Running On Fumes
A ho-hum Belmont served as a reminder that the Triple Crown
races need a bigger payoff
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas was waiting in the middle of the track,
standing in the stifling 92[degrees] heat and wearing his
familiar wraparound, Cheshire-cat grin as his chestnut colt,
Commendable, galloped toward him around the clubhouse turn at
Belmont Park. Lukas is a skilled gloater--he has been singing "I
told you so" in perfect tune since he won his first of 13 Triple
Crown races in 1980, with Codex in the Preakness--and last
Saturday the Hall of Fame conditioner was in good voice again.
"All year long, all I've heard people say about this colt is
that he won't run farther than seven furlongs," Lukas said. "If
I had listened to them, I'd have been racing him in the
[seven-furlong] Riva Ridge Stakes today."
A few minutes earlier Commendable and his superb rider, Pat Day,
had stalked an extremely slow pace in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont
Stakes (while benefiting from Alex Solis's inexplicable lapse in
judging the early fractions aboard favored Aptitude), taken over
the lead midway on the final turn and held off Aptitude's
belated charge to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Commendable's victory
brought to a close one of the most inconclusive Triple Crowns in
memory. The series began with Fusaichi Pegasus' spectacular
triumph in the Kentucky Derby, which raised hopes that we might
see our first Triple Crown winner in 22 years. But the series
lost its glow when Red Bullet, who had ducked the Derby, won the
Preakness on a rain-slicked track. Then the series utterly
collapsed in a Belmont from which Pegasus and the Bullet had
defected and which served only to reaffirm that hoary adage:
Pace makes the race. In this case, though, the adage had a
twist: The lack of pace made the race.
Sent off at odds of nearly 19-1 as the eighth choice in the
11-horse field, Commendable had done almost nothing to
distinguish himself as a 3-year-old. He had not won since his
first of two starts as a 2-year-old, and in his six races since
that victory, including five stakes, he had run no better than
fourth. The low point had come at the Derby, where he finished
17th while beaten by 26 lengths.
Commendable's owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis, had suffered the
worst kind of heartbreak in the Belmont, losing two bids to win
the Triple Crown--in 1997 with Silver Charm and last year with
Charismatic. Bob Lewis admitted to having serious doubts when
contemplating his horse's chances of turning things around.
Three days before the Belmont he asked Lukas, "Are you sure
we're doing the right thing?"
"Absolutely," said Lukas, who had touted the colt all winter.
Lukas's instructions to Day were simple: "Try to have an
Day rode the advice to the letter. Out of the gate, as Hugh
Hefner went to the lead, Day put Commendable right behind him.
Aboard Aptitude, Solis said he knew the field was cantering
along. "I didn't know how slow it was, but I knew it was slow,"
Solis said. Aptitude was last, 11 lengths behind, as Hefner
cruised the first turn. "I didn't want to be that far back,"
Then why was he? Down the backstretch, as Hef completed the half
in an easy :49 2/5, Commendable inched up next to him. Still
Solis kept Aptitude out of the race, lamely explaining, "If
you're going slow and you're that far back, you don't want to
make any moves just to get close to the pace. You'd be misusing
After loping a mile in 1:39 1/5, Commendable was still fresh,
and by the time Solis woke up, Day was sailing to the lead.
Aptitude never had a chance, so his trainer, Hall of Famer Bobby
Frankel, is still looking for his first Triple Crown win.
Watching a replay, Frankel looked stunned at seeing Solis let
his horse fall way back. "Incredible," he said.
A fitting climax to what turned out to be a forgettable spring.
It's Time for An Overhaul
Triple Crown Purses
Since its inception in 1984, the Breeders' Cup has been touted
by the industry as the Super Bowl of horse racing, but no amount
of hype can diminish the fact that the Triple Crown remains the
sport's centerpiece, its most glamorous and challenging series
of events. With this year's running of the Belmont, it's clear
that the Crown needs an overhaul.
When Fusaichi Pegasus and Red Bullet were declared out of the
Belmont, the Bullet after his connections decided they wanted to
save him for a fall campaign leading to the Breeders' Cup and
Pegasus after he suffered a minor hoof injury, the race lost its
two premier attractions and became just another weekend
feature--competitive but essentially pointless. One problem is
that the prize money of the Triple Crown races (each offers a
guaranteed $1 million purse) is woefully inadequate. For
example, the Dubai World Cup in March is worth $6 million ($3.6
million to the winner). Next year the United Emirates Derby, a
prep for the Kentucky Derby, will have a $2 million purse ($1.2
million to the winner). With no Triple Crown on the line, why
would the handlers of Pegasus or Red Bullet risk running their
horse for the $600,000 first prize in the Belmont when the
Breeders' Cup Classic, for which both are aiming, offers a $4
million purse ($2.1 million to the winner)?
This helps explain why only one horse, Impeachment, ran in all
three legs of the Triple Crown this year. "It's a disgrace,"
Demi O'Byrne, a prominent Irish bloodstock agent, says of the
Derby purse. "It's the greatest race in the world. Why is it
worth only $1 million?"
Indeed, of the $1,188,400 Derby purse this year, only $500,000
was put up by Churchill Downs; the other $688,400 came from
entry fees. That's called getting off cheap.
The Derby should have at least a $4 million purse, and the
Preakness and the Belmont should offer enough prize money to
create an incentive for owners, thereby preserving the integrity
of racing's greatest asset, the Triple Crown.
Derby Spotlight Saps Contender
The Deputy Lays Low
Perhaps only Fusaichi Pegasus went into this year's Triple Crown
campaign under the weight of more lofty expectations than Jenine
Sahadi, the trainer of The Deputy. Sahadi went to Churchill
Downs bidding to become the first woman to train a Kentucky
Derby winner, and her diminutive bay colt, who had romped to
victory in the Santa Anita Derby on April 8, was widely regarded
as one of the most talented contenders in the race. But after
The Deputy finished 14th, more than 23 lengths behind Pegasus,
Sahadi had no satisfactory answer for the only question anybody
was asking: What happened?
Sahadi, 37, who was beset by a constant flood of well-wishers
and media types for the better part of a month at Churchill,
believes that the spectacle leading up to and including the
Derby might have been too much for her horse to handle. "The
whole experience took a lot out of him," she says. "We were both
going a little bit nuts."
For the past month The Deputy has been holed up in Sahadi's
stable at Santa Anita. She feeds him peppermints and walks him
twice a day. She has postponed any decisions about the colt's
future. "I'm not convinced he's ready to get back to the grind,"
says Sahadi. --Mark Beech
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO With Day riding expertly, Commendable was in command as the field turned for home.