The Dirty Dozen
THRU THE BINOCULARS
By JOHN PIESEN
THE DIRTY DOZEN
It's no coincidence that the last 12 horses shooting for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes, got beat, or in I'll Have Another's case, scratched on the eve of the race. And of the other 11, seven were odds-on, the highest price was 8-5...and of course all were favored.
Does that mean California Chrome will join that list...or will he become the 12th Triple Crown winner, and the first since Affirmed in 1978? I'm thinking more than half of the 100,000-plus folks who will be at Belmont Park a week from Saturday, were not yet born when Affirmed won the Triple Crown.
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The experts are saying California Chrome is a cinch, but as I recall they said the same thing about Spectacular Bid, who finished third to Coastal at 3-10 in 1979. Whether is was a poor ride by novice Ron Franklin, or maybe Bid did step on a safety pin as trainer Buddy Delp maintained. We'll never really know. But the fact is Bid, an all-time great, got beat.
And they said the same thing about Pleasant Colony at 4-5 in 1981. He ran OK but not good enough. He finished third to Summing.
In 1987, there was a $5 million bonus waiting for a Triple Crown winner. Alysheba won the Derby, the Preakness and was 4-5 for the Belmont. The Alysheba camp was so confident that the wife of trainer Jack Van Berg reportedly spent most of the bonus check during Belmont Week along Fifth Avenue.
But no bonus. Jockey Chris McCarron took the blame, or maybe Alysheba just missed his Lasix, but he checked in fourth to nemesis Bet Twice. It proved to be no fluke. Bet Twice went on to beat Alysheba twice more -- in the Haskell and Pimlico Special.
In '89, Sunday Silence was 4-5 to complete the sweep, but Easy Goer, with the home-court advantage, beat him by eight lengths.
Leaving the track, I noticed Dr. Alex Harthill, Sunday Silence's vet, at the first-floor gift shop. I told Doc that Charlie Whittingham, the legendary trainer of Sunday Silence, came up to the press box after the race, and told the media that his horse had no excuse.
"That's interesting," Doc replied, "...but he told me that he was so angry at NYRA that he will never run another horse in New York."
And he never did. With one exception: Strodes Creek, who was third to Tabasco Cat in the '94 Belmont.
Five months later, Sunday Silence reaped his revenge in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream, and swept the honors board. But no Triple Crown.
After an eight-year break, Silver Charm was on the verge of the Triple Crown, but Touch Gold, after dropping back on the homestretch, re-rallied and caught the hard-luck Silver Charm on the line.
More hard luck for trainer Bob Baffert a year later.
Real Quiet opened five on the final turn in '98, and couldn't lose. But somehow he did. Victory Gallop beat him on the bob in the greatest Belmont finish in history. Folks blamed jockey Kent Desormeaux for moving too early on Real Quiet, but folks were wrong. That's the move that has won tons of Belmonts.
In 1999, for a third straight year, a Triple Crown was at stake, but Charismatic, at 8-5 the longest price of Triple hopefuls since Affirmed, made the lead turning for home, but finished third to Lemon Drop Kid.
Charismatic broke down at the wire, and no one will ever forget the late Chris Antley cradling his head in his arms. The colt's left front leg was broken, but, thanks to Antley, his life was saved.
In 2002, War Emblem (at 6-5) was eliminated when he stumbled badly leaving the gate, and did well to finish eighth to Sirava.
War Emblem was ridden by Victor Espinoza, the same Victor Espinoza who will try again for the Triple on California Chrome.
Again, Espo won't come in early from California to get the feel of the track.
"That's a mistake," ex-rider Richard Migliore suggested on TV the other day.
In 2003, Funny Cide caught a wet track, and settled for second to a fresh Empire Maker, the biggest victory of the late Bobby Frankel's career.
A year later in '04, Smarty Jones, the most popular horse of his era, looked good at 2-5 into the homestretch, but Birdstone came from nowhere to nail him in the shadow of the wire.
It was a sad day on and off the track. That morning, ex-President Ronald Reagan passed away.
Smarty never ran again, and finished second to Ghostbuster for Horse of the Year.
Birdstone went on to win the Travers, and has become a successful stallion.
In 2008, Big Brown was the lock of locks at 3-10, but never ran a lick, and was pulled up on the home turn by Desormeaux. The complete story has never been told.
Da' Tara, the longest price in the field, won at $79, and was never heard from again.
The bottom line is that the Belmont is much easier to lose than to win.
Just ask Angel Cordero Jr., New York's premier rider for 20 years.
Cordero, with a choice of mounts more times than not, went a stunning 1-for-20 in the Belmont.
Don't bother googling. His winner was Bold Forbes in '75.
So will California Chrome make history by becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner, and the first since the Carter Administration, or will he be the 12th since Affirmed to fail trying?
As for this Saturday, they are holding New York Showcase Day at Belmont, and the highlight of the six-stakes day will be race nine -- the $200,000 Commentator Handicap for three and up at a mile.
Chad Brown, Belmont's top dog, will run the favored Zivo, a winner of five of his last six, including two stakes, and the mid-priced Readtheprospectus.
After riding the card, capped by Zivo, at Belmont, Javier Castellano,will hop to Penn National to ride the favored Bobby's Kitten for the Chadster in the 500K Penn Mile. It could be a big day for Javier and the Chadster.
There will be no write-ups, and no one is going to put him on top, but Crafty Dreamer, at 15-1 in the morning line for the Commentator, gets a thumbs-up from his trainer, Jimmy Iselin.
Crafty Dreamer, a 5-year-old grandson of the Iselin-trained Crafty Prospector, will be making his stakes debut after compiling a 3-5-2 record in 11 starts, and is drawn widest with new rider Maragh in a 13-horse field.
"We've been pointing for this race for months," says Iselin. "He's training great (five-eighths in :58 1/5 on May 13), he's got a good post, a good jock, and I'm thinking he'll be seeing nothing but blue skies turning for home."
Iselin also likes an unraced colt in stablemate Phlip, named for his father, who owned the Jets and Monmouth Park back in the day. "He's by Fusaichi Pegasus, and he looks like a runner," says Iselin, who is also pointing multiple winner Willett for stakes at Belmont and Saratoga.
This is a primo time of the year for racing, and I'll continue to have my Best Bets and exotic plays here online and on the John Piesen Hot Line (1-888-612-2283).
Thanks for tuning in, have a good weekend, and we'll see back here next Friday for a Belmont Stakes preview. Chances are I'm going to try to beat California Chrome again. Call me stubborn.
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