Gallop. It’s out there on YouTube. Go have a look at this remarkable race. If this competition doesn’t get the blood churning, then you’re likely playing the wrong game. It’s the “star” power that keeps me coming back – although I have no problem whatsoever playing a $5,000 claimer at Monmouth or a Delaware Park Arabian race along the way . . . We’ll meet at the Cashier’s window.

        1. Seattle Slew’s narrow loss to Exceller in JCGC also pretty good. Exceller past Slew in deep stretch and Slew battled back to lose by a nose. Cordero cites this loss as the most memorable in his career. Shoemaker on Exceller.

          1. Excellent race choice, c. My first trip to the track was in 1972. Just imagine if you saw “only” 2 remarkable, unforgettable races each year for nearly 50 years (and we’ve all seen more), then you’d have a Top 100 list of incredible performances.

            Here’s another one of my favorites: The 2010 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga and the stirring stretch drive between Blind Luck and Havre de Grace. This great video is on YouTube, too. Who was at The Old Spa that day – and can you believe that race happened 10 years ago ??? and !!!

          2. C, I’ve always argued it was Slew’s lifetime best performance…

  8. Thanks for your perspective on wagering, Richard. In that, there’s no greater democracy than pari-mutuel pools with diversity, so each can play their own game. Bravo!

    Wow, there’s an esoteric call, the ’99 Whitney. You’ve picked my interest; when I get a minute will check it.

    I cashed on Victory Gallop in the Belmont–soft spot there. And I was also a Behrens, 007 fan, so there’s that.

    I was there for the race, of course, but it doesn’t stand out in my mind — then my mind, well, you know…

  9. I think my favorite great race was either the Devil His Due vs Lure Gotham at Aqueduct, the Tiznow 2001 BC Classic at Belmont, or the Holy Bull vs Concern Travers. (Aside from the Doctor Disaster coast to coast turf scores of course). Best performance I witnessed live would be Inside Information’s Distaff; I still remember leaving the track that day and Cigar’s win felt like a mere footnote. Runners up are Ghostzapper and Holy Bull’s met miles. Most lucrative single race was the Cat Thief BC Classic, but I’m very provincial and that wasn’t held in NY, so doesn’t make the favorites cut.

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