Great horse, good luck needed to win Triple Crown

June 11, 2002 5:14 AM
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Spectacular Bid had his safety pin, Real Quiet had his Victory Gallop and War Emblem had his bad start.

The racing gods did not smile upon those colts in their quest for the Triple Crown.

War Emblem became the latest to be denied the sport’s most elusive prize when he finished eighth in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes after a decisive stumble at the start.

History will never determine whether War Emblem or others that came within shouting distance of winning the Triple Crown would have won with better fortune. That will be subject to infinite speculation.

What history reveals is that it requires a great horse and good luck to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. Take it from Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who saddled Alysheba to win the first two legs in 1987 before the colt finished fourth in the Belmont as the 4-5 favorite, beaten 14 lengths by Bet Twice.

"It takes a good horse, a damn good horse, to win the Triple Crown," said Van Berg, who turned 66 on June 7.

"I had a ton of confidence going into the Belmont, but Chris (McCarron) rode the worst race he ever rode in his life. He made a statement the other day that the horse was not his best that day; well that’s bulls---. The horse was as good as he could be that day. He was so damn good and I told him in the paddock, ”˜Go to the front and he’ll be in front every step of the way.’ And he looked at me like I was some stupid idiot. I said, ”˜Trust me. I know him better than the back of my hand.’

"A year later, after Alysheba had set a track record in the Woodward, McCarron stood up in the saddle and said, ”˜Jack, you’re right. The son of a bitch can gallop faster than he can run.’ In the Belmont, Chris just took back, waiting for Cryptoclearance. He sat there choking Alysheba and then almost went over Gone West’s heels at the head of the lane. That was worse than the (near) fall in the Derby. You can go back and watch the videos. And then he makes a statement that the horse wasn’t good. That pissed me off."

The official Daily Racing Form chart comments of the 1987 Belmont read: "Alysheba, reserved into the backstretch, moved with Cryptoclearance approaching the far turn, was steadied looking for room between horses nearing the five-sixteenths pole, then checked sharply behind Gone West nearing the stretch. After recovering, he altered course to the outside and finished with good courage between horses."

Of course, that’s all water under the dam for Van Berg, who knows as well as any trainer that the stars must be in proper alignment for a horse to capture racing’s greatest treasure.

"You’ve got to be a super horse to win three times in a row," Van Berg said. "Too many things can happen. Alysheba beat everybody, set track records wherever he went, but you’ve got to overcome all adversities to win the Triple Crown."

Just ask Bob Baffert, who now has the ignominious distinction of missing three opportunities to win the Triple Crown ”” with Silver Charm (second in 1997), Real Quiet (second in 1998) and War Emblem.

The Belmont victory by the biggest longshot in its 134-year history, 70-1 shot Sarava, was ironically satisfying for trainer Ken McPeek. He lost pre-Derby favorite Repent to injury finishing a distant second to War Emblem in the Illinois Derby on April 6, then had Derby betting favorite Harlan’s Holiday given to trainer Todd Pletcher after the colt finished fourth in the Preakness.

As for War Emblem, perhaps it was fate that he wasn’t meant to join the 11 previous Triple Crown winners ”” icons Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

Assuredly, War Emblem experienced bad luck in the Belmont. Then again, maybe the racing gods knew what they were doing.

THE HOMESTRETCH: More than half the Belmont field was victimized by an unprofessionally eventful start, four horses being bumped and two ”” War Emblem and the outclassed Artax Too ”” lucky to stay on their feet after the gates opened . . . War Emblem’s eighth-place finish was the worst of 16 horses that had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and run in the Belmont. Carry Back, seventh in the 1961 Belmont, was the previous worst . . . Bruce Headley says weight assignments for the Triple Bend Handicap will determine whether champion sprinter Kona Gold runs in the seven-furlong race on July 1."He carried 125 (pounds in winning the Los Angeles Handicap) and Alex (Solis) didn’t hit him once," the 68-year-old trainer said. "He was very impressive and he pulled up very good. I would expect he’ll go up a pound for the Triple Bend, but I want that other horse (Met Mile winner Swept Overboard) to be weighted, too. I had 127 and he had 116 the last time we met (in the Ancient Title at Santa Anita last October. Swept Overboard won by 2½ lengths)." Kona Gold is owned by Headley and the Las Vegas father-son duo of Irwin and Andrew Molasky . . . The California Horse Racing Board has put on hold until later this month a proposal to move the 17-day Fairplex Park meet to Santa Anita this September . . . Xpressbet, TVG and YouBet, which handles Advance ­­Deposit Wagering in California, collectively handled $46.5 million from Jan. 25 through May 26, according to the CHRB. That represents 5.3 percent of the $877 million combined California on-track, off-track and ADW handle during that period.