Photo Blog: Rockingham Park

A few days ago it became official that the 110 year old Rockingham Park up in New Hampshire, a track once called the “finest racetrack in the world,” is closed for good. So naturally once I heard that news and was planning a trip to Massachusetts anyways, I knew I had to hop up to Rockingham to see it before it comes down.

And what a weird sight it was!

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While the track wasn’t actually abandoned, it has been used as an OTB since the last race in 2009, it still had a spooky vibe to it. The rain really added to it!

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The saddling area of the paddock was completely overgrown as they out the benches under the cover. But the rest of it wasn’t all that bad and even looks like it was manicured for a while.

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Jock’s Club has a bit more of a punch to it than Jockey’s Room.

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Opened in June in 1906, Rockingham was instantly popular with fans from all over the Northeast with people coming in by train from Boston, New York, and even Rhode Island.

While gambling was illegal in New Hampshire at the time, underground wagering was a common sight.

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What appeared to be dorms, it was a two-story building at the top of the stretch.

Edit Sept 12: Commenters below have informed me that this was actually the racing office and not dorms, thanks guys!

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The Vet’s office was the creepiest part of the track. It almost looked like a bomb went off and they had to leave in a hurry. Located next to the dorms at the quarter pole.

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All calendars in the Vet’s office stopped on August 2009, when the last standardbred races were held.

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A lot of X-rays were left behind.

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At the top of the stretch is the maintenance shed, still had straw and tractors inside.

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A lot of the stalls still had names of horses on them, this horse Ate a Gator last raced there in 2001 for trainer George Handy.

George still trains to this day down in Florida, he had his first winner in 1946. Seriously.

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In June 1933, Rockingham became the first track in New England to offer legalized gambling, 15,000 people showed up the first day.

In 1951, Rockingham was the first track to use the moving starting gate.

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While the track is 110 years old, the building is at most 32 years old after a fire burned it all down in 1980. The grandstand we see now was opened in 1984.

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The track is referred to just as “the rock,” and suspiciously that part of the tote board sign is missing.

The tracks motto was also “Let’s Rock!” which is awesome.

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Inside the tote board is just strange looking.

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A rock

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Since standardbreds went for a few more years after the thoroughbreds, the dirt of the track was a lot more compact than the dirt used for thoroughbreds so it wasn’t really a muddy area.

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The premier race at Rockingham was the New Hampsire Sweepstakes. It went through a lot of turbulent times, was even won by Dr. Fager in 1967. But the final running was in 2002 won by Del Mar Show. Unfortunately there isn’t a good version of that race online, but there is of the 2001 running when Hap pulled away from Gander in the stretch. Bill Mott won both, so basically the same thing.

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The whole experience really had almost a post-apocalyptic vibe to it everywhere I went. From the stands to the backside a lot of things were just abandoned and falling apart.

Construction crews wasted no time and within a week of them announcing it will be taken down they were already hard at work dismantling everything. I wanted to get into the grandstand but was almost asked to leave by two guys at different times. They both said I could walk around outside but couldn’t go in without a hardhat since it is an active construction zone. Bummer.

Overall it was a really surreal experience. Only heard good things about the track from so many people so it was really cool to be able to see it in person. Too bad there was never a chance to see it when it was active.

For now their website is still active, and there’s a really cool detailed timeline of the track’s history if you want to read more about the track!

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Rachel Alexandra: The Most Insufferable Pasture Ornament

After having an okay year at two, a sensational three year old campaign and a mediocre four year old year, Hall of Famer Rachel Alexandra is living the good life at Stonestreet Farm out in Lexington, KY.

The farm’s founder Jess Jackson’s middle name is seriously Stonestreet, which is where the farm gets the name.

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Rachel greets her fans

“Yeah it’s pretty nice, I get to hang out in a field all day. Sometimes I have to come in at night, or for the farrier or vet checkups or whatever. Otherwise I’m just chilling,” Rachel told a group of fans traveling from Wisconsin to meet their favorite champion.

We all know the story of Rachel Alexanda’s problems with actually having babies, especially when her last foal Rachel’s Valentina really came out swinging.

Today Rachel has it easy while most mares around her live with being pregnant. “I don’t feel that bad for them,” Rachel laughs, “sure it sucks, but I’ve been there and then some.”

Pasture-mate Hot Dixie Chick gets really annoyed with Rachel sometimes but tries to stick up for her. “Sure, we know what happened to her. It was horrifying for all of us. But she should stop dismissing our problems. Being pregnant sucks!” Dixie took a moment to grab a bite of grass, “but maybe she’s depressed and projecting. She’s been through a lot.”

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Even Rachel’s oldest, Jess’s Dream, could barely stand his mother

Another mare on the farm is Eclipse Award winner My Miss Aurelia who does not have anything nice to say about Rachel’s recent attitude. “Listen, we get it. She’s a Horse of the Year and in the Hall of Fame, and 100% of her foals are winners. Cool. But we got a great band here with a lot of accomplished mares! Hell, I actually won the Breeders’ Cup unlike her.”

Fiftyshadesofhay gained some twitter fame a few years ago only because of her name. Still a good runner, Stonestreet purchased her for $1.3mil at Keeneland in 2014. “Two year old American Pharoah was easier to deal with in Baffert’s barn than Rachel is here,” the mare scoffed.

“I hate her,” Sassy Image barked from the other side of the field.

Looking around, it was hard not to be impressed with the quality that Stonestreet boards. Even going international with the New Zealand champion Bounding had something to say about Rachel, “yeah mate she can piss off.”

Dreaming of Julia and Kauai Katie declined to comment.

While Rachel does not get turned out with pregnant mares, she can still chat with them in neighboring fields. Those with her are on their gap year between pregnancies and look like they would prefer to just be bred every year than have a season out with Rachel.

“I think they’re just jealous,” Rachel shrugged before galloping off.

 

February Derby Thoughts

66 days! We are only 66 days away from the Kentucky Derby! The Derby picture is getting a bit more in focus, we got 14 prep races left to go and 1547 points still to be taken!

If the Derby was run tomorrow, here is the field and how many points they have

  1. Mohaymen, 70
  2. Gun Runner, 51
  3. Nyquist, 30
  4. Mor Spirit, 30
  5. Mo Tom, 22
  6. Forevamo, 20
  7. Zulu, 20
  8. Sunny Ridge, 18
  9. Exaggerator, 16
  10. Flexibility, 15
  11. Brody’s Cause, 14
  12. Greenpointcrusader, 14
  13. Swipe, 12
  14. Fellowship, 12
  15. Collected, 11
  16. Airoforce, 10
  17. Suddenbreakingnews, 10
  18. Cocked and Loaded, 10
  19. Discreetness, 10
  20. Frank Conversation, 10
    1. AE Riker, 10
    2. AE Vorticity, 8

If there is one thing I love in racing it is undefeated horses, and we still have three with Mohaymen, Nyquist and Smokey Image. This is so great.

Going by past years, looks like Mohaymen and Gun Runner have definitely stamped their Derby tickets already as the cutoff point is normally around 40 points.

Speaking of Mohaymen, he once again had a super easy win at Gulfstream while Golden Ray was losing his mind. He had a bit of a tougher time in this race, seems like Zulu isn’t quite the pretender I thought he was, but with a little urging Mohaymen cruised on past him. He still really reminds me of Cairo Prince, only thing is Cairo Prince had an injury that took him out of the Derby and ultimately ended his career, so its a little unfair to use that comparison as a knock. Fact remains though, a lot of early Derby favorites don’t carry their skill all the way to May.

At the Derby Museum I always said it as like that kid in middle school who was super good at sports because he grew up fast. In PE he was always the top basketball player, or kickball player, faster and stronger than everyone. But once high school rolled around, everyone else caught up and suddenly he isn’t the star he was. Same thing with horses, top juveniles do not always maintain their dominance at three. Those that do are stars, American Pharoah, Beholder, Shared Belief to name a few. They are exceptions, not the rule.

That’s what makes Mohaymen, Nyquist, and Smokey Image so interesting. All three are carrying on their form pretty soundly so far. Nyquist held off Exaggerator pretty comfortably in the San Felipe. For some reason Nyquist has carried most of the “but will he get 10 furlongs?!” load compared to the rest of the contenders, which is a stupid question considering absolutely no one in the field has run close to that distance. Being an Uncle Mo, I get it not only did he never run the far and Nyquist is his first crop. Still, so far the horse has given little indication that 10f is too far besides the fact that he’s still young and developing, as is everyone else. Whatever. Shipping to Florida for the FL Derby and then going up to Kentucky from there isn’t even that bad either.

Smokey Image is the coolest horse this year because he has slayed everyone he’s ran against, even if they’ve all mostly been against lame California-breds. But he’s such a tank, I really want him to step up in the San Felipe. His average win margin against mostly lame-CA breds is 4 and a half lengths. The San Felipe field is looking pretty solid too with Mor Sprit, Exaggerator, and that Danzig Candy horse pointed that direction. Not to mention that work where Smokey’s Image looked really awesome accidentally chasing Danzig Candy. Smokey Image rocks.

I still really like Exaggerator because he’s so far the only contender I’ve seen with my own eyeballs, plus it will be fun to see Kent D have another big shot in the Derby because he is just so loony. Mor Spirit is pretty cool too. Not totally wild about him but there’s really not much to knock. He had that oopsies work where they called it off in the middle, but all was well and he is still looking good. Mor Spirit is absolutely one to consider but there are more impressive horses to look out for at this point, but having Baffert and Stevens with him is not something to ignore.

Still maintain that Greenpointcrusader will never win another race.

Best prep of the year so far has been Suddenbreakingnews. At least in the fun to watch aspect. What a crazy run in that Southwest Stakes eh? He’s been alright his whole career but not really top level, his win at Oaklawn could have been luck but he also might be coming into his own. Whitmore right behind him isn’t looking too bad either. But seems like the Arkansas group isn’t quite as strong as they’ve been in the past.

Brody’s Cause is super interesting to me. Having the huge break between the Breeders’ Cup and the Tampa Bay Derby on March 12 is huge in my opinion. Giving horses a decent winter break is important, since the road to the Derby and if they continue the Triple Crown is very tiring. And hell, its only March there is a lot of the year still to go. So Romans and co taking it easy on him is a huge plus.

Last few years I’ve never been too into the Louisiana and New York runners. So horses like Gun Runner, Flexibility, and Sunny Ridge etc. I don’t wanna get that excited about. They normally do pretty well in the Derby, but a winner hasn’t come out of either of those in a while. The last one was Super Saver and look how his career ended up.

Haven’t heard many people knock this crop yet, which is normally what people love to do this time of year. But it does look like we have a pretty solid bunch going into March, it will be really exciting to see how they all progress.

 


 

Last 10 Derby winners at this point (March 1) of the year.

American Pharoah: Champion two year old, still unraced in 2015.

California Chrome: Dominantly won the California Derby on January 25, but his only graded stakes performance was a well beaten sixth in the Del Mar Futurity.

Orb: Won his stakes debut in the Fountain of Youth

I’ll Have Another: Stakes-placed at two, but stepped into the Derby picture after winning the Robert B Lewis.

Animal Kingdom: Two career starts in maidens, still unraced in 2011.

Super Saver: Won the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs at two, still unraced in 2010.

Mine That Bird: Had a fantastic juvenile season at Woodbine, but absolutely sucked in the Breeders’ Cup. Came in second in the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park on Feb 28.

Big Brown: Only raced once at two, still unraced in 2008.

Street Sense: Had a sensational win in the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs which proved to be a foreshadowing to how his Derby would go. Still unraced in 2007.

Barbaro: Won the Tropical Park Derby on the turf on New Year’s Day and took home a win in the Holy Bull on February 4.

Kinda crazy that half of the Derby winners in the last 10 years had yet to run by March 1, right? Two of them, Animal Kingdom and Big Brown, haven’t even run in a stakes yet. So who knows who will enter the fray in the coming weeks.

Keep Your Chin Up, Dortmund

Hi Dortmund.

Lately you’ve been down in the dumps, and we all know why. Your main barn rival was American Pharoah. Hell, this time last year YOU were the Baffert star sophomore with with AP on the mend. But after he came back and spanked you twice you’ve been in a pretty big funk.

You just gotta accept that AP was better no one could beat him. Well, Keen Ice did but that was a fluke and he probably will never win another race. Frosted doesn’t seem to care that he got totally walloped every time they ran. Look at him now! He won the Pennsylvania Derby, some prep race in Dubai and is primed for the Dubai World Cup (two of which you were slated to run in). That could be you bud! Instead you’re throwing such a fit that you’re casting in your stall.

You haven’t run since November dude, which is weird since you’ve pretty much been working well since firing bullets left and right. But now you have problems with your feet and will be off for a month!? C’mon D, we all know you’re just upset and your feet are totally fine.

Listen my man, when you’re on it you’re one of the best out there. Sure Baffert will never love you as much as AP, but Kaleem might love you more than Bayern if you actually run for once! So stop being such a weenie, and get out there and be the big ol’ boss we all know you are!

You go, Dortmund, you go!

 

xoxo Carly

Zenyatta breaths sigh of relief

“Oh thank god,” Zenyatta sighed after the third race at Santa Anita. The champion mare watched her second son Ziconic rally from about 15 lengths back to lose by only about two. “After Cozmic One, I was scared I was a horrible mother,” Zenyatta told reporters from her home at Lanes End in Kentucky. “He’s just so slow. I don’t get how he sucks so bad but he does. Ziconic always looked better, I’m so relieved that he showed actual ability. After waiting so long for him to finally race, it was worth the wait.” Cozmic One has raced twice against 15 horses but has only beat two in his life, one of which was being eased. There’s no real plan with him yet, but the good news is he can’t get any worse.

The plans for Ziconic are still not totally clear, as he is likely still cooling out, but Shirreffs indicated a two turn maiden special is in his future.

Lecomte Stakes: Who was Lecomte?

The Lecomte Stakes is a Kentucky Derby prep race run at Fairgrounds Race Course in mid-January. The race has had a few notable winners including Oxbow, Ron The Greek, and Hard Spun to name a few. But who is the race named after?

Regarded as one of the fastest racehorses in the world in the 1850s, Lecomte was a chestnut colt sired by Boston and owned by a trainer named Jefferson Wells.

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Lecomte got his name from a good friend of Wells, Ambrose LeComte of Magnolia Plantation.

The Spirit of the Times on November 9, 1856 had an excellent description of the colt.

“Lecomte is a rich chestnut, with white on one hind leg, which reaches a little above the pastern joint. He stands fifteen hands three inches in height. Is in a fine racing form, and well spread throughout his frame, with such an abundance of bone, tendon, and muscle, that he would be a useful horse for any purpose. His temper is excellent; he is easily placed in a race, and yet responds to the extent of his ability.

He never tears himself and his jockey to pieces attempting to run away. His action is low, smooth, and easy. His stride is about twenty-three feet, and he gets away from the score like a quarter-horse. He has a constitution of iron, the appetite of a lion, would eat sixteen quarts of feed if it was given to him, and can stand as much work as a team of mules.

In a word, he has all the good points and qualities of both sire and dam, without their defects; consequently, he is about as fine a specimen of a thoroughbred as can be found in this or any other country.”

Lecomte’s rise to the top was swift after winning races at Fairgrounds and Metairie Race Course, both in New Orleans, as well making winning appearances in Mississippi.

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Life on the Metairie,” Theodore S. Moise, 1867

At the same time there was an undefeated colt getting attention up in Kentucky. Originally raced under the name “Darley,” he was purchased by Captain Willa Viley and Richard Ten Broeck and the two renamed him Lexington then moved him to the deep south to race and train.

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Lexington,” Edward Troye

Lecomte and Lexington met a couple of times on the track and are remembered as one of the best rivalries in American racing, but the details of the meetings are pretty inconsistent depending on which source you use.

Story goes that Lexington won a hard fought victory over Lecomte in a series four mile heats in January 1854 in the Great State Post Stakes at the Fairgrounds. Also in the race was Highlander, one of the best from Alabama, as well as Arrow, another Louisiana runner. The local fans of Lecomte demanded a rematch, and Lexington’s team agreed.

On April 9, 1854 a $2,000 a series of heats were set up for the two. Another horse named Reube was entered to fill the stakes requirements, but it was marketed as a match race which they ended up being. Lecomte pulled away to win the first heat by six lengths, finishing four miles in a world record 7 minutes and 26 seconds.

Lexington’s owner Ten Broeck was so bothered by the loss that just the mention of 7:26 would drive him nuts. There were a few attempts to get the two back on the track but nothing materializing. He set up an exhibition for Lexington to race the clock to break the record, which he did, coming home in 7:19 1/2. After a lot of pressure from the public once again, Lecomte’s team agreed to another race.

On April 14, 1855 the two met one last time at Metairie. For a brief moment it was a head to head match, but once Lexington shook off Lecomte it was all over, Lexington pummeled him and won going away. This was Lexington’s final race.

Lecomte continued to race well into 1856 with some success. But for reasons not totally clear, Wells decided to clear off his stock later that year. He sold Lecomte for $10,000 to Ten Broeck who then sent him to Kentucky to join Lexington for a short rest and a brief stint as a stud before sending him to England. He only raced there once finishing last in the Warwick Cup. Shortly after the race, Lecomte suddenly died of colic.

As a stallion he only bred a few mares but his son Umpire, out of the dam of Lexington, was also sent to England by Ten Broeck and won the Goodwood Nursery.

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Richard Ten Broeck continued on in racing, his obituary in the San Francisco Call  referred to him as a “landmark of the turf.” He was one of the first Americans to regularly send horses to race in England, and even spent 30 years there.. In 1889 he came back to the states and settled down in San Mateo, California. He died at the age of 81 on August 1, 1892 and the San Francisco Call wrote of him, “Here was the noblest Roman of them all, he lives in crowds and clubs and died at last in his old age forsaken and alone, but with no taint of dishonor to his name.”
DSC_1266.jpgHall of Fame racehorse Ten Broeck was named in honor of Richard, and was a part of the 1877 “Great Match Race” which is immortalized outside of Pimlico Race Course. It was a three horse race between Ten Broeck, Tom Ochiltree and Parole. The US Congress shut down for the day for the Congressmen to attend the race. Parole would go on to win with Ten Broeck finishing second.

Ten Broeck also had a very publicized four mile match race against undefeated California super start Mollie McCarty. The race was huge in 1878, and even inspired a folk song called “Molly and Tenbrooks.”

 

It is 2016 now and besides the Fairgrounds race, Lecomte’s name is nearly forgotten 160 years later. But in the 1850s, there was no denying he was one of the best horses in the country. With the help of both Lexington and Richard Ten Broeck he will always have a huge spot in Antebellum racing lore.

Materiality Stubs Toe, Retires to Winstar

After his workout Saturday morning going four furlongs in 48.85, the Florida Derby winner stubbed his toe going back into his stall and has been retired.

Materiality is by Afleet Alex out of a Langfuhr mare Wildwood Flower and was purchased for $400,000 as a two year old. His biggest accomplishment is a controversial win in the Florida Derby over Kentucky Derby last place finisher Upstart, and has earned $686,028. His sixth place finish in the Derby was due to him having a rough trip and not the lead he wanted, but in the his last race he was an easy second for the first half mile and was empty for the remainder of the race finishing behind such talented horses like Tale of Verve and Frammento.

“He’s a pretty cool horse, I’m very disappointed to have an injury like this happen. This isn’t something you can just bounce back from, so I talked with the owners and we agreed retiring him was the best call for the horse,” trainer Todd Pletcher said this morning, famous for his Grade One-And-Done training style.

After speaking with WinStar CEO Kenny Troutt, he mentioned how much they enjoy getting stallions who really don’t need to be retired. Recently their horse Carpe Diem had a knee chip removed, but figured he had nothing left to prove on the track and retired him. “Yeah, Carpe Diem is a duel GI-winner with over a million dollars to his name, you just don’t see that type of stallion on the market.”

Including Carpe Diem, WinStar currently stands 13 stallions who are Grade One winning millionaires including Drosselmeyer, Overanalyze and Take Charge Indy.

“We really think Materiality will bring in some good mares,” Troutt added, “at least for a few years before he gets demoted down to Florida or California or something.”

Pleasant Colony, a horse no one talks about anymore.

Tomorrow is the Belmont Stakes, and this year we have our 14th horse attempting to win the Triple Crown since 1978. But this isn’t about American Pharoah, this is about the second horse who tried and failed to win since Affirmed swept the series that people rarely talk about anymore.

Born in 1978, Pleasant Colony was a tall brown horse who was bred by his owner Thomas Mellon Evans in Virginia. As a two year old he showed talent but wasn’t particularly noteworthy, finishing up the track in his debut to Summing but showed he was a better horse going longer with his ears flopping around in every race. He had just two wins out of five starts including the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct where the winning horse Akureyri was disqualified and placed third. In a previous race Pleasant Colony lost to Akureyri, and in their prep races for the Derby, Akureyri finished ahead of Pleasant Colony in both the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby. However, in the Florida Derby Akureyri finished second and never raced again, whereas Pleasant Colony was thirteen lengths back in fifth.

Displeased with his performance in the Florida Derby, Pleasant Colony changed stables and was now trained by Johnny Campo. Campo was quite pleased with his new horse, and wouldn’t stop talking about him leading up to the Wood Memorial. With Jeffrey Fell aboard, they won the Wood by a solid three lengths and went on to Louisville.

In Kentucky, Campo didn’t slow down. He boasted every day before the race that the Derby winner was in his barn, even claiming this his horse was the most sound runner in the race. Back with his regular rider Jorge Velasquez and starting from post position four, Pleasant Colony took the lead and held off a late charge from Woodchopper to win the Kentucky Derby. On the stand with Jim McKay after the race, Campo was asked about his confidence and he answered in typical Campo form, “I’m a good horse trainer pal, and don’t you forget it.” 

Campo proved he was right once again two weeks later in Baltimore in the Preakness Stakes, with Pleasant Colony going off as the favorite for the first time in his career. In the Winners’ Circle, Campo gave his usual colorful interview to Jim McKay saying, “he was 3/5th off the track record, he was playing with these horses. He is a great horse. This is one of the greatest racehorses that’s ever been in the United States.”

Needless to say, in the three weeks leading up to the Belmont Stakes Campo did not slow down once when talking about his horse. They were back on his home turf in New York. Running against him this time was going to be the close Derby runner up Woodchopper, as well as Summing who was the winner of Pleasant Colony’s first race. Early on in the long Belmont Stakes, Pleasant Colony hung last as usual, and around the turn went wide but was picking up horses with every stride. Unfortunately on the front end Summing was holding and pulling away and was too much for Pleasant Colony to catch him and he finished third. After the race, Campo commented, “you can’t make an excuse. Don’t be sorry, its the name of the game!”

After the Triple Crown, Pleasant Colony would race just three more times. He finished second in the Travers Stakes to Willow Hour in a thrilling finish in the slop. After that race he went on to become the first three year old to win the Woodward Stakes since 1972 and with the win not only did he stamp himself as the best three year old in the country, he was in contention for being the best overall horse. In the final race of his career, he ran in the Marlboro Cup but would finish fourth. He was set to run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup that October, but had to pull out due to injury, and never raced again. Without being able to maintain his status as one of the top horses running, the Horse of the Year honor that year was awarded to John Henry, but Pleasant Colony was award Champion Three Year Old.

He stood at stud at his owner’s Buckland Farm in Lexington, Kentucky and had a good career as a stallion passing on those long legs of his. He sired 73 Stakes winners, and more than a dozen Grade One winners including Pleasant Stage, who won the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies and Champion Two-Year-Old filly honors in 1991, Pleasant Tap who was 1992 Champion Older Male, St Jovite who won the  1992 Irish Derby and the Queen Elizabeth Stakes, as well as Pleasantly Perfect who won the 2003 Breeders Cup Classic and 2004 Dubai World Cup. His owner Thomas Mellon Evans passed away in 1997, and the horse was moved to Lane’s End Farm, where he stood until 2000 when he was pensioned and sent back to Virginia at Blue Ridge Farm, where he stayed until his death in 2002 when he was 24 years old. He is buried back at Buckland Farm in Kentucky.

Almost-Triple Crown winners go down in history as horses who could have, but didn’t. Pleasant Colony, while remembered occasionally, rarely gets brought up anymore 34-years after his two classic wins. While he was a horse who definitely hit his stride at the right time under Johnny Campo, he earned his recognition as a very successful producer.

How well have Derby winners done in the Preakness?

Tomorrow, American Pharoah will look to become the 34th horse in history to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Every year without fail the Derby winner is always the spotlight horse the two weeks leading into the Preakness. If he wins that race, then the media attention on him will more then double heading into the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line.

But how well have recent Derby winners performed in the Preakness? Since Affirmed in 1978, only four Derby winners either didn’t run in or did not finish the Preakness. Off the 33 that did, they have a combined record of 33-13-8-3. They finished out of the money only nine times in the last 37 years. Even in the last ten years, their record is 10-3-3-1 with one of those as a DNF, and the other two were 8th and 4th.

Derby horses are primed to be at their peak come race time, and with the Preakness just two weeks later it is highly unlikely for a horse to regress much if at all. On top of that, Bob Baffert has had three Derby winners prior to Pharoah, all three went on to win the Preakness. Going by that, and by how others have done recently, looks like Pharoah should be in the top three.

 

List of Derby winners and how they’ve done in Baltimore:

2014: California Chrome: 1st

2013: Orb: 4th

2012: I’ll Have Another: 1st

2011: Animal Kingdom: 2nd

2010: Super Saver: 8th

2009: Mine That Bird: 2nd

2008: Big Brown: 1st

2007: Street Sense: 2nd

2006: Barbaro: DNF

2005: Giacomo: 3rd

2004: Smarty Jones: 1st

2003: Funny Cide: 1st

2002: War Emblem: 1st

2001: Monarchos: 6th

2000: Fusaichi Pegasus: 2nd

1999: Charismatic: 1st

1998: Real Quiet: 1st

1997: Silver Charm: 1st

1996: Grindstone: DNR

1995: Thunder Gulch: 3rd

1994: Go For Gin: 2nd

1993: Sea Hero: 5th

1992: Lil E Tee: 5th

1991: Strike the Gold: 6th

1990: Unbridled: 2nd

1989: Sunday Silence: 1st

1988: Winning Colors: 3rd

1987: Alysheba: 1st

1986: Ferdinand: 2nd

1985: Spend a Buck: DNR

1984: Swale: 7th

1983: Sunny’s Halo: 6th

1982: Gato Del Sol: DNR

1981: Pleasant Colony: 1st

1980: Genuine Risk: 2nd

1979: Spectacular Bid: 1st 

Why the Triple Crown is Totally Winable

You hear it all the time: It’s been 37 years since Affirmed crossed the finish line at Belmont Park and since then 12 horses have tried and failed to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. Many jaded journalists, trainers, jockeys, owners, and fans make the claim that the modern thoroughbred cannot win the series. But if one thing’s for sure, it certainly is not easy and it was never meant to be.

Though with this 37-year drought there is some call for the series to change, add longer breaks between races as the culture of racing has changed, or make it so if you run in one you have to run in all three, or even let the glory of the Triple Crown fade as it is no longer relevant. Interesting ideas for sure, but totally unnecessary, and here’s why.

The coward’s way out

In case you missed it (if you did I don’t know how), owner Steve Coburn said the “cowards way out” is to skipping the Derby, or Preakness, or both and running in the Belmont Stakes like Tonalist did in last year’s Belmont to spoil California Chrome’s Triple Crown attempt.  He also went on to say, “if you’ve got a horse that earns points that run in the Kentucky Derby, those horses should be the only ones who should run in all three races… It’s not fair to these horses that have been in the game since day one.” Coburn is new to the game, and after all his partnership is called Dumb Ass Partners, but his comments got a lot of attention from many people who didn’t even watch the Derby. When I was a tour guide at Churchill Downs, many people me asked what the racing world thought of the comments, followed by how they sort of agreed with him and didn’t understand the backlash. And to be honest, from an outsider’s point of view what Coburn says does make a lot of sense, but here’s basically what I told them and I still stand by…

The three races that make up the series are run at three different tracks, in three different states, at three different distances, and all are Grade One races worth $1,000,000+, why should all three be required to follow the same rules as one of them? Many horses, such as Tonalist, while they may have had Derby dreams early on, intentionally avoid it completely to run in the Preakness or Belmont because they are completely different races from the Derby. The Preakness and Belmont do not follow the Derby’s point system to qualify in, and Tonalist did not have a single point to his name but sure showed he was qualified enough to win the Belmont, as that was the goal for him all along. Da’Tara is another spoiler who also did not have (well, would not have as the point system was only put in place only a few years ago) a single Derby point to his name. Sarava would not have had any, even Lemon Drop Kid who did run in the Derby itself would not have actually had any points to his name. Summing, who spoiled Pleasant Colony never even planned on running in the Derby itself, but came on later in the Belmont. Coastal in 1979 also never had any dreams of roses, did have his eyes on the carnations from the get go. Hell, this year Tale of Verve was entered in the Derby without having a point to his name either!

At the end of the day though, the vast majority of Kentucky Derby runners do not run in all three races. Some go to the Preakness, some skip it and go to the Belmont, and very few do all three. Only the Derby winner is almost always in the Preakness (except Spend a Buck that jerk). Plus, if they come up short in the Preakness then there is absolutely no need to run in the Belmont and most skip it completely. With very few turnover besides the winner, why force the others to run in all three too? And, lets be honest, do we really want or need horses like Vicar’s In Trouble or Mr. Z to be running in all three when they clearly couldn’t handle one? Not only that, but the Derby winner had already proved himself once against that field, would it really be fun to watch him beat up the same 20 horses three times? All 11 Triple Crown winners beat “cowards” who skipped one or two of the races, and they still came out ahead.

The style of racing has changed

Penny Chennery, who owned Secretariat and Derby-Belmont winner Riva Ridge, once said, “today, a horse will go six weeks without being in a race. In my day, we raced every other week.” And well, she is correct. Horses simply do not run nearly as much as they once did. Back in the day horsemen wouldn’t bet on a horse if he had more than two weeks off, meanwhile today if they run within two weeks they’re normally discarded. A few early Triple Crown winners even ran in (some even losing) the Dwyer Stakes between the Preakness and Belmont to “stay sharp.” In the last 30 years, horses have been slowly racing less and less to instead be 100% for every race, rather than 70% for some smaller races. Even as recent as Barbaro in 2006, it was a big deal that he had five weeks off before the Derby, but he came out ahead and had one of the most commanding wins in the history of the race. Now, quite a few horses have done that move since with many being favorites and one even winning with Orb in 2013. Since Barbaro though, no one has questioned having such a long gap between races, its just how it is.

But whats weird is quite a few horses who have made the Triple Crown attempt have had about as many races under their belt as past winners, but with less time between. Seattle Slew and Sir Barton ran six times before the Derby,  Gallant Fox ran eight times before the Preakness (run before the Derby that year), War Admiral also had eight races.

But look at this, Charismatic had 14, Real Quiet had 12, California Chrome had 10, War Emblem had seven, Smarty Jones and Funny Cide also had six and so on. These are pretty small sample sizes, but horses today do tend to have generally as much race experience as horses of yesteryear, but they have more time between them.

Extremes on both ends: Whirlaway had 23 races before the Derby whereas Big Brown had only raced three times!

What about Point Given? Given the nickname “The Big Red Train” this horse was a powerhouse leading up to the Derby. The favorite for the race, he had finished first or second in all eight races before hand. For some reason, he finished fifth that day. We may never know why he went belly up in the Derby, but with him going on to completely dominate the Preakness and Belmont Stakes he showed that the time between races wasn’t a big deal for him.

The horses just aren’t good enough

Now, this one bothers me a lot. I’ve come into racing looking a the 1970s as the golden age of the sport, the epitome of what our equine athletes can and will achieve. If we compare a horse like Curlin to the likes of one of the champions of the 1970s, people will laugh and say something along the lines of “there’s no way Curlin can ever compare to Affirmed.” No way? Ever? Not even as three year olds when Curlin, who was in the money in all Triple Crown races while winning one, and was actually able to beat older horses unlike Affirmed was 29 years prior? Deciding on who was better will always come down to sheer opinion, but to say they can’t even be compared is ludicrous.

Between 1948 and 1973, there was a 25-year drought where the same conversation was happening, that horses just can’t win the Triple Crown anymore for a number of reasons. Now, between Citation and Secretariat, 15 horses attempted and all came up short. Between 1978 and now, 19 horses have tried and failed. Those numbers are different than whats normally used, 7 and 12, because I’m counting every horse that won 2/3 of the races because just like Derby-Preakness winners.

Lets talk about Afleet Alex first. Going into the Kentucky Derby he had nine races under his belt, finishing first or second in all except one where he had a lung infection. Going into the gate he was the second-choice behind Bellamy Road, the dominant winner of the Wood Memorial. Turning for home he was caught behind a few slowing horses, had to cut outside and had the lead at a point in the stretch but was swallowed up by two longshot closers in Giacomo and Closing Argument. He went on to win the Preakness in spectacular fashion after going to his knees at the top of the stretch, and then won the Belmont Stakes dominantly. After finishing only a length behind Giacomo, Afleet Alex showed he was plenty good enough to win the Triple Crown but lacked something that is just as needed: luck.

Now Real Quiet. Had 12-races going into the Derby and it took him quiet a long time to really come into his own. Won the Derby, won the Preakness and then in the Belmont Stakes he lost the Triple Crown in a photo finish to Victory Gallop. Had the finish line been a few inches sooner, we would have had a Triple Crown winner in 1998. To say he was not good enough to win all three is ridiculous.

How about Smarty Jones? In 2004 he captured the heart of the country after becoming the first undefeated winner of the Derby since Seattle Slew, then won the Preakness by nearly a dozen lengths. In the Belmont Stakes when he put his head in front with a mile still to go, the crowd at Belmont Park screamed as Tom Durkin called “and Smarty Jones takes the lead!” So loud that on the race replay you can hear everyone get louder. He was pushed by Eddington and Rock Hard Ten the whole way around, with some claims that the two jockeys intentionally pushed Smarty too hard to make him lose. He eventually lost the race by only one length getting caught in the last sixteenth. While Smarty definitely had enough talent to win it all, much like many before him, he just wasn’t lucky enough.

One horse that is rarely discussed is Thunder Gulch. Had nine races before he won in Louisville as one of the longshots. In the Preakness he came up about a length short of Timber Country, who the year before was the champion two-year-old and the beaten favorite in the Derby. Unlike many Derby winners who lose the Preakness, he came back again in the Belmont as the favorite.


Many other horses tried and failed to win the series, some more spectacularly than others. But with those wild failures, there are just as many near misses. Some horses, such as Curlin and even Mine That Bird, only won one of the races but still finished in the money in the other three.

All in all, the slump we’re in is long and hard to bear with. There are many people in the sport who were born after Affirmed’s run who in their lifetime have never seen someone sweep the series.  When talking about it with handicappers or longtime railbirds, they often look at me like some sort of hopeless dreamer who hasn’t been slapped in the face by reality yet. I don’t blame them, if I lived through this draught I might feel the same. The way I see it though, every year is a new year, with a new group of horses, new cast of characters (though some make multiple appearances), with how horses have done recently, there is no reason why it should’t happen again.