Horse Racing: Do Horses Lose Triple Crowns or Do Their Jockeys?

For the past three weeks I’ve been listening to how the last 12 horses to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes got beat in the Belmont Stakes….how we are 0 for the last 12….the Triple Crown is difficult and needs to be changed….there should be more time between races….blah, blah, blah…but does anyone realize that, by my count, almost half of those 12 (11 really, I’ll explain in a second) horses were beaten due to jockey error and not because the horses weren’t good enough?

First of all, call me a traditionalist, but winning the Triple Crown isn’t supposed to be easy, that’s why only 11 have done it in the history of the sport.

I’ll save that argument (of changing the structure of the Triple Crown) for another day, for now, I just wanted to point out that of the 12 who failed…no…of the 11 (I’m eliminating I’ll Have Another, because he didn’t run in the race) who failed since 1979, almost half (5) were due to jockey error.

I’ve been involved in this sport, in some capacity, since 1979 and I remember each Triple Crown failure well but, since I have no life whatsoever, I went back and watched replays of all 12 Belmont’s where the Triple Crown was on the line but wasn’t captured just to refresh my memory.

 

Here’s what I found:

 

1979- Spectacular Bid- “The Bid” as he was called, probably ranks #1 on the list of jockey error causing the horse to lose the Triple Crown. If fact, the ride this horse received in the Belmont Stakes might go down as one of the worst rides in the history of the sport.

When the gates opened on June 9, 1979, I saw three crucial mistakes made by jockey Ronnie Franklin. One, Franklin, who was young and inexperienced at riding mile and half races by his own admittance, quickly rushed Spectacular Bid up close to the early pace (second) that was fast for the marathon distance (:23.2 for the opening quarter and :47.3 for the first half mile). Two, he was chasing a ghost as the horse on the lead was a rank outsider (Gallant Best, who went off at an astronomical 85-1 that day) and three, he moved far too soon as Franklin gave him his cue at the five furlong marker as opposed the quarter pole where Bid did his best running from.

For those of you who question the whole safety pin issue (supposedly he stepped on a safety pin the morning of the race), I am aware of that situation but trainer Buddy Delp said after the race the horse showed no signs of lameness later that morning and was 100% ready, so I’m not putting too much credence into that whole situation. (I’m not sure I even believe it from the extensive research I’ve done about it).

Spectacular Bid, who remains the greatest horse I’ve even seen run live, probably should have won the Triple Crown in ’79 despite the fact that some (including Delp himself) questioned the fact that Bid wasn’t a mile and a half horse. Regardless, it appears to me Franklin simply cracked under the pressure.

 

 

1981- Pleasant Colony- no real rider error here, this horse was either flat out not good enough, tired from the Derby and Preakness or was a victim of the Triple Crown Gods

I tend to think it was a combination of the three, topped off by flamboyant trainer John Campo saying “go bet your money, he’s going to win” 15 minutes before post-time. The Triple Crown Gods don’t like arrogance.

 

 

1987- Alysheba- To this day, some 27 years later, if you ask trainer Jack Van Berg about Alysheba’s Belmont Stakes, it makes his blood boil.

Alysheba, who I had the pleasure of meeting shortly before his death, was grand looking and ran/won perhaps one of the most amazing Kentucky Derby’s ever.

While charging down the lane in the 1987 Derby, he clipped heels with the then leader Bet Twice, literally tripping and almost went down. The colt (and rider Chris McCarron) gathered themselves and kept right on going and got up for the win anyway.

After winning the Derby, and Preakness for that matter, in come from behind fashion, Van Berg wanted a change in tactics for the Belmont Stakes and in the paddock before the race told McCarron to put his colt by the great Alydar “on the lead”….McCarron didn’t…he allowed arch rival Bet Twice to take command of the race, set slow early fractions (:49.2 for the first half and 1:13.3 for the first six furlongs), and by the time McCarron put Alysheba into gear the race was long over as Bet Twice annihilated the field drawing off to win by 14 lengths.

There were some issues with Alysheba that day (he was running without Lasix, which was not allowed in New York at that time) but still McCarron disregarded Van Berg and wound up getting walloped.

 

1989- Sunday Silence- no miscues here….arch rival Easy Goer, who was on his home track, ran the second fastest Belmont Stakes ever and although Sunday Silence ran very well that afternoon, there was no way he was beating the winner.Jockey Pat Valenzuela did all he could but it just wasn’t mean to be.

 

 

1997- Silver Charm- won the Derby and Preakness that year but finished second, beaten just a half length, to Touch Gold.

With Silver Charm (along the rail) doing battle with Free House (to his outside) down the stretch, Touch Gold was coming up on the outside of Free House and wore down the top two in deep stretch to win the race.

When asked about the defeat after the race, Gary Stephens, who is one of the best “big race” riders I’ve ever seen, simply said this:

“He (Silver Charm, who was tenacious once he got the lead) didn’t see him (Touch Gold) coming. He thought he only had to outrun Free House, when Touch Gold came up outside of Free House my colt never saw him. When he finally did see him, he dug back in and started running again but it was too late.”

Agreed Mr. Stephens, after watching the replay that seems to be what happened… and yes, Silver Charm does look like he digs in again several yards from the wire.

I guess this one could be argued either way, but if Silver Charm didn’t see Touch Gold coming on the outside, I have to figure neither did Stephens.

 

 

1998- Real Quiet- “the fish” as he was called do to his slender width, was denied the Crown by a slight error by jockey Kent Desormeux and a little help from the Triple Crown Gods.

The 1998 Belmont Stakes remains the greatest horse race I’ve ever seen as Real Quiet broke well and was laying right off the early pace with rival Victory Gallop, at some point, some 10 lengths behind.

Desormeaux started rubbing on Real Quiet just inside the three eighths pole and had him in a complete and fully out drive just inside the quarter pole. That strategy looked great as Real Quiet opened up a five length lead at they kicked past the three sixteenths pole.

He certainly looked like a winner at that point, but, like track announcer, the great Tom Durkin called it, “Victory Gallop was gathering momentum” and was quickly closing the gap as they ran past the mid-stretch.

Past the sixteenth pole, Real Quiet was clearly an exhausted racehorse and Victory Gallop was gobbling up ground at an alarming rate, when they hit the wire we needed a photo to separate them and the photo showed Victory Gallop winning by the slightest of noses.

Bob Baffert, who trained Real Quiet, said afterwards he was “thinking of putting a five furlong breeze into his colt a week before the Belmont” but changed his mind, took responsibility for the defeat.

However, I think Desormeaux “pressed the button” just a bit too early and had absolutely no horse left with about 100 yards to go. I blame Desormeux for asking the horse a bit too early and the Triple Crown Gods for exploiting that error by getting him beat a whisker.

 

 

1999 Charismatic- actually, in this case the late Chris Antley, who rode this big, good looking chestnut, didn’t do anything wrong at all. In fact, he not only did nothing wrong but Antley saved this horses life in the Belmont.

Charismatic, like Real Quiet, looked a winner coming down the stretch as he took the lead at the eighth pole. However, the horse, at that moment, inexplicably faded in deep stretch and lost the lead to eventual winner Lemon Drop Kid and lost second place to Vision and Verse.

Sensing something wrong past the wire, Antley jumped off Charismatic and held up the colt’s left front leg, which was broken in two places. It was revealed later that Antley felt the break just north of the eighth pole and eased Charismatic up to avoid a catastrophic injury.

Antley did nothing wrong, in fact, he did everything right.

 

 

2002- War Emblem- was ridden by California Chrome’s rider Victor Espinosa and trained by Bob Baffert.

He won the Derby wire to wire and the Preakness by stalking the pace early and then taking over late. However, in the Belmont Stakes when the gates open, this horse stumbled and nearly fell on his face. Espinosa quickly “picked him up” but was well behind in just the first several yards of the race.

War Emblem did make a run and actually toook the lead briefly on the turn for home but catching up to the field after that horrendous start took took much out if him and he faded down the stretch.

Espinosa did nothing wrong and the Triple Crown Gods did everything right.

 

 

2004- Funny Cide- the only New York bred horse to ever win the Derby, jockey Jose Santos can not be blamed for his defeat in the Belmont Stakes either.

Funny Cide finshed a weakieng third to Empire Maker over a sea of slop.

Immediately after the Belmont, trainer Barclay Tagg claimed that Funny Cide did not like the track. (which didn’t make much sense to me being Belmont was Funny Cide’s home track and he trained over it every day regardless of weather.)

Several year later Tagg said: : “Looking back, I wonder Funny Cide’s 9¾-length victory in the Preakness and his overly fast workout the week before the Belmont weren’t the results of an on-edge horse who had little left for the Belmont”.

A sloppy track and a tired horse, but certainly not any fault of the rider.

 

 

2004-Smarty Jones- if the ride Spectacular Bid received in the 1979 Belmont ranks as the #1 worse ride, then Smarty Jones would rank as the #2 worse ride when a Triple Crown was on the line.

Smarty Jones was enormously popular and speedy as well. He was comfortable running on the front end but proved on several occasions, including the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he was ratable….very ratable actually. But for reason unknown to me, jockey Stewart Elliot put Smarty Jones on the lead and refused to give it up when challenged early on three different occasions in the Belmont Stakes. (first by Purge, around the first turn, then by Rock Hard Ten going down the backside and then by eventual winner Birdstone before backing off and coming again late).

By the time Smarty Jones passed the three sixteenths pole, he was a tired horse after fending off the three different early duels.

I’m not sure why Elliot didn’t take back through the first mile or so of the race, but if he did, I believe the results would have been different.

Neither trainer John Servis nor the owners Mr. and Mrs. Chapmans ever blamed Elliot for the loss….. but I still do.

 

 

2008 Big Brown- perhaps the most dominate three year old I’ve seen in years, Big Brown was a freak.

I’m not sure why he didn’t fire at all in his Belmont after absolute runaway wins in both the Derby and Preakness that year (His Preakness was scary good, and I thought he was a lock to win the Belmont)

Big Brown went into the Belmont with a minor foot issue. Some blame the foot issue he had for the defeat, some blame the special shoe that was put on the help that issue (the shoe came loose at some point during the race), while Kent Desormeux simply said he had “no horse” on the turn for home and would eventually pull him up in deep stretch.

Like Antley on Charismatic, Desormeaux probably did the right thing by pulling him up if he even had an inclination something was amiss.

 

2012- I’ll Have Another- never ran in the Belmont due to a tendon injury, so I’m going to skip him.

 

Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Smarty Jones all received questionable rides in their respective Belmont Stakes’ from what I saw in the past and re-saw recently.

Could all or some of them have won their respective Belmont’s with better rides? Probably….I think Smarty Jones definitely could have, Spectacular Bid and Real Quiet as well, possibly even Alysheba and Silver Charm.

The good part about all this is I do not expect “jockey error” to be an issue come Saturday afternoon. California Chrome’s rider Victor Espinosa knows this very horse well, is always cool and calculated under fire and has been riding at Belmont Park all week this week.

Thanks for Reading….