The Belmont Stakes is June 10, not this Saturday; so this week, I am going to share with you the three best and three worst experiences I have had as a reporter and racing columnist for various newspapers and magazines for the past 45 years.
Certainly any list of the best in racing during the past half century – if not the entire history of American racing – has to start with the way Secretariat swept through the 1973 Triple Crown with track record performances in all three races!
He fought hard to defeat a very good horse in Sham to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness; but, he then destroyed that fine rival by an amazing 31 lengths in the Belmont Stakes. A good book on this great champion’s career was written by Sports Illustrated’s Bill Nack and a pretty fair movie also was made of Nack’s peek behind the scenes that actually was broadcast on a cable channel this past Saturday.
I strongly recommend the book and the movie to racing fans throughout the world.
The most exciting Triple Crown series I witnessed, up close and personal, was produced in 1978 by two wonderful racehorses – Affirmed and Alydar. Actually, there was little to separate these two; but, when it came down to winning, Affirmed’s flair for the dramatic seemed to help him defeat his arch rival.
Truth be told, Affirmed’s Hall of Fame trainer Laz Barrera taught me a whole lot about how to spot a good horse on the improve. But, the relationship I had with Alydar’s assistant trainer Charlie Rose ranks among the best racing friendships of my life.
Few may know Rose was an internationally acclaimed breeder of tropical orchids as well as a world class, stained-glass master. This, in addition to the outstanding horsemanship he displayed every day working for Hall of Fame trainer John Veitch.
Rose knew I was a big fan of Affirmed, yet he gave tribute to our friendship via a most precious gift: A beautiful, stained-glass portrait of a great horse – not Alydar, but Affirmed.
“It pained me every minute while I was doing this for you,” Charlie said. “But, it helped me exorcize some demons, knowing that Alydar was so close to being that great!”
My third greatest racing experience is occurring right now and relates to the way Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert continually demonstrates impeccable timing and skill with so many horses.
A major winner on the tough So Cal circuit, Baffert’s precise handling of young horses reminds me of Barrera at his best; while his work with older horses, including those coming back from relatively long layoffs, reminds me of New York-based Allen Jerkens, a true genius who rarely bothered with young horses.
Baffert certainly demonstrated great skill developing Arrogate into the top rated horse in America. Moreover, we should not take lightly how Baffert guided American Pharaoh to his 2015 Triple Crown sweep while keeping that colt sharp enough to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic six months later.
Even this past Saturday, Baffert demonstrated just how effective he is bringing horses back from layoffs when his 4-year-old Cupid came back from an eight month layoff – via a strong set of workouts – to win the $500K Santa Anita Gold Cup at 1-1/4 miles!
Lest we think this great horseman is finished building his career achievements, horseplayers should stay tuned to what Baffert does when the So Cal racing scene moves to Del Mar. By that time and during Breeders’ Cup season, we should see his promising 3-year-old Mastery back in action as well as his 4-year-old, Arrogate.
As for the worst things I have experienced – even though I love this sport – I can stay in the present tense to express negative feelings about the following:
For one thing, the current Triple Crown campaign is on my list, due to the way the inside-biased racetrack at Churchill Downs helped Always Dreaming win the Kentucky Derby, while the relatively slow Preakness did little to raise expectations for the Belmont Stakes. I can only hope to be surprised by what happens in that important 1-1/2 mile race.
I also have hated to see the proliferation of illegal drugs creep into the sport. Unfortunately, too many legal medications also have been gaining acceptance in recent years.
Part of the reason for this reliance on legal and illegal drugs relates to the unnecessary length of racing seasons in New York, California and Florida. Year round racing seems to force many trainers into using an array of medications just to keep horses in training. This, of course, can be detrimental to the wonderful thoroughbreds we love to see perform.
Finally, as a horseplayer, I have been saddened to see some racetracks charging more than 15 percent for win, place and show bets. It also seems counter-productive for tracks to charge upward of 20 percent on some exotic bets.
If racetrack executives do not realize the harm they are doing to their own clientele and potential newcomers, they probably have not spent enough time handicapping and betting their own money.