For want of a healthy hoof, a classic was lost

As a native Californian filled with empty regional arrogance derived from accidents of weather and geography, I was appalled at the results of the 2017 Triple Crown.

I mean, New York, wall to wall. Really?

Talk about greedy. New York's already got Sardi's and Seventh Avenue, "Hamilton" and the Guggenheim, Cloisters and Lincoln Center. What could it possibly need with another handful of horse-racing doodads? Window dressing at Tiffany?

According to accepted practices, at least during the robust second decade of the 21st century, the West is clearly the best place to find horses able to win the big ones. Californians Lookin At Lucky, I'll Have Another, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Nyquist, and Exaggerator accounted for 10 of the 21 Triple Crown races between 2010 and 2016, leaving Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, and, yes, New York, to divvy up the rest.

Now we have the muddled spring of 2017, during which Microsoft and Apple -- sorry, I mean Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown -- cherry-picked their way through the classics and won them all with horses whose names and faces are only slightly more familiar than the latest busload of Hollywood hopefuls. In the immortal words of either Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid, "Who are those guys?"

The Triple Crown is supposed to be a final examination, not the first round of "So You Think You Can Dance." Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing, and Tapwrit had exactly two graded stakes wins among them prior to winning America's 3-year-old jewels. So, now it falls to these pampered young things to go forth and validate their Triple Crown wins, rather than enhance already-polished records and draw fans to their fire.

Good luck with that. Bob Baffert, who wisely stayed clear of the Triple Crown, fired a pair of warning shots on the Belmont Park undercard last Saturday with American Anthem in the Woody Stephens and West Coast in the Easy Goer. Neither is the second coming of Arrogate, but they don't have to be to immediately become players in the second half of the 3-year-old season that will include the Haskell, Jim Dandy, Travers, and Pennsylvania Derby.

Then there is Classic Empire -- remember him? -- last seen running Always Dreaming into the ground at Pimlico before being caught by the fresh and opportunistic Cloud Computing. He's the Joe Btfsplk of his generation, habitually wandering the landscape with a dark cloud over his handsome head, braced for the next siege of rotten luck. If the stars that crossed at the beginning of Classic Empire's 2017 campaign ever return to proper alignment, look out because he is clearly the best of the bunch.

"I agree, but then I'm biased," Mark Casse said Monday morning, shortly after putting Classic Empire on a plane back to his home base at Churchill Downs. "What I saw on Saturday only confirmed that opinion."

What he saw on Saturday was a mildly entertaining version of the Belmont Stakes in which two stoutly bred colts separated themselves from the rest of a weary pack at the end of a distance none of them will ever face again. The victorious Tapwrit now can be known for something other than his $1.2 million price tag, while gallant runner-up Irish War Cry has commenced a new streak of one good race in a row.

According to Casse, the hoof abscess that knocked Classic Empire out of the Belmont burst the day before the race.

"When we took the poultice off the foot after he wore it overnight Friday, there was a lot of pus," Casse said. "By that afternoon -- which was the afternoon of the Belmont -- he was much better, though still walking a little gingerly. By Sunday, he was walking 100 percent."

Classic Empire, the champion 2-year-old colt last year and the winner of the 2017 Arkansas Derby, was sidetracked by a similar hoof abscess earlier this season. The trainer was asked if the problem could become chronic.

"It's something that we'll always have in mind," Casse said. "We'll do everything we can to prevent it from happening again. But the thing about him is he doesn't need things to always be perfect. That's the difference between good horses and great horses.

"He's going to be fitted with some new shoes in the morning, then we'll try to go back to the track Wednesday or Thursday and start to get ready for the Haskell."

* Much was made of Pletcher winning two legs of the Triple Crown with different horses, and rightfully so. D. Wayne Lukas did it in 1995. And so did John Jacobs.

In this space last week, it was written that Hall of Famer Hirsch Jacobs trained the 1970 classic winners Personality and High Echelon. Wrong. In fact, they were trained by John Jacobs, who was 36 when he took over the family stable upon the death of his father in February of that year.

After the younger Jacobs saddled Personality to win the Preakness that spring, the colt had to be scratched from the Belmont with a bout of sinusitis, leaving High Echelon -- third in the Kentucky Derby -- to carry the family fortunes.

"I still think we might be okay," ventured Jacobs, in reference to the stretch-running gray.

On a slow, sloppy racetrack, High Echelon won the Belmont by three-quarters of a length. Jacobs, who is still with us at 82, dedicated the race to his father.