Thursday, June 27, 2013

Revisiting the Past Via the 2013 Triple Crown

--Christina Bossinakis
   Only moments after this year’s Belmont Stakes, trainer Todd Pletcher admitted it was an emotional win for him, largely because of his history with Dogwood Stables, the partnership that campaigns winner Palace Malice. Quite unexpectedly, however, it turned out to be a pretty poignant moment for me as well. Over the last 13 years, I have plied my trade as a turf writer, reporter and editor, and in more recent times, a TV host and analyst, but despite that fact, I consider myself first and foremost a racing fan. And in a poetic coincidence, ties to the first three finishers in the Belmont offered a vivid reminder as to why I fell in love with the sport to begin with.
   The very first Triple Crown race I ever watched live on TV was the 1988 Kentucky Derby, which was won by the roan filly, the Amazon, Winning Colors. Most will recall that the giant filly was the first Derby winner for her trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, as well as her jockey, Gary Stevens. I remember all too well how elated I was with her victory, not only because she was a girl beating the boys (I’m always up for that!), but also because I was a bourgeoning Lukas fan. Whether it was the fancy suits, the platinum tongue (‘silver tongue’ just doesn’t cut it with Wayne) or his rampant success, I was a believer. And quite honestly, I have been ever since.
Lukas & Winning Colors
   Fast forward to this year’s Preakness Stakes, and who should be standing on the winner’s podium but Lukas and Stevens, this time courtesy of the exploits of Oxbow, owned by Calumet Farm. Now owned by Brad Kelley, historic Calumet was also instrumental in stoking my passion for racing during an admittedly impressionable time. In 1990, Calumet campaigned a handsome chestnut by Alydar named Criminal Type, and he was trained by, you guessed it, D. Wayne Lukas. He won four Grade I’s and closed out the season with the Horse of the Year title to boot. I was a hardcore fan by then. In an interesting coincidence (well, maybe not such a coincidence), Lukas had a young foreman-turned-assistant working for him that would go on to give his teacher, not to mention the rest of the training colony, a serious run for their money. Todd Pletcher, who was with Lukas through 1995, might not have been an instant hit, but he showed very early on that he would be a force to be reckoned with down the line. Unapologetically a fan to this day, ‘The Man’ certainly lived up to the moniker I trumpeted (quite enthusiastically, in fact) each time he visited the winner’s circle (no doubt confirmed by any TDNer present circa 2002).
Todd Pletcher (shades) & Criminal Type
   This year’s Triple Crown also represented another significant tie to my passage in racing. I had the pleasure of observing Orb all winter long at Gulfstream in Florida and I was genuinely thrilled to see him win the Derby in the black silks and cherry cap of the Phipps’ and for trainer Shug McGaughey. Not too long ago, I found myself looking back to determine when Shug might have won his last prior Eclipse Award as champion trainer. I have to admit, I was initially a little surprised when I realized that he earned the title in 1988. ‘How could that be?’ I thought. ‘That’s the year Winning Colors won the Derby. Surely, Lukas would have won it that season?’ But very quickly I realized that Winning Colors lost the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in her final race of that season, and more significantly, the mare she lost to was none other than the remarkable Personal Ensign, owned by Ogden Phipps and trained by Shug. Also in 1988, that owner/trainer partnership campaigned champion juvenile colt, another son of Alydar (Yes, I had a thing for Alydar) named Easy Goer.
   By the time the 1989 racing season rolled around, I couldn’t get enough of racing. I read about it, I watched it on TV and I spent literally hundreds of hours poring over stallion registers and a wide array of other racing literature. And I was also positively captivated by Easy Goer. He was the cat’s meow. Heading into that year’s Derby, I couldn’t help but think that we were looking at another Triple Crown winner. Apparently, a racy, near-black colt from California had other ideas. While Sunday Silence would also go on and beat Easy Goer in the Preakness (Oh what heartbreak!), the latter would come back and win the Belmont in ultra-impressive style. That win would propel Easy Goer to victories in the Travers, Whitney, Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup. To this day, his loss to Sunday Silence in the Breeders’ Cup Classic ranks among my most heart wrenching moments in racing. On a brighter note, I did have the opportunity to see Easy Goer at Claiborne Farm in 1991 prior to his untimely death. A most remarkable racehorse.

Easy Goer winning the 1989 Belmont
   With the Triple Crown solidly behind us, critics have argued that this year’s 3-year-old crop was average at best and that this season’s Classics simply weren’t fast enough nor impressive enough to stand up in the annals of history. As a serious student of the sport over the past quarter of a century, I can honestly say that the racing community, myself included, have all too often underestimated particular horses and foal crops (while in the moment), and have just as frequently overestimated others. But time reveals all, and only time will tell whether any of this year’s sophomores will be remembered as exceptional. One thing is certain, however, the connections behind each of this year’s Classic winners have indeed withstood the test of time and have amassed records that will, in a grander historical sense, stamp them as not only exceptional, but quite likely, transcendent. And if the passion, commitment and dedication they have poured into the game over the past 25 years is any indication, I think it’s a very good bet that we’ll see all of them back for years to come.

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