John Clay's notes: Lessons from the Triple Crown

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 10, 2012 

Now that another Triple Crown campaign has gone unfulfilled, 10 things we learned from this year's three-race run.

1. Winning the Triple Crown remains really, really hard.

Welcome to the 35th year since Affirmed became the last colt to accomplish the feat. A dozen 3-year-olds since then have claimed the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, yet failed at the Belmont.

Not sure I'll Have Another fits into that category. A Friday scratch because of tendon issues meant the colt never made it to the Belmont starting gate.

Bad enough to be beaten by a better horse, worse to be beaten by bad luck.

2. Bob Baffert is the Jack Nicklaus of the Triple Crown.

Nicklaus has won more golf majors (18) than any other golfer, but his high number of second-place finishes (19) might be more impressive.

Baffert is building a similar resume. The silver-haired trainer has nine Triple Crown race trophies in his California case. Yet few have experienced such heart-wrenching seconds, from Cavonnier in Baffert's first Derby back in 1996, to Real Quiet's Belmont loss in 1998, to this year's three straight second-place finishes.

3. I'll Have Another could have easily won Saturday.

The finishing time was among the slowest for the Belmont in recent memory. The pace scenario duplicated the previous two Triple Crown races. A healthy I'll Have Another won those previous two races.

4. That said, Union Rags could have been in position to win the Triple Crown.

The colt was second choice among the betting public on Derby day before encountering a terrible trip. A Derby win and he would have continued on to Baltimore instead of sitting out the Preakness.

5. Michael Matz is not a one-hit wonder.

The trainer of Barbaro and Union Rags showed he could win another classic race. That relieves some sting from being dropped by Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson.

6. In this sport, suspicions won't go away any time soon.

NYRA's idea to have a stakes detention barn was meant to deter doubts that the Belmont would be run free of suspicion and controversy. In the end, almost the opposite happened.

Conspiracy theorists postulated that I'll Have Another scratched not because of injury but because the tight security had kept his handlers from administering any last-minute assistance.

7. D. Wayne Lukas is a glutton for punishment.

The 76-year-old trainer had a rough week. First, he was kicked in the forehead by one of his horses. Saturday, his colt Optimizer got dirt kicked in his face on the way to a 10th-place finish.

Optimizer was the only entry to run in all three Triple Crown races, finishing 11th in the Derby, sixth in the Preakness and last among those still running — Guyana Star Dweej was eased — in the Belmont.

8. NYRA has plenty of problems.

Friday's press conference at Barn 2 to announce I'll Have Another's removal from the Belmont Stakes was so poorly run and organized to be almost laughable. For a sport that craves more media coverage, it has little to no idea how to deal with the media in a group setting.

9. Even without a Triple Crown, Thoroughbred racing is still exciting.

All three Triple Crown races were tight with dramatic finishes. I'll Have Another's Derby win of a length-and-a-half was the widest margin of the three races.

10. Thank heavens for advance ticket sales.

The announced attendance of 85,811 was the largest for a Belmont Stakes in which a Triple Crown was not a possibility. Yet most of the tickets were purchased thinking I'll Have Another would make his run at history. Those patrons showed up. The colt's absence killed walk-up sales.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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