HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, June 12, 2022 — I love big event race days for their possibility. If it were not for that, why would Thoroughbred racing even exist?
As for the occasions themselves, they can be called Triple Crown, Breeders Cup Classic or Met Mile, whatever you desire. As the song goes, that’s entertainment.
I used to argue with my late, great friend, Harvey Pack; I called horse racing a sport, he called it a game.
As a fellow horseplayer, it is both, as Leroy Jolley once said, “it’s the greatest game played outdoors” — only not played ‘in short pants’.”
In our view, calling it a game disrespects the athletes that play it, the horses and their riders, and the men and women who teach them, optimize their abilities and, of greatest import, care for their well-being.
The one certainty is that without love for the animal, it would be neither a sport nor a game, just more breathtaking wild horses to be rounded-up by helicopter.
For all the lack of buzz entering the Belmont-154 program, the horses had the last word on a mini-Breeders’ Cup afternoon, a day filled with memorably exciting, outstanding performances.
Yes, at the end of it the rich did get richer. There were eight graded stakes events, six of them Grade 1. The names of the winning horsemen are familiar even to the most casual racing fan.
Brad Cox got the glut of graded stakes rolling, Todd Pletcher closing it out with his second of the day with Belmont Stakes champion Mo Donegal, adding a non-stakes win a half hour later, giving him a trifecta on the day.
Between the Acorn and Belmont came major victories by Bill Mott, John Sadler, Steve Asmussen and a Chad Brown hat-trick, super trainers all.
But they are more than super in name only. To win consistency at the highest levels, horses must be, first and foremost, in prime condition if they are to display their dominance on a consistent basis.
The best horsemen are psychologists who get inside horse’s heads, coach them up to the task, honing their skills while getting them to hold form, keeping them fresh, race after race after race after race.
But it is the horse that ultimately carries them all across the finish line.
First came Matareya, winning her fourth consecutive race since turning three in her Grade 1, one-mile debut, a task made easier when a house vet observed 2021’s juvenile champion filly and didn’t like what he saw.
New York Racing Association Veterinary Director Anthony Verderosa advised the stewards minutes before the start of the tradition-laden Acorn to scratch the odds-on Echo Zulu. The judges obliged.
In the day’s penultimate Grade 1, Tribhuvan’s form was and usually is a tricky read. But Chad Brown on the grass is not, especially with a course lover that manages to get way too loose on the lead.
Fearless will just continue to grind out route victories with good energy distribution, and if only all of Casa Creed’s starts came at six furlongs on the Elmont lawn. Yesterday’s run earned him a repeat score in the G1 Jaipur.
Taking them in ascending order, three victories made Belmont Day 2022 most memorable.
Once again, Regal Glory displayed her class, needing no made-to-order dynamics to finish first. Class and kick will get it on turf nearly every time and Brown has done remarkable work with this youthful six-year-old.
Jack Christopher threw himself squarely in the center of the “best three-year-old in America” conversation in the G1 Woody Stephens.
Comfortably stalking a realistic pace in hand after steadying back and angling out into the clear, he vied three wide at the turn, was reins-shaken to the lead at headstretch, and widened while ridden out.
He was taken in hand at the end of seven furlongs in 1:21.18, a final furlong of 12.14 in an awesome display of speed and power. Nine furlongs should pose no problem; any farther will require more proof. Until then it’s wow for now.
The performance of the day clearly belonged to Flightline who has yet to show any limitations whatsoever. Winning three career starts fashionably by an aggregate 36 lengths was worthy of all the accolades.
But he needed to prove himself going a mile over a sandy eastern surface from the pole vs. a fast, seasoned, surging Grade 1 winner capable of pushing him. This was going to be tougher than the small-field softer touches he embarrassed in California.
He didn’t just win by six geared-down lengths in 1:33.59, he overcame a slow start and rider Flavien Prat needed to deal with dangerously close quarters on the backside as Junior Alvarado and Speaker’s Corner squeezed him out of inside position. Twice.
(No wonder trainer John Sadler and part-owner Kosta Hronis appeared grim-faced as NBC’s Britney Eurton sought a reaction as they made their way through the clubhouse box area en route to the winner’s circle).
So now it’s 42 lengths in four races, including two Grade 1’s. Should he remain healthy and on course, he could be, no hyperbole intended, welcomed into the conversation as one of the greatest Thoroughbreds to ever look through a bridle.
A good argument can now be made for identifying Mo Donegal as a divisional leading three-year-old. Amazingly, no sophomore in this deep class owns more than one Grade 1 victory this year.
The colt’s score puts his trainer, Todd Pletcher, in the Belmont-winning class of Woody Stephens—no comparisons intended—but clearly Pletcher’s handling of his Belmont runners, even those that didn’t win, is masterful.
So was the ride delivered by Irad Ortiz Jr. So thankful, Ortiz gave into his emotions on his way back to the winner’s circle. There may have been similar moments we missed, but it was a first for our eyes.
We went on record with the filly Nest. I felt she was defeated when she stumbled at the break, and didn’t realize until the head-on view later that she was bumped off stride by a veering-in Derby-winning Rich Strike, who didn’t run his race thereafter.
Jose Ortiz had little choice but to put Nest in the game early or risk being trapped by outside rivals attempting to drop in. Ortiz was forced to early use of her positional speed, saved ground, but then forced to tip out from behind rivals after straightening away.
We cannot state the circumstances cost Nest the three lengths separating her from the winner, but she was finishing faster than Mo Donegal, the beneficiary of perfect handling and excellent timing. He blew Belmont-154 wide open with three-sixteenths left to run.
Nest ran too good to lose, but such is the nature of horse racing.
The big day delivered in a big way for the sport of Thoroughbred racing and it was good box office, too, all sources handle reaching nearly $99 million.
And when’s the next big event? The Haskell is 41 days from today, July 23. The Travers is 35 days after that, August 27. If those days approach to what was seen on Belmont Day, it will be another memorable afternoon for the sport.