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Jun 17, 2011

The year of the longshot

By: By Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor


Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby at odds of 20-1. Shackleford took the Preakness at 12-1. Ruler On Ice continued the trend with a victory in the Belmont Stakes at 24-1. In fact, six of the nine horses that finished in the money in the three Triple Crown races were double-digit odds.

Even the prep races produced a ton of huge payouts. From March 19-April 23, only one favorite crossed the wire first and that was The Factor in the Rebel at Oaklawn Park. It wasn't as if second or third choices dominated either. Outside of Dialed In in the Florida Derby and Animal Kingdom in the Spiral, all other eight winners paid over $10, and half of the eight paid at least $29.80!

There are many reasons for longshots finishing first, especially in the Triple Crown races. The most logical is the fact this three-year-old crop is extremely weak. Only three horses - The Factor, Dialed In, and Archarcharch - were able to win more than one prep race the entire campaign and none of them were a factor in either May or June. Another issue is with the breed itself. Speed has been the name of the game for the last 20 odd years, which means not many colts are bred to run 1 1/2-miles, or even 1 1/4-miles for that matter.

The spacing of the three races is another concern. Horses do not run three races in five weeks anymore. In fact, some rarely hit the track twice in five weeks. As the years move forward, fewer horses will be competing in all three of the Triple Crown races. When one mixes all these issues together, it's easy to see why Affirmed, in 1978, was the last horse to capture the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Another reason for the lack of Triple Crown winners is bad luck. Take Animal Kingdom for instance. Even if he had gotten past Shackleford to win the Preakness, his chance to win the Triple Crown would have ended after just a few strides into the Belmont when he almost banged his face into the mud. Jockey John Velazquez quickly regained control, but the horse was about 15- lengths behind the pace after the first quarter-mile. Combine that with the track bias favoring speed, and the 5-2 favorite had little, if any, chance to win.

A split second of misfortune can take a Triple Crown contender and turn him into an ordinary horse. Go back to 2002 and watch War Emblem's effort in the Test of Champions. The colt had taken the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness on the front end with relative ease and all that prevented him from immortality was one more front-running victory. Unfortunately, War Emblem almost fell to his knees coming out of the gate and his chance for glory was over in an instant. The son of Our Emblem made the lead briefly approaching the far turn, but gave way readily as the field reached the top of the stretch and wound up eighth, beaten almost 20-lengths.

Injuries also have played a huge factor of late. Many of the top three-year- olds have been sidelined during the Triple Crown campaign, including Uncle Mo, I Want Revenge, Eskendereya, Quality Road, and The Pamplemousse. If Eskendereya had not gotten hurt in the 2010 Wood Memorial, he would have had a great chance of ending the 32-year-old jinx.

The jockey can also play a huge role in denying a horse the Triple Crown. Stewart Elliott, who rode Smarty Jones, inexplicably forced the issue with a demanding 22 4/5 third quarter after maintaining a decent pace the first half- mile. Tack on a 23 4/5 fourth quarter and it was easy to see how Birdstone was able to run down the 3-10 favorite.

Those are many of the reasons why there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner in decades. The final explanation deals with something called greatness. The likes of War Emblem, Funny Cide, Charismatic, and Real Quiet pale in comparison when measured against Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Affirmed, and Citation. It takes a special horse to prove it in the three races and the bulk of them, that have come close, were not in the same class as the greats of the game.

Will there ever be another Triple Crown winner despite all the factors preventing it? Some say the answer is no. I'm still hopeful that one breeder will give back to the sport a superstar that can end the misery at 34 years. It would be ironic if a colt named Restitution is the one. He's a two-year-old by Smart Strike, the sire of a pair of Preakness winners in the last four years (Curlin and Lookin At Lucky), out of a dam who is a half-sister to both Summer Squall and A.P. Indy. The former finished second in the 1990 Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness, while the latter brought home the Belmont Stakes in 1992.

WRAPPING UP BELMONT STAKES DAY

I mentioned earlier the track bias on Belmont Stakes day, which assisted almost every horse that raced on or near the lead. Ruler On Ice benefited from the bias (along with the mud) to post a three-quarter length victory over Stay Thirsty. However, the most impressive horse in the race was Brilliant Speed.

The third-place finisher, who was strung out three-four wide almost the entire race, looked like a winner at the top of the stretch, running on even terms with Ruler On Ice and Shackleford. However, the track bias was his downfall as the two horses in front of him at the wire (Ruler On Ice and Stay Thirsty) were second and third behind Shackleford almost the entire race.

Ruler On Ice wasn't the most impressive winner on Belmont Stakes day. For the second straight year, that title went to Trappe Shot. The Kiaran McLaughlin four-year-old dominated a field of six in the Grade II True North Handicap winning by 8 1/2-lengths. The son of Tapit is now 2-for-2 this year after faltering late last season in the Travers Stakes. Look for Trappe Shot to race primarily around one turn this year en route to a matchup with the reigning sprint champion Big Drama in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs.



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