If I wanted to reach for one word to describe the 2017 Triple Crown season, it would be "inconsistent."
Always Dreaming, so impressive burning off all the other pace pressure in winning the Kentucky Derby by almost three lengths, finished eighth in the Preakness, beaten 14 lengths.
Cloud Computing, beaten seven lengths when third in the Wood Memorial, came back to upset the Preakness.
Neither came back to compete in Saturday's Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.
Tapwrit, sixth in the Derby, beaten slightly more than 10 lengths, and Irish War Cry, 10th in the Derby after clubbing Cloud Computing in the Wood, beaten 16 1/2 lengths, came back to finish one-two in the Belmont, two lengths apart, with the third finisher Patch a very long 5 3/4 lengths farther back in third.
"Inconsistent" is not a word that carries with it a positive connotation. But Tapwrit and his connections certainly don't care about that because their colt by the incredible Tapit is the winner of a Triple Crown event, and thus is made as a sire. And maybe Tapwrit will improve from this point and win another stakes race to go along with his Belmont and his Tampa Bay Derby last March, which was weakened by the absence of the then-Kentucky Derby future-book-favorite McCraken. We shall see.
For now, however, Tapwrit emerged best in a Belmont that, after failing to attract the Derby and Preakness winners, predictably fell short of being the artistic high point of Belmont Stakes Day. And evidence of the shakiness of this Belmont might be found in the possibility that it was decided by as mundane a thing as a horse switching paths off the rail in upper stretch.
Some folks, this one included, felt that the inside was not the place to be Saturday on the main track at Belmont. One horse did win with a rail move, and a couple of others ran OK near the inside. But when the day is taken as a whole, it did seem that horses racing away from the inside had the better of it. At least to me it did. And I know this is subjective stuff.
Anyway, with at least some question about the viability of the inside, it was a surprise to me in the Belmont that after quickly going to the front and controlling the pace, favorite Irish War Cry was also put right on the rail. But in fairness, Tapwrit followed Irish War Cry on the inside all the way to upper stretch.
The telling point for me, however, came late on the far turn. Irish War Cry drew away from Tapwrit and everyone else while still in hand, while Tapwrit was in a drive just to keep up. But after turning for home, Tapwrit got off the inside, and he instantly seemed to morph into a refreshed horse. And, as we all now know, he wore down and passed an Irish War Cry, who, while still on the inside, gave out quicker than one might have otherwise expected.
Inside baseball aside, I realize that it's easy now with the Triple Crown over to be underwhelmed with this 3-year-old crop. But in fairness, it should be noted that many probably had a similar feeling on Belmont night 2016 after Creator upset the last leg of the Triple Crown on the heels of Exaggerator winning the Preakness and Nyquist winning the Derby. That group didn't look so great, either, until Arrogate, who only recorded his maiden victory six days before the 2016 Belmont Stakes, proved to be something very, very special.
Who knows? Maybe this inconsistent 3-year-old crop has a similar surprise for us. Here's hoping.
Scratch of Epicharis was the right move
I understand the disappointment surrounding the scratch of Epicharis from the Belmont Stakes. Even if most sane people realized it was inevitable, I'm sure it was still a tough pill for Epicharis's connections to swallow after traveling all this way from Japan and for fans who love to see international competition. And it was a bad break for the New York Racing Association, costing it millions of dollars in Asian handle.
That said, better this disappointment than the outcry that would have occurred had Epicharis gone wrong during the running of the Belmont, possibly causing injury to jockeys and other horses. Or the fallout that would have happened had Epicharis run well, and, say, later tested positive for an overage of phenylbutazone.
In the end, this was just bad, awful luck. It happens.
More from Belmont weekend
*The brilliant Songbird delivered for the Belmont Stakes Day crowd with a well-measured one-length win in the Ogden Phipps over a game Paid Up Subscriber. This wasn't Songbird's most sensational performance, but it didn't have to be. This was, after all, her first start in seven months. And even though the Phipps is a rich Grade 1 event well worth winning, it was also a building block for what Songbird's connections hope to accomplish with her down the road, capped, of course, by a win in the Breeders' Cup Distaff that was denied her last fall by Beholder's nose. In other words, I expect Songbird to improve a lot off Saturday's outing.
* The clinic Mike Smith and Bob Baffert put on during the Belmont Stakes undercard was something to behold. Smith won five stakes, four of them for Baffert, and their partnership peaked with Mor Spirit's 6 1/4-length domination of the Met Mile.
Mor Spirit showed potential last year at 3, has really blossomed this year at 4 with three straight successive career-best Beyer Figures and will likely add another topper after his destruction of a Met Mile field that admittedly wasn't up to usual standards.
Still, Mor Spirit isn't even close to being the best older horse in Baffert's barn. That distinction belongs, of course, to superstar Arrogate. But I'm not sure Mor Spirit is really any better than other older barnmates such as Cupid, Danzing Candy or Hoppertunity. When taken in that context, it puts the state of Baffert's barn, and what Mor Spirit helped him accomplish Saturday, in a special perspective.
*OK, an opening on the rail might have opened up for Antonoe in the Just a Game Stakes big enough to drive a fleet of Humvees through, but I don't care. That was some finish Antonoe produced into a tepid early pace to get up in ample time. She is just another in a barn full of female turf monsters for trainer Chad Brown.
*I couldn't have bet Ascend in the Manhattan with counterfeit money, and if he weren't linked to such high-profile connections as trainer Graham Motion and jockey Jose Ortiz, he might have been closer to 270-1 than the 27-1 he was.
OK, that's hyperbole. But the strongest impression I had coming out of the Manhattan is that Time Test, runner-up at 6-5, isn't all that. He had every chance and just couldn't kick effectively, and that came on the heels on a narrow defeat in a Fort Marcy Stakes he had zero business losing. Because he's a Juddmonte/Chad Brown production, I suspect people might think Time Test is Flintshire Jr. He's not.
* Abel Tasman might have won the Acorn by only one length, but my sense is she was much better than that win margin would suggest. With an inside move that just had not been working on the Belmont main track, Abel Tasman slashed her way to the lead in upper stretch and stayed near the rail in the run to the wire. But turning for home, it sure looked like Abel Tasman was about to draw off and win by five lengths, and did not. Salty, who stayed outside all the way, battled her down to the wire. Maybe Salty was super game. She is a good filly. But I think Abel Tasman won the Acorn despite racing against the grain of the main track.
* There was no question that the inside was definitely not the place to be on Belmont's main track Friday, a bias that affected the outcome of all three of the main track stakes.
He Hate Me got off the inside quickly in the Tremont and won decisively with an outside rally. Roy H, in a most impressive performance even if it was with the grain of the track, dominated the True North with a four-wide sweep. And By the Moon prevailed in the Bed o' Roses with a three- to five-wide run.
In the meantime, most horses who ran near the inside in these stakes would end up being engulfed. Most. Mia Torri wound up near the inside in the Bed o' Roses and finished a game second. It was a fine effort against the bias even if the slow pace she got away with mitigated her performance to some extent.
* I don't want to take anything away from Hawksmoor because she's a classy filly. But that pace she got away with in Friday's New York Stakes was ridiculously slow. No news there, however. It was right in line with the slow-paced, front-running turf stakes wins we've seen recently at Belmont in the Pennine Ridge (won by Oscar Performance) and Thursday's Wonder Again (won by New Money Honey).
*To the surprise of absolutely no one, European horses finished one-two-three-four in Friday's Belmont Gold Cup going two miles on turf. International competition is cool and everything, but this race basically amounted to a $400,000 welfare payment to European horsemen.