Smile Politely

The Triple Crown Awaits

And so here we are on Belmont Eve.

Nerves can get to you come Belmont. For me, the race is the poised hatchet ready to fall over my Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. At a mile and a half, it’s the longest race in the Triple Crown, and may be the longest race any of these horses will ever run again. By the time the first Saturday in June rolls around, we must measure up what our hopeful has accomplished and weigh his probable pitfalls. For Big Brown, it looks as if the only thing that could foul him up would be bad luck in the race, a misjudgment by his jockey, or, God forbid, an injury. Even facing refreshed competitors and an up-and-coming foe, failure doesn’t seem to be in Mr. Big’s immediate future. But if horse racing has taught me one thing, it’s that anything can and will happen on the precipice of history.

I’ve seen it happen so many times, but nothing compares to the Belmont Stakes ten years ago. My heart was broken by a nose. Not even a nose, truth be told — it was a head bob. A difference in stride. Had the picture been taken a millisecond sooner or later, we would have had a Triple Crown winner.

The way in which Real Quiet lost the Belmont was what hurt most. In the middle of Belmont’s long stretch, the Derby and Preakness winner had pulled ahead three lengths in front of the rest of the horses. He seemed to be pulling away even further. I remember feeling the world wash away beneath me — it’s a feeling you can’t describe if you’ve never felt it before. It was the feeling that the world had stopped spinning, that everything was frozen in time. There was no future, there was only now. It was happening. He was pulling ahead — he was going to win! We were finally going to get our Triple Crown winner! That moment lingered for what seemed like a blissful stretch of time, though it was merely seconds.

And then something happened.

Real Quiet broke out of that soundless moment of symmetry. He began to goggle at his shadow. Nobody was behind him, that he could tell. He thought the race was over.

And that’s when Victory Gallop began to charge out of the pack. Real Quiet didn’t know what hit him. He was wearing blinkers! His jockey began to flail and jerk and spur him crazily, hearing, seeing, knowing what was coming at them, but Real Quiet thought there was no rush. And then there was the finish, they were almost upon it, and then, only then, did Real Quiet hear the growling of the other horse’s jockey in his ear, and past his blinker, Real Quiet saw Victory Gallop descending upon him.

And that was it. Real Quiet leaped into action, but it was too late. They had already crossed the wire. Neither jockey knew who had won. In the stands, the crowd was roaring in a mixture of disbelief, a tempest building. “A picture is worth a thousand words, and this one is worth five million dollars! Oh, no!” cried the announcer.

And then, after several excruciating minutes, the stewards announced the winner of the photo: Victory Gallop.

Real Quiet was a good horse, but I don’t believe he was as talented as Big Brown. Nobody has come closer to winning the Triple Crown than Real Quiet since Affirmed last swept the classics in 1978. Many have won the first two legs, but the third has often been the most taxing.

With his winning margins as evidence, the distance shouldn’t bother Big Brown. Perhaps the biggest concern is his recent quarter crack in his left fore hoof, the equivalent to a fingernail snag on a human. But Mr. Big hasn’t been fazed by this issue during his recent works, and he’s been well nurtured by the best in the business. He’s plenty fit to run, but any doubt, no matter how small, likes to buzz in our ears like the whining of a mosquito.

Many say his biggest adversary in this race is Casino Drive, a Japanese colt with two career starts and a pedigree to rival his impressive wins. He is out of the mare Better Than Honour, dam of the last two Belmont winners, Rags to Riches and Jazil. If he wins the Belmont, he will make breeding history, which might make up for another Triple Crown loss. Or not. An interesting fact about his homeland is that fans are not allowed to make noise when the horses are racing. There will be more noise than this horse has ever dealt with in his life this Saturday. He’ll probably be sporting cotton balls in his ears.

Nine horses are going up against Big Brown. While the field is overall better than the Preakness, there are no dominating horses besides the potential Casino Drive. Denis of Cork and Tale of Ekati will take another shot at the champ, as well as Macho Again and Icabad Crane. All of these horses are going to have to run better than they’ve ever run in their lives to come close to Mr. Big. A smaller field should make the race fairer than the Derby, but let’s face it. If Big Brown runs his race, as does Casino Drive, what we’ve got here is a match race. Both horses love to leave their competition in the dust.

And Big Brown has got a little secret weapon in the form of Kent Desormeaux. Desormeaux, the jockey who rode Casino Drive to victory in his last start. Desormeaux, who was in this very same position ten years ago on Real Quiet. The jockey has won two Belmonts since his mount lost by a nose that fateful day in ’98. I think he’s been preparing for another chance.

Big Brown is ready. Kent Desormeaux is ready. History is ready.

Are you ready?

Post Positions, Morning Line Odds, and Notes

1. Big Brown (2-5)—He has everything going for him, barring an injury. He’s never been close to another horse in the stretch. Can he be a grinder if it comes down to it?

2. Guadalcanal (50-1)—Has never broken his maiden. Will probably be shot by a sniper if he breaks badly and throws Big Brown into the rail.

3. Macho Again (20-1)—Couldn’t catch Brownie in the Preakness, will probably finish somewhere in the middle of the pack.

4. Denis of Cork (12-1)—Has a good shot at placing, not sure if can threaten best two competitors.

5. Casino Drive (7-2)—Won his only two races by imposing margins. Could be the challenger Brownie has been waiting for. He’s got the pedigree to win; will his inexperience be his undoing?

6. Da’Tara (30-1)—Will set the pace and probably finish last. The Belmont does not favor speed horses.

7. Take of Ekati (20-1)—Talented competitor loves Belmont and is the only other Grade I winner besides Big Brown. Could finally show up to challenge in this smaller field.

8. Anak Nakal (30-1)—Bah!

9. Ready’s Echo (30-1)—Has never been out of the money in lesser competition. His late-running style should serve him well in the Belmont, but probably not well enough.

10. Icabad Crane (20-1)—A good horse, but not sure how he will fare against better graded stakes company. Would not be surprised if he finished out of the money this time.

The Belmont Stakes coverage will begin on ABC at 4:00 p.m. CT. ESPN, HRTV and TVG will be handicapping and discussing the race Friday and Saturday and will do so until the ABC coverage begins Saturday evening. If Big Brown should win the race, clear the streets for a crazed 25-year-old woman who will be likely running rampant and screaming incoherently.

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