For the fourth time in six years, the Belmont Stakes could produce a Triple Crown winner. The difference this year is the void.
With the death of Seattle Slew on May 7, Thoroughbred racing is without a living Triple Crown winner for the first time since the concept was created. War Emblem's gritty victory in Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico -- an even more impressive effort than his Kentucky Derby victory two weeks earlier at Churchill Downs -- puts him in position to fill that void.
War Emblem didn't get the lead in the Preakness, as he did in victories in the Illinois Derby and Kentucky Derby. Instead, he had to prompt the pace set by extreme longshot Menacing Dennis. He took over from the tiring leader with about 3 furlongs to go and opened a daylight lead at the top of the stretch. Then, War Emblem and jockey Victor Espinoza held on to get home ¾ length in front of late-charging longshot, Magic Weisner.
Proud Citizen, who was second in the Kentucky Derby, was third in the Preakness and Harlan's Holiday finished fourth.
Trainer Bob Baffert said he worked on getting War Emblem to race from off the pace and Espinoza clearly had the colt under restraint as he trailed Menacing Dennis down the backstretch.
"I think the Preakness win was good schooling for him," Baffert said. "He has started to relax a little bit. Now he knows it's okay to let a horse go out first."
Looking forward, Baffert said he his optimistic about the Belmont and the Triple Crown.
"You've all been waiting for that super horse. Well, you've got him," Bob Baffert said Sunday on the Pimlico backstretch. "Everything is going smooth, so hopefully we won't let you guys down. He came back great from the Preakness and the mile-and-a-half Belmont should be a piece of cake. He's just a tough horse. He keeps going and going and getting better and better.
"As long as I keep him healthy and at this level, I will feel stronger about this Triple Crown than I have ever felt about my other two opportunities."
Twice before, Baffert has taken a colt to New York with a chance to become a Triple Crown winner. In 1997, Silver Charm lost in the final yards to Touch Gold. A year later, Real Quiet finished second to Victory Gallop. And in 1999, trainer D. Wayne Lukas suffered a similar heartbreak when Charismatic not only finished third in the Belmont after winning the Derby and Preakness, but then broke down and never raced again.
Baffert also suffered a Triple Crown misfire last year when Point Given won the Preakness and the Bemont after finishing fifth in the Derby with an uncharacteristically dull effort.
The next question is: Who will be around to contest the Belmont on June 8?
According to trainers polled Sunday, War Emblem and Proud Citizen are the only horses from the Preakness field definitely headed to the Belmont. Owner/trainer Nancy Alberts said Magic Weisner will wait a while before making a decision. The rest of the field will go elsewhere, including Straight Gin, who suffered a career-ending bowed tendon in the Preakness.
Trainer Kenny McPeek said Sarava, an impressive winner on the Preakness undercard, might make the jump to the final jewel of the Triple Crown. And Belmont Park listed several runners from the recent Lone Star Derby as potential Belmont Stakes starters.
In other weekend racing:
On the Preakness Day undercard:
--Snow Ridge had no trouble winning the $200,000 Maryland Breeders' Cup Handicap, scoring by 7 ¾ lengths and running 6 furlongs in 1:10.06. Smile My Lord was second and Clever Gem third. "He's just brilliant - really, really amazing," said winning jockey Mike Smith. "He has such a high cruising speed." Added winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, "We'll take him back to Churchill Downs now and, after that, we can land anywhere." In his last outing in the Churchill Downs Handicap on Derby Day, Snow Ridge was first under the wire but disqualified to second after Smith's whip inadvertently hit D'wildcat on the nose just before the wire.
--True Direction was the best of the 3-year-old sprinters in the $100,000 Hirsch Jacobs Stakes. The French Deputy colt cruised to a 2 ½-length victory over Listen Here, with It's A Monster third. The time was 1:10.90. Trainer Carlos Morales attributed the outstanding performance to the addition of blinkers but True Direction had won his previous two starts without the equipment.
--Strut The Stage set a slow pace in the $200,000 Dixie, then had little trouble holding off Del Mar Show in deep stretch to win by 2 ½ lengths. Slew The Red was third in the 9-furlong turf event, clocked in 1:51.70. "He's a bulldog. Just a good horse all around," said winning jockey Robby Albarado. Added trainer Mark Frostad: "If he's on the lead when he hits the stretch, you can't beat him."
--Tenpins led all the way in the $100,000 William Donald Schaefer Handicap and held off Bowman's Band by 1 ¼ lengths under the wire. The 4-year-old Smart Strike colt now has five wins from seven lifetime starts and the wins have come at four different tracks. In a sixth start, he finished first but was disqualified.
--Mr. O'Brien took the inside path in the stretch run to capture the $100,000 Woodlawn Stakes for 3-year-olds on the turf by 2 ½ lengths over Regal Sanction. February Storm was third.
--Sarava had to thread through traffic to find running room in the stretch run of the $100,000 Sir Barton Stakes for 3-year-olds. Once he got to daylight, the Kenny McPeek trainee rallied to win by 4 lengths over $4 million yearling Shah Jehan. No Pressure was third.
--Quidnaskra held off a late run by De Aar to win the $100,000 Gallorettee Handicap by ¾ length. Step With Style was third. Quidnaskra, based at Pimlico, ran the 1 1/16 mile on yielding turf in 1:46.73.
On Friday, Chamrousse ran by pace-setting Shop Till You Drop in the stretch to win the $200,000 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 2 ¼ lengths. Shop Till You Drop held second and Autumn Creek was third. Take Charge Lady was scratched by trainer Kenny McPeek earlier in the week. Jerry Bailey guided Chamrousse, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Peaks and Valleys, over 9 furlongs in 1:51.61.
Also Friday, Summer Colony held off Dancethruthedawn to win the $150,000 Pimlico Breeders' Cup Distaff Handicap by a nose. Happily Unbridled was third. Summer Colony, a 4-year-old daughter of Summer Squall, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:42.90 with John Velazquez up.
Hawthorne Race Course
Hail The Chief let Duckhorn take an easy lead in Saturday's $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup, then reeled him in as the field hit the far turn and went on to win by 3 ¼ lengths. Dollar Bill was along late to take second and Parade Leader finished third. Duckhorn faded to fourth and Sir Bear struggled home last of five, never a factor. Jorge Chavez rode Hail The Chief over 1 ¼ mile in 2:03.80. Chavez said he knew Duckhorn would gun for the lead, "So I just let him go. I just stayed behind and watched....When I asked my horse, he responded." Randy Meier, who rode Duckhorn, said his mount "came up empty." He added, "They don't want me to guzzle this horse, choke him to go any slower." Winning trainer Niall O'Callaghan said he didn't give Meier any specific instructions to take back behind Duckhorn but admitted he was worried as the race unfolded. "When Duckhorn was alone on the bridle going around the turn, he looked like he was in a race on his own," O'Callaghan said. He said Hail The Chief will go to the Stephen Foster Handicap June 15 at Churchill Downs "if Donnie Richardson gives me the right weights."
Also Saturday, Four On the Floor upset the $45,000 Overage Stakes, grabbing the lead in the stretch and holding off a late run by Ivars Big Peaceful by 2 ¾ lengths. Smilin' Slew was third. Four On the Floor, a 5-year-old son of Academy Award, ran 1 1/16 mile on "good" turf in 1:45.91.
Cheers Hong Kong beat an accomplished field of international runners in Sunday's HK$8 million Champions & Chater Cup. Coming from off the pace over soft turf, the 5-year-old son of Midyan got home first, 2 ¼ lengths over Helene Vitality, who was second in the Dubai Sheema Classic last time out. Greenmore was third. Rainbow and Gold, who was third in the Singapore Airlines Singapore Cup a week earlier and the favorite in Sunday's race, faded out of contention on the final turn. "Stepping up to today's distance (2400 meters) made the difference," said trainer Ivan Allan, who won the race for the fifth straight time. "He was staying on at the end of the QE II Cup last month and although he was entered in the race at Singapore last week, I felt he had a better chance here." Allan said the long-range goal is the Gr. I Hong Kong Vase in December.
"Giant killer" Allen Jerkens did it again in Saturday's $200,000 Shuvee Handicap. While favorites Victory Ride and Raging Fever were duking it out on the front, Jerkens' trainee Shiny Band was gathering momentum on the rail. When the 4-year-old Dixieland Band filly got room, she roared on through and won off by 2 ¾ lengths. Raging Fever was second and Victory Ride third. Shiny Band, dismissed at nearly 18-1 on the tote, ran the 1 mile in 1:34.95. "The giant killer strikes again," said winning rider Robby Davis. "He told me to try my best to pick up a check." Jerkens earned his nickname by virtue of his horses' historic upset victories: over Kelso three times, Secretariat twice and Buckpasser in the 1967 Brooklyn Handicap.
Sunday, Carson Hollow had no trouble winning the $75,000 Bouwerie Stakes for state-bred, 3-year-old fillies. The Carson City miss went quickly to the lead and scored by 5 lengths over Message Red. Shawklit Mint was third. The 7 furlongs took 1:23.62.
Anglian Prince saved ground through most of Saturday's $150,000 Marine Stakes, then went for the lead at the top of the stretch and drew off, winning by 1 ¾ lengths. Tails Of The Crypt was second and pace-setting favorite Ford Every Stream was third. The victory, in 1:44.03, advanced Anglian Prince to contender status for the June 23 Queen's Plate. "We've got a chance now," said winning rider Jim McAleney. "I thought we could sit back and stalk the pace today," McAleney said of Anglian Prince. "He likes to come from off the pace but he wanted to be closer today. That's the way he decided he wanted it."
Sunday, Sambuca on Ice came from off the pace to win the $125,000 New Providence Stakes by a head over Mysterious Affair. Krz Ruckus was third after showing the way early. Sambuca On Ice ran the 6 furlongs in 1:10.76.
German-bred Peu a Peu came from last in a field of six to win Saturday's $150,000 Yerba Buena Breeders' Cup Handicap by 2 lengths over Janet. Racene was third. Peu a Peu, with Russell Baze riding for trainer Bobby Frankel, finished the 1 3/8-mile turf race in 2:16.39. Baze said Frankel told him, "If I kept her comfortable and in the clear, she'd come with a good turn of foot when I asked her. Sure Enough. What a nice filly." Assistant trainer Humberto Ascanio said Peu a Peu "has always shown a great turn of foot in her workouts and showed it again today." He said he is not sure where she will race next.
Megans Bluff dueled for the lead with Cozy Island before posting a neck victory in Saturday's $100,000 Early Times Mint Julep. Solvig was third as the favorite. Megans Bluff, a 5-year-old daughter of Pine Bluff, also won the race last year. "We were on even terms down the stretch," said winning rider Craig Perret. "But this is a tough little mare. She just doesn't give up."
September Secret was no secret to the punters before Saturday's $100,000 Railbird Stakes, dueling with Fun House in the early going and then pulling clear to win by 4 lengths. Affairs of State was second and Fun House held third in the 7-furlong event for 3-year-old fillies. September Secret, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Our Emblem, was dispatched as the odds-on favorite and finished in 1:22.95. "This was her fourth race and she's improving every time," said winning jockey Patrick Valenzuela. "Her future looks very good."
Sunday, Skipping came along in the stretch to catch pace-setter Startac and win the $75,000 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap y 2 lengths. Startac held second and Our Main Man was third. Skipping, a British-bred, 5-year-old son of Rainbow Quest, ran the 1 ½ mile on firm turf in 2:26.23 under Kent Desormeaux. Bobby Frankel trains the colt for owner/breeder Juddmonte Farm. "I remember reading an article by Jim (Murry, the late LA Times sportswriter) about how he was infatuated by Bill Shoemaker because Shoe was so silky smooth," Desormeaux said. "This horse, he couldn't have given me a smoother run. It was nice and poetic, like the way that Jim wrote."
Calder Race Course
Wertz took a turn for the better on the backstretch in Saturday's $75,000 Carterista Handicap, taking over the lead from Viva Pentelivus and rolling home a winner by 8 ¼ lengths. Lavendar's Lad and Tour of the Cat were second and third, with Viva Pentelicus fourth and last in a field shortened when the race came off the turf. "When they first took the race off the turf, I was disappointed," said winning trainer Joe Calascibetta. "But then when I saw all the scratches, I was delighted." Jockey Julio Garcia said the result "was a surprise" in Wertz's first stroll through the mud.
Nothing Flat ran last of six through much of Saturday's $75,000 Francis "Jock" LaBelle Memorial Stakes for 3-year-olds. But when the Peaks and Valleys colt was swung wide for running room, he was anything but flat, passing all five rivals and winning off by ¾ length over Outstander. Bag of Mischief was third while the favorite, Political Attack, faded from first to finish last. The 1 mile and 70 yards went in 1:42.99 on a track rated "good."
Without Doubt was never far back in Sunday's $50,000 Hasta La Vista Handicap -- a 1 7/8-mile marathon on the turf -- and worked clear in the late going to win by 2 ¾ lengths over Bristolville. Paladin Power was third. Without Doubt, an 8-year-old, Irish-bred gelding by Kenmare, needed 3:11.52 to finish.
Minister's Baby drew off in the late going of Saturday's $50,000 Diamond Trail Stakes for fillies and mares, winning by 7 ¼ lengths over Bold Bluff. Delray Dew was third. Minister's Baby, a 4-year-old daughter of Deputy Minister, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:40.28.
Only three went to the post in Sunday's $50,000 Little Silver Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and Bold World was clearly the best of the trio. Without much encouragement from jockey Joe Bravo, the Fortunate Prospect filly scooted home first, 5 ¼ lengths ahead of Intent. Cherokee Girl was last. The 6 furlongs took 1:11.70.
Crowning Meeting got to the lead a furlong out in Sunday's $35,000 Fox Sports Network Handicap, then held on to win by a neck over Profound Secret. Secret Launch was third. Crowning Meeting, an 8-year-old gelding by General Meeting, finished the 6 ½ furlongs in a quick 1:13.80 on a fast track.
Crocroc went right to the lead in Saturday's $30,000 10,000 Lakes Stakes for state-breds and held on to beat Ashar by ½ length under the wire. This Little Piggy was third. "I almost stopped breathing" during the stretch run, said winning owner Dale Schenian. He said he hopes to get Crocroc to the Minnesota Festival of Champions on Aug. 25.
Sunday, Blumin Bauble found running room inside the tiring leaders in the stretch, went through the hole and got home a 5 ½-lengths winner in the $35,000 Lady Slipper for state-bred distaffers. Two-time defending champion Nidari dead-heated with Burn the Legacy for second and third.