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A Sure Bet?

In March, before any Triple Crown races have been run, our top experts predicted the horse that will win all three races. Can it be done?

At the offices of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations in New York stands a 9-inch tall red box perched on a tall green safe holding a triangular, sterling silver cup. Each side of the trophy represents one of the three races that a horse must win to earn the title of a Triple Crown Champion.

For a single 3-year-old Thoroughbred, this means winning all three of the classics of American turfdom: the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Long Island, New York, in a single year. The famed triad is contested from the first Saturday in May to that in June, with the Pimlico race sandwiched in between. In the spring, the cup is sent to its designer, Cartier, to be polished to a high shine. It is put on display during the Belmont Stakes if the Triple Crown is on the line.

Yet only 11 horses have captured the racing glory, beginning with Sir Barton in 1919. (The Triple Crown was not officially proclaimed until 1950, but with no candidate that year, the trophy was presented to Sir Barton.) Many others have come close, adding a page in Thoroughbred racing history books as “near misses.” But since Affirmed claimed the title in 1978, no horse has managed to repeat the feat. And the freshly buffed, though unclaimed, trophy traveled back to its red box as yet another year went by without the Triple Crown.

As tough as it seems to capture the elusive crown, making the prediction for its winner, or speculating if it is in the cards at all, is more like reading the crystal ball. Even experts don’t have the answer. What they give us, instead, is expertise, quest for knowledge of the industry, and their opinions, in addition to the handicapping smarts.

So, I pass the ball to experts: Donna Barton Brothers, NBC commentator and former top jockey who retired in 1998 as the leading U.S. female jockey by earnings; Happy Broadbent, handicapper and VP of Churchill Downs Inc.; Ramon Dominguez, three-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey; and Tom Hammond, NBC host of the Triple Crown and the network’s expert on Thoroughbred racing. They agree to go out on a limb, two months before the Derby, sharing their favorites and their hopefuls.

Thirty-five years without a Triple Crown has been, by far, the longest drought in its history. But a lengthy dry spell had been seen before. Know-it-all sportscaster Tom Hammond points out to the 1970s, “It was 25 years since Citation won a Triple Crown in 1948, and people were saying back then—are we going to have another one—and then, Secretariat won in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, and Affirmed in 1978. So, after going 25 years…there were three in a decade.”

Each May, after all, with a fresh field of 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby, we are awakened to the possibility. And the question, like spring itself, pops up again. Are we going to see a Triple Crown winner this year?

“We are always hopeful,” says silver-haired Hammond in his upbeat tone, adding swiftly that a Triple Crown has become one of the most difficult things in sports to achieve. “Not only in racing. And you only have one shot at it.”

From what he sees in the horse industry, bloodline expert Happy Broadbent thinks, it has become almost impossible for the contestants to run the three Triple Crown distance races of: 1-1/4, 1-3/16, and 1-1/2-mile within the five-week period.

The prep races, most of them 1-1/8-mile long, are a good barometer of the horses’ abilities. “They have to be pretty seasoned,” Broadbent says, meaning they have to come off the good races. The most important ones play out within six weeks of the Derby, including the Louisiana Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes, the Arkansas Derby, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, and the Santa Anita Derby.

Racetrack-savvy author of Inside Track, Donna Barton Brothers says, “For years and years, a horse hasn’t won the Kentucky Derby who didn’t start as a 2-year-old. It is just a fact.” There are other stats she thinks of no consequence, like the fact that, until Funny Cide won in 2003, no gelding had won the Derby in 74 years, since 1929. Another gelding, Mine That Bird, won in 2009. (A gelding is a castrated horse.) It’s probably just a statistical aberration that doesn’t matter. But to start at age 2, a horse has to be precocious. “And talented,” she adds. And they only have until age 3 to prove they are Triple Crown-test worthy.

In her heart, Donna admits being a little biased this year rooting for Shanghai Bobby, the horse her husband, former trainer Frank Brothers, selected for Starlight Racing. Shanghai Bobby went undefeated as a 2-year-old, and in January was crowned the Champion at the Eclipse Award ceremony in Gulfstream Park, Florida. The following week, he returned as a 3-year-old and finished second to a very nice colt named It’s My Lucky Day. It’s My Lucky Day broke the track record that day. But with the second-place finish, Shanghai Bobby also broke the track record. It was a great race after his lay-off.

But the two horses that really impress Donna are a colt named Orb, trained by Shug McGaughey, and Shanghai Bobby’s stablemate, Verrazano, trained by Todd Pletcher, who won the Tampa Bay Derby so impressively in March. Orb is the horse that won the Fountain of Youth Stakes in February. Donna recalls, “The track was a little speed biased that day, meaning it gave an edge to horses with an early front running style we call a ‘conveyer belt’—once they take the lead, nobody passes them.”

If you want to stay at the top of the racing game there is a lot of information out there. Well-informed Donna recommends two of them: the Haskin’s Derby Dozen from The Blood-Horse’s Steve Haskin, and Jenny Reese’s comprehensive articles, blogs, and columns in Louisville’s The Courier-Journal.

“Bloodline is the single most important thing to look at in a horse,” says Broadbent, “check mom and dad: sire and dam, if they have stamina in them. Both.” With a degree in equine genetics, Hammond is also an expert on pedigree, and stresses its importance in producing the horses that can go the distances the Triple Crown races demand. “If you have a sire that was a sprinter, won most of his races in short distances, and his offspring is much the same, the chances of him going that longer distance may not be that great.”

But bloodline alone is not enough. A horse needs to have the conformation and other physical attributes that make him an athlete. And you have to have the right trainer for the rigors of the Triple Crown. Trainers like Californian Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, and Shug McGaughey, Broadbent thinks, with the 10- to 20-year tenure of success, have the ability to accomplish the task.

Broadbent picks Flashback, trained by Baffert, as his favorite. A beautiful grey, bred in Kentucky, that physically looks like he can go a mile…a mile and a half. There are other factors in picking a winner. You have to look at them with a discerning eye to see when they peak. “If they peak at the right time they have a chance of winning the Triple Crown,” says Broadbent, “such as the case with Smarty Jones and Real Quiet, even though they got beat at the Belmont.”

The most important thing also depends on who is talking. Donna thinks the most vital is talent—to have the fastest horse—and then to have a good jockey, one with Derby experience. The one who doesn’t panic and has ridden in a large field before. A good jockey and good position, with the number 1 post position being the worst because the horse goes straight into the inside fence.

Hammond recounts NBC Sports racing analyst Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, reflecting, “You are a little weak in your knees when you hear My Old Kentucky Home, no matter how many times you’ve ridden, it is still a special moment, and you can be overwhelmed by it if you are not experienced enough.”

Experience is certainly on the side of the winningest jockey Ramon Dominguez. Hailing from Caracas, Venezuela, he talks to me with a melodic accent in between his physical therapy sessions. At the moment he is recovering from a fractured skull injury, after his mount Convocation fell in January, catapulting the rider into the winterized inner track at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York. Doctors say he is making a good progress. His hopes are set on running at the Kentucky Derby.

Dominguez has never won the Triple Crown, but knows the three iconic races well: “They are all difficult—each in its own way. With 20 horses in the Derby, it’s crowded. You have to be lucky, especially coming from behind. Belmont is the hardest because it is the longest, and you have fresh horses coming, horses that did not just run the Derby and the Preakness.” They call it Test of the Champion for a reason.

Dominguez prepares for the race by playing different scenarios in his mind ahead of time, and praying every day for protection, not only for him, but also for his fellow riders. When getting in the starting gate of the big race in May, he is in full concentration but his heart and the horse’s heart are already racing.

“Winning the Triple Crown,” Ramon’s voice picks up with excitement at the sound of it, “would be a thrill beyond anything I know.”

The style in which Revolutionary won the Withers Stakes (New York) against all odds impressed Hammond. The horse had a lot of problems in this race, the same kind of problems you may encounter in the Kentucky Derby. His trainer said, Hammond recalls, Revolutionary got years of education out of that race. “There is always something in Thoroughbred racing that you can’t measure. And that is heart,” says Hammond. The heart of the champion, the heart of the athlete. “But as it all plays out, it is those who find the way to win the race despite the adversities. It is one intangible you can never measure. And the Triple Crown winner has to have it.”

As we were wrapping up, I asked Tom Hammond what it would mean to have the Triple Crown winner. He answered with this story of Smarty Jones running for the Triple Crown after winning the Derby and the Preakness. The horse had a catchy name. His owners were not bluebloods, one a car dealer from Philadelphia in a wheelchair. “And when this horse went for the Triple Crown, America stopped. If you were walking at the airport, or at home, or at the bar, or restaurant, everybody stopped to watch that race,” Hammond remembers. “And that is what the Triple Crown would do, it would capture the imagination of America.”


NEW POINTS SYSTEM TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY

The yellow brick road to the Kentucky Derby is paved with points. The 2013 season comes with the new points system, replacing the previous graded stakes system deemed hard to understand.

Known as “The Road to the Kentucky Derby,” the new points system shows how a 3-year-old Thoroughbred makes it to the first leg of the Triple Crown. The road goes through 36 stakes races, including 19 in the Kentucky Derby Prep Season (September through February), and 17 in the Kentucky Derby Championship Season. The top four finishers of these races earn points. So, make sure your favorite doesn’t come in fifth.

The prep races award points on a 10-4-2-1 scale. The competition gets serious in the championship season, which is divided into eight races with a 50-20-10-5 scale in the first leg, and seven races with a 100-40-20-10 scale in the second leg. It also comes with a two-race round known as the “wild card,” with a 20-8-4-2 point ratio. The championship season can really make or break that horse.
The top 20 point earners will secure the spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. A total of 24 horses can enter the race, with the last four listed as “also eligible” in case a horse is scratched. A filly is treated as equal. She is eligible to run the race based on the points earned, the same as colts and geldings.

According to the Kentucky Derby Media Guide, 39 fillies have run in the Kentucky Derby through 2012, and three have won it. Regret was the first one to win the race in 1915, followed by Genuine Risk in 1980, and Winning Colors in 1988.


NICHOLSON’S BOOK SHOWS TRUE KENTUCKY SPIRIT

James C. Nicholson’s The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event (University Press of Kentucky, $24.95) comes to us at the most opportune moment. It is in hard times that we, more than ever, look for strongholds that define our own collective identity.

The story of an annual resurgence of the Kentucky Derby, with its history, tradition, and pageantry, brings a true Kentucky spirit and tradition to life. From the race’s humble and uncertain beginnings in 1875, the Kentucky Derby has withstood two World Wars, Prohibition, The Great Depression, social protest of the ’60s, and the era of globalization. In the process, it has become an American institution that grew from the regional race with the Southern flair to the famed international event that represents America worldwide.

A vibrant storyteller, Nicholson tells the story with gusto. Capitalizing on his own research, he inserts anecdotal quotes from the newspapers of the time, weaves in spicy nuances, and larger-than-life characters of both human and horse nature.

With poetic justice, Nicholson also gives the Kentucky Derby back to the people of Kentucky, making a case that the state’s paradoxical reputation—one of lawlessness and gentility—is at the core of its appeal with American popular culture.

The Kentucky Derby is as suspenseful and colorful a read as the race itself, a literary debut that gives every American a reason to feel they are a Kentuckian, even if only for a day.


KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: Triple Crown history

Learn who first coined the term “triple crown” and the history behind it when you go to “Triple Crown”.

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