May 23, 2008

Ranking the greatest near-misses

Now that Big Brown (BB) is one victory away from becoming only the twelfth Triple Crown winner, let's take a stroll down memory lane (purely chronological order) to recount some of the greatest horses to NOT win this uber-prestigious three year old feat. A whopping 21 horses since 1970 have won two-thirds of the Crown races. As most of you know, three horses in the decade of the seventies did achieve racing immortality; Secretariat in '73, Seattle Slew in '77 and Affirmed in '78. So while all the momentum seems to be with BB, a defeat on Saturday puts him on a long list of "also rans."

1976, Bold Forbes: Bold is a first cousin to once presidential candidate Steve Forbes and "black horse" of the family dynasty after Malcolm stumbled into the breeding shed one night after partying with the Kennedy's and drinking a bottle of Dewar's Reserve. He thought he was sleeping in the ranch house next to his wife, but the result was a determined thoroughbred who captured the '76 Derby and Belmont Stakes. Bold will always have a special place in my heart as he was the grandsire of the first horse my father co-owned (of which I have lived vicariously as an owner).

1979, Spectacular Bid: "The Bid" was an arrogant S-O-B who hated kids and was disrespectful to the mares in surrounding barns, but man was he talented! Legend has it that Bid was soooo confident (ala, Rick Dutrow) that he would win The Belmont Stakes that he outdrank every horse and sailor in his barn the night before the big race and subsequently was a little squemish the next day. Or it could have been the safety pin found in his hoof the morning of the race. Regardless, Bid did win 26 of 30 career starts, though he could not get past the elder Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

1984, Swale: There was an absence of "super" race horses in the early eighties following the anomoly of talented charges in the 1970's until Swale came along. A son of Seattle Slew, Swale was destined for greatness, which he confirmed with victories in The Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Unfortunately, Swale died of a heart attack while being bathed the week following The Belmont Stakes, prompting protests by PETA against soaps, shampoos and personal hygien in general. Which coincidentally is why most PETA advocates don't bathe or shave their bodies (men or women!).

1988, Risen Star: Without this homebred's campaign, the mighty Secretariat may have been considered a dud at stud. This was his only male progeny to follow in dadd's hooves on the track. He could have been mistaken for the original "Big Red" when he ran away from the field in The Belmont by 15 widening lengths. Secretariat is mostly known as a broodmare sire since his daughters were particularly useful in producing champion thoroughbreds (i.e. A.P. Indy, Summer Squall).

1989, Sunday Silence: The Sunday Silence/Easy Goer showdowns were awfully fun to watch when I was a teen. This was probably the last true rivalry (not quite as stirring as Affirmed v. Alydar) on the racing oval now that trainers pick their spots more carefully and horses race less in general. Sunday Silence was retired into his 4YO season after an injury with a record of 9 wins and 5 places from 14 starts! Easy Goer was no slouch either ("don't sell yourself short judge, you're a tremendous slouch" -- Caddyshack) winning 14 of 20 starts, while finishing second 5 times.

2001, Point Given: His sire, Thunder Gulch (winner of 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes) almost made my list, but almosts don't count in horse racing. This horse is the reason I now believe that ANY horse can lose on a particular day, including Big Brown! Point Given's only off-the-board finish (5th) occured in the second fastest Derby in history (won by Monarchos). He rebounded to reel off four consecutive Grade I victories, but unfortunately he was injured after the Travers Stakes at Saratoga (midsummer's Derby) and was not able to officially prove to be one of the greatest since he never faced or beat older horses, the KEY criteria in my book.

2005, Afleet Alex: I know many of you believe that Smarty Jones was the better of these two who put Oaklawn Park on the 3YO trail, but this is my damn blog! Wow, it feels great to use the word "damn" and not feel the threat of reprisal. Here's my case for Alex; a very versatile colt who won the prestigious Hopeful and Sanford Stakes (setting Stakes record in process) at Saratoga -- the latter being the only race legend Man o' War ever lost. Bred for speed, he seemed to only get better as the distance increased, all the while showing that explosive turn of foot. His greatest moment, however, came in the Preakness Stakes when Scrappy T bolted on the turn crashing into Alex. Jeremy Rose managed to hand on for dear life as Alex's nostrils brushed the sandy loom of the track before picking himself upright and rocketing off to another victory! This horse was truly special and it is too bad his injury and Smarty Jones' "alleged" injury prevented the world from seeing a true heavyweight match race. Finally, the clincher would be Alex's Lemonade Stands and the attention (and donations for children's cancer research) that were a direct result of this horse, the little horse that could.

Speaking of match races, while I do think Big Brown will win on Saturday, the true test would be in late October at Santa Anita IF his connections will do right by racing and send him postward in the 25th anniversary running of the Breeders' Cup Classic against... CURLIN!! What a treat that would be; win, lose or dead-heat.

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