PLUS: Tremendous Machine Recalled
The Triple Crown was great fun for me 50 years ago.
On March 22, 1973, I predicted Secretariat would sweep the Triple Crown to end a 25-year drought in the coveted and demanding series for 3-year-olds. I wrote that in my high school newspaper sports column.
Secretariat not only didn’t let me down by capturing all three jewels of the Triple Crown, to this day he is credited with having run the fastest Kentucky Derby (1:59 2/5 for 1 1/4 miles), Preakness Stakes (1:53 flat for 1 3/16 miles) and Belmont Stakes (2:24 flat for 1 1/2 miles) of all time.
The morning of the 1973 Belmont Stakes I picked up that day’s Los Angeles edition of the Daily Racing Form at a downtown newsstand. I had been sure to reserve that Racing Form several days in advance to make sure that I got one. Fifty years later, I still have that Racing Form.
I watched Secretariat’s Belmont on the color TV in the living room of my parents’ home in Spokane, Wash. I wore the same blue and white checkered shirt that I had worn during all three of Riva Ridge’s 1972 starts in Triple Crown events and during Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
My Mom -- bless her heart -- sat on the floor close to our TV while making me a reel-to-reel tape recording of the 1973 Belmont Stakes audio, just as she did for all the Triple Crown events back then. I’d play those three tapes of Secretariat’s Triple Crown when making the drive of about 4 1/2 hours from my home to Longacres, the picturesque track near Seattle in the shadow of snow-capped Mount Rainier. Those Secretariat tapes, which I would also play on the return trip home, sure helped pass the time.
While I watched Secretariat’s Belmont, it was so thrilling to see him “moving like a tremendous machine,” as Chic Anderson famously described it during his call of the race for a CBS television audience of some 15 million. Secretariat’s spectacular 31-length victory is widely considered to be this country’s greatest performance by a Thoroughbred.
Secretariat’s final time of 2:24 for the 1 1/2-mile “Test of the Champion” obliterated Gallant Man’s track record by an astounding 2 3/5 seconds. As Anderson noted, “that is a record that may stand forever.”
Jack Nicklaus, one of the greatest golfers of all time, while alone in his den, stood up and applauded Secretariat, one of the greatest racehorses of all time, as the Bold Ruler colt bounded home and ran up the score in the Belmont Stakes. As far as I know, Secretariat never returned the favor by applauding Nicklaus in any of his tournament victories.
The 1973 Belmont Stakes is a memory that I will cherish forever.
SECRETARIAT’S TRIPLE CROWN IMPACT AS A SIRE
As I have written previously, the perception is that Secretariat was a dud at stud. Did he fulfill the unrealistic expectations for him as a sire? No. Was he a flop? No, as evidenced by the fact that he sired a female Horse of the Year in Lady’s Secret, a Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes winner in Risen Star, plus a Travers Stakes track-record setter in General Assembly. Secretariat’s daughter Weekend Surprise produced A.P. Indy, the 1992 Horse of the Year who became an extremely successful sire. Secretariat also sired the exceedingly swift Terlingua, who became the dam of super sire Storm Cat.
All nine horses in this year’s Belmont Stakes are descendants of Secretariat. Not bad for a supposed failure as a sire.
Secretariat’s influence in this year’s Belmont is not an anomaly. Writing for the Thoroughbred Racing Commentary website, Patricia McQueen pointed out this week that when National Treasure won the Preakness, it marked the 42nd time a descendant of Secretariat won a Triple Crown race, following right on the heels of Mage’s victory in the Kentucky Derby.
“In the past 10 years alone, 19 different winners of 24 of the 29 Triple Crown races trace to Secretariat; 10 of them have Secretariat more than once in their pedigree,” McQueen wrote. “Recent classic-winning Secretariat descendants include Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify, plus Derby-Preakness winner California Chrome.”
NOT AN ENJOYABLE TRIPLE CROWN SO FAR
Unlike the excitement I experienced with Secretariat in 1973, this year’s Triple Crown just hasn’t been fun for me up to now.
I liked Santa Anita Derby winner Practical Move to win the Kentucky Derby, but he was scratched due to an elevated temperature. That left me with Kingsbarns as my top pick.
When Kingsbarns found himself involved in what turned out to be a hot early pace, I knew that he probably was in big trouble. He did indeed pay the price for going so fast in the early stages and finished 14th, his first defeat in four career starts.
After Mage generated a strong late kick to win the Kentucky Derby, I loved him in the Preakness and bet accordingly. But Mage did not have a late kick in the Preakness. He moved up to loom boldly at the top of the lane, then came home evenly and finished third to National Treasure and Blazing Sevens.
Did Mage get beat in the Preakness because of the much slower pace than in the Kentucky Derby? Was it because he was returning in two weeks? Was it a combination of both? Whatever the reason or reasons as to why Mage got beat, my sizable win bet on him went down the drain.
With the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in the rear-view mirror, the 2023 Triple Crown series now moves on to the 155th running of the Grade I, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, which will be run at Belmont Park this Saturday (June 10). After I was so bullish on Mage in the Preakness and got burned, I readily confess that my confidence is a bit shaken in terms of making Belmont Stakes selections.
My New York oddsmaking colleague David Aragona has established Forte as the Belmont Stakes morning-line favorite at 5-2 in the field of nine.
I now have renewed respect for Forte following the results of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. That’s because the two horses to win those two legs of the Triple Crown flattered Forte. Kentucky Derby winner Mage lost both times he faced Forte in Florida this year. Preakness winner National Treasure finished third when Forte won the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November to clinch an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male.
I gave serious consideration to making Forte my top pick in the Belmont. After all, he has won six of seven career starts. But I just couldn’t pull the trigger, mainly due to his 10-week gap between starts. He hasn’t raced since winning the Grade I Florida Derby on April 1.
Forte was scratched the morning of the May 6 Kentucky Derby due to a bruised foot. That put him on the 14-day vet’s list, which effectively meant that the May 20 Preakness was not a possibility.
Any way you slice it, trying to win a 1 1/2-mile race off a 10-week layoff is a tall order. Perhaps Forte has the class and ability to win it. It also helps him that he has a Hall of Fame trainer in Todd Pletcher, who has won the Belmont Stakes four times. If Forte wins the Belmont despite a 10-week layoff, it will be a tremendous training achievement by Pletcher.
“It’s the not the way we drew it up by any means; at the same time we didn’t miss a whole lot of training,” Pletcher was quoted as saying by Daily Racing Form’s David Grening. “We missed the race and a work. Once we got here [at Belmont Park], we got our first work [four furlongs on the training track May 21 in :50.31], which was good, and then we got the real big work [five furlongs on the main track May 27 in 1:00.44] where he galloped out a mile a mile in 1:38. That’s when I started to feel confident that we had enough foundation to maybe give this a try.”
In his most recent drill, Forte worked five furlongs on the Belmont Park main track June in a bullet :59.67.
Pletcher’s first Belmont Stakes winner was Rags to Riches in 2007, followed by Palace Malice in 2013, Tapwrit in 2017 and Mo Donegal in 2022.
AN EGREGIOUS HALL OF FAME OVERSIGHT
Speaking of Rags to Riches, who in 2007 became the first filly in 102 years to win the Belmont Stakes, I have written many times in recent years that it’s ludicrous that she is not in the Hall of Fame.
It was to Rags to Riches’ detriment that it took her much longer than it should have for her to get on the Hall of Fame ballot. Eligible to go into the Hall of Fame for the first time in 2013, she did not appear on the ballot until 2019. That in itself was absolutely ridiculous.
After finally getting on the ballot in 2019 and continuing on it each year through this year, Rags to Riches has lacked the needed votes to get into the Hall of Fame. I have no doubt that the major reason she hasn’t received the necessary support is too many voters hold it against her that she didn’t race more than she did.
Rags to Riches won five of seven starts during her career.
But what about Arrogate? He was voted into the Hall of Fame this year. Did he race all that much more than Rags to Riches? No, he didn’t. Arrogate won seven of 11 career starts.
Justify becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2024. He is odds-on to be inducted next year. Justify made only six career starts, one FEWER than Rags to Riches.
If voters put Justify into the Hall of Fame next year with just six career starts, is it right to keep Rags to Riches out of the Hall of Fame primarily because she made only seven career starts?
To look at it another way, Arrogate and Justify each won a total four Grade I races. Rags to Riches likewise won a total of four Grade I races.
Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that Rags to Riches is not going to be voted into the Hall of Fame. That’s just the way it is. And that is just plain wrong. Perhaps somewhere down the line, years from now, Rags to Riches will finally make it into the Hall of Fame -- where she belongs -- via the Historic Review Committee.
AND MY TOP PICK IN THE BELMONT IS…?
Okay, enough of my ongoing frustration with Rags to Riches being shunned by the Hall of Fame. Getting back to this year’s Belmont Stakes, if Forte isn’t my top pick, then who is? I have decided to go with Angel of Empire.
My selections for this year’s Belmont Stakes are below:
1. Angel of Empire (7-2 morning line)
2. Forte (5-2 favorite)
3. Arcangelo (8-1)
4. Tapit Trice (3-1)
Angel of Empire’s 104 Beyer Speed Figure when third as the 4-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby is the lone triple-digit figure posted this year by the 3-year-olds entered in the Belmont Stakes.
The only other triple-digit Beyer recorded by the nine entered in this year’s Belmont is Forte’s 100 for his win in last year’s BC Juvenile.
In other words, the 104 Beyer Speed Figure by Angel of Empire in the Kentucky Derby looks quite strong vis-a-vis his Belmont Stakes adversaries. The 104 continued his remarkable progression in the Beyer department.
After Angel of Empire posted only a 51 Beyer in his second career start when racing on the grass at Kentucky Downs last Sept. 8, he has recorded figures of 74, 85, 89, 94 and 104.
Angel of Empire registered back-to-back victories in Fair Grounds’ Grade II Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 18 and Oaklawn Park’s Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 1 going into the Kentucky Derby.
In the Run for the Roses, Angel of Empire was 16th early and rallied to finish third. After being as far back as 13 lengths at one point, he lost by just 1 1/2 lengths.
Mage and Two Phil’s were the only two horses to beat Angel of Empire in the Kentucky Derby. Mage and Two Phil’s are not in the Belmont Stakes.
Brad Cox, who sent out Essential Quality to win the 2021 Belmont, trains Angel of Empire. Cox is adding blinkers to Angel of Empire’s equipment for the Belmont.
Flavien Prat will be Angel of Empire’s pilot in the Belmont. Prat rode him for the first time in the Arkansas Derby, then was back aboard in the Kentucky Derby. After the Kentucky Derby, Prat recommended to Cox an addition of blinkers for Angel of Empire.
Horses for Cox racing with blinkers for the first time win at a high 30% clip.
Classic Empire is the sire of Angel of Empire. Classic Empire is by Pioneeerof the Nile, sire of American Pharoah, who won the 2015 Belmont to complete the first Triple Crown sweep in an agonizingly long 37 years.
By the way, Pennsylvania-bred Angel of Empire is attempting to do something that hasn’t been done in 132 years. No Pennsylvania-bred has won the Belmont Stakes since Foxford in the 1891 renewal, which was run at 1 1/4 miles at Morris Park. The only other two Pennsylvania-breds to win the Belmont were Panique in 1884 and Saunterer in 1881.
I was very tempted to go with Arcangelo as my top pick in the Belmont. Like Angel of Empire, Arcangelo sports an improving Beyer Speed Figure pattern. In his four career starts, his Beyers have been 53, 70, 84 and 97.
Arcangelo lost his first two races, then won a one-mile maiden special weight contest by 3 1/2 lengths at Gulfstream Park on March 19 for trainer Jena Antonucci. That was followed by Arcangelo’s narrow win by a head in Belmont Park’s Grade III Peter Pan Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on May 13.
After Arcangelo worked five furlongs in 1:02.81 at Belmont on May 31, Equibase credited him with a bullet four-furlong workout in :48.94 there on Tuesday (June 6), just four days before the race.
According to Daily Racing Form’s David Grening, Antonucci intended for Arcangelo to gallop Tuesday rather than have a workout.
“Tuesday’s seemingly unplanned workout was faster than Arcangelo’s actual five-furlong move on May 31 [when timed in 1:03.13 and out a mile in 1:41.38 by the DRF],” Grening wrote.
“Spooky,” Grening quoted Antonucci as saying Tuesday. “That’s just him. It’s his journey, we are trying to stay out of his way. Today, he wanted to stretch his legs, and stretch his lungs. He’s a very good-feeling colt.”
The DRF’s Mike Welch also wrote about Arcangelo’s Tuesday workout.
“Peter Pan winner Arcangelo, who has come a long way in a relatively short time, was not expected to have another official workout after breezing a very easy five furlongs in 1:03.13 followed by a powerful gallop-out (one mile in 1:41.38) under jockey Javier Castellano last Wednesday. But with his regular exercise Robert Mallari aboard, Arcangelo dropped to the rail at the five-eighths pole and pretty much duplicated that drill after the renovation break this morning.”
Whereas the DRF timed Arcangelo going on out a mile in 1:41.38 in last Wednesday’s five-furlong workout, the gray ridgling was clocked going on out a mile in 1:40.40 on Tuesday.
Castellano won the Kentucky Derby on Mage. With Mage not running in the Belmont, the Hall of Fame reinsman again will be riding Arcangelo in Saturday’s classic.
Arcangelo is two for two with Castellano. They collaborated for victories in the March 18 maiden score at Gulfstream and the Peter Pan.
Castellano is seeking to become the first jockey since Calvin Borel to win two legs of the Triple Crown in the same year with different horses. Borel in 2009 won the Kentucky Derby aboard Mine That Bird, then won the Preakness on the filly Rachel Alexandra. Mine That Bird, ridden by Mike Smith, finished second in the Preakness.
Tapit has sired four Belmont Stakes winners in Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016), Tapwrit (2017) and Essential Quality (2021).
Further demonstrating Tapit’s impressive influence on the Belmont Stakes, he has sired second-place finishers Frosted (2015) and Tacitus (2019), plus third-place finishers Lani (2016) and Hofburg (2018).
No, Arcangelo’s sire is not Tapit. But Arcangelo’s dam, Modeling, is a daughter of Tapit.
Two of this year’s Belmont Stakes entrants, Tapit Trice and Tapit Shoes, are by Tapit. Pletcher trains Tapit Trice. Cox conditions longshot Tapit Shoes (20-1 on the morning line).
In addition to Arcangelo, three others entered in this year’s Belmont are out of Tapit mares. They are Hit Show (10-1 on the morning line), Red Route One (15-1) and Il Miracolo (30-1).
Inasmuch as Tapit has sired four Belmont Stakes winners, he is tied for the record in this regard with Lexington of yore. Lexington sired Belmont winners General Duke (1868), Kingfisher (1870), Harry Bassett (1871) and Duke of Magenta (1878).
Tapit Trice was talked up early in the year as someone who had a Belmont Stakes look to him. The $1.3 million auction purchase lost at first asking last Nov. 6, then reeled off four consecutive wins before he never threatened and finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby last time out.
Two of Tapit Trice’s triumphs this year came in graded stakes races. He won the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby on March 11 and Keeneland’s Grade I Blue Grass Stakes on April 9.
Can Tapit Trice win the Belmont? Of course he can.
What about Preakness victor National Treasure? Can he win the Belmont? Of course he can.
Bob Baffert, National Treasure’s trainer, has three Belmont wins to his credit (Point Given in 2001, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018).
Baffert had a high opinion of National Treasure last year. I know that because the Hall of Fame horseman told me last year that National Treasure might be a really good 3-year-old.
Well, as often is the case, Baffert was correct in his evaluation of National Treasure. As a 3-year-old, the Quality Road colt stepped up and won the recent Preakness while producing a 98 Beyer, his highest figure to date.
A lot of people picked National Treasure to win the Preakness, largely because they felt he might get away with setting a soft pace for Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, which was exactly what happened. And it just might happen again in that it doesn’t look like there is much other early speed in the Belmont.
I wasn’t crazy about National Treasure’s four-furlong workout in :50.62 at Belmont Park. I didn’t like the way he came home slower than the early part of the drill. But his sharp :59.55 workout there on Monday (June 5) was excellent, which makes me worried that I’m not picking National Treasure to win the Belmont.
I felt kind of dumb for not recognizing National Treasure’s pace advantage in the Preakness. And he just might make me feel kind of dumb again this Saturday after the Belmont Stakes.
Or maybe Angel of Empire will get the job done in the Belmont as my top pick and I’ll finally have something to smile about in this year’s Triple Crown series.
TOP 10 IN THIS WEEK’S NTRA TOP THOROUGHBRED POLL
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 283 Cody’s Wish (17)
2. 276 Elite Power (10)
3. 171 Defunded
4. 169 Proxy (1)
5. 148 Clairiere
6. 135 Art Collector (1)
7. 128 Smile Happy (2)
8. 70 Stilleto Boy
9. 47 In Italian
10. 44 Caravel
TOP 10 IN THIS WEEK’S NTRA TOP THREE-YEAR-OLD POLL
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 275 Forte (17)
2. 258 Mage (8)
3. 248 National Treasure (4)
4. 215 Two Phil’s (1)
5. 190 Angel of Empire
6. 119 Blazing Sevens
7. 102 Tapit Trice
8. 83 Practical Move
9. 56 Arabian Lion (1)
10. 36 Hit Show
Next week will be the final NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll of 2023.