Near misses highlight the difficulty of a horse racing Triple Crown
By TREVOR HASS
The Baltimore Sun|
Jun 05, 2014 | 2:30 PM
Stewart Elliott chuckled when he was asked the question.
Why is winning the Triple Crown so difficult?
Elliott, Smarty Jones' jockey in 2004, rattled off a laundry list of reasons why no horse has captured the sport's most prestigious honor since 1978. You need an adaptable horse — one who can adjust to the longer distance at the Belmont Stakes. A horse that can handle running three races in five weeks. One that can handle the hubbub and not get flustered.
And a little bit of luck.
Saturday, California Chrome will try to overcome all those obstacles and cement his legacy by winning the Triple Crown. The 3-year-old has been unflappable and unstoppable in the first two legs, but those who have been around horses in his spot know completing the trifecta is anything but a guarantee.
"It takes a certain kind of horse to do it," Elliott said. "It's not an easy thing. It shows with how long it's been."
Since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont in 1978, many horses have come close, but none have succeeded.
In the 36-year drought, 11 horses won the Derby and Preakness but fell short at the Belmont. That doesn't include I'll Have Another, who won the first two legs in 2012 but was scratched for the Belmont because of an injury.
Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and Smarty Jones (2004) each finished second at the Belmont after winning the first two legs.
"It's like the Triple Crown in baseball," said Steve Cauthen, who was the 18-year-old jockey aboard Affirmed in 1978. "That's another thing that's not that easy to do. It takes a terrific, talented horse. You have to be better than everybody you're competing against. You have to overcome the things that naturally happen in any circumstances to pull it off."
For Smarty Jones' trainer John Servis, the Belmont was an especially daunting race because of the expectations placed on his horse.
"Once you win the first two legs, you go into the Belmont with a bull's-eye on your back," Servis said. "I felt a lot of pressure going into the Belmont that I didn't feel going into the Derby and the Preakness."
Servis said he felt like the city of Philadelphia was counting Pennsylvania-born Smarty Jones to win. He heard the hype on talk radio. He sensed the excitement around the city and the country. He knew he had a chance to win, but that doing so wouldn't be easy.
Smarty Jones had to win prep races just to get to the Kentucky Derby. Once he won the 1 1/4-mile Derby, it was off to the 1 3/16-mile Preakness two weeks later. While other well-rested horses came into the 1 ½-mile Belmont fresh, Smarty Jones was physically worn down. His aggressive style of racing and demanding schedule started to take its toll.
Everything went picture perfect, as Servis put it, from the end of February until two weeks before the Belmont. Then the exhaustion set in and Smarty Jones wasn't fully healthy going into the biggest race of his life.
"You have to change your training going into the Belmont anyway, just for the distance," Servis said. "To make sure he gets the mile and a half."
When the race started, Elliott knew Smarty Jones' chances were bleak. Back when he first mounted the horse, all he wanted to do was get him to relax. The talent and pure speed was there, but the patience wasn't.
Up until the Belmont, his aggression was never too much of a problem. Yet with history a mile-and-a-half away, Smarty Jones reverted to his old habits. He jumped out to an early lead, but couldn't maintain the pace.
"I knew when he was coming out of the gate and got into the first turn that we weren't going to win," Elliott said. "It's not going to work."
And it didn't. Just like so many horses before him and some after him, Smarty Jones couldn't complete the mission.
"It was very disappointing," Elliott said. "It was heartbreaking not to win it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and you didn't get it."
One year earlier, trainer Barclay Tagg found his horse Funny Cide in a similar spot. Rain poured down and the Belmont track was three feet deep in mud. The colt was physically drained. He wasn't accustomed to the longer race.
Tagg said the press was "murderous" on New York-bred Funny Cide in the three weeks leading up to the Belmont. Much like Smarty Jones, Funny Cide started out too quickly before losing his lead and finishing in third.
"I'm not making excuses for him, but he did have a couple excuses," Tagg said. "It hasn't been done in 36 years, so there's a reason for that. It's very, very tough."
Despite their horses' inability to win the Triple Crown, Servis, Elliott and Tagg all feel that California Chrome has a very good shot to do so.
Servis pinpointed the horse's perfect running style. Elliott watched California Chrome trot to the winners circle after the Preakness seemingly unfazed. Tagg said he thinks Chrome has the ability to adjust to different conditions and has everything going for him.
Heading into Saturday, California Chrome is the heavy, 3-5 favorite. But as history has shown, winning the Triple Crown is anything but easy.
"I think it's so difficult because horses these days are fragile," Elliott said. "They don't hold up. They get injured. For the Triple Crown the races are close together, so they don't get a break.