Saturday, June 11, 2011

Testing the Champions

One of the most enduring memories from my adolescence is of watching Secretariat wipe out the field in the Belmont Stakes and claim the Triple Crown.

On that afternoon in June 1973, Secretariat recorded an incredible 31–length victory.

I don't expect to see anything like that this afternoon.

I know we won't witness the end of the Triple Crown drought.

But I do believe we will see something that is just as rare. I believe we will see a horse win the first and third jewels of the Triple Crown.

Eleven horses have won the Triple Crown since 1919. The same number have pulled off that 1–3 split — and only two have done so since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978.

(By comparison, since 1919, 21 horses won the first two jewels of the Triple Crown but failed to complete the sweep, and 13 horses lost the Kentucky Derby but went on to win the last two jewels of the Triple Crown.)

Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby last month, and Shackleford won the Preakness — but Shackleford was fading at the end and barely kept Animal Kingdom from pulling off an amazing come–from–behind win.

Nearly three weeks ago, Mark Breech of Sports Illustrated observed that it was "almost inconceivable" that Shackleford could win the grueling Belmont Stakes — known as the Test of Champions — after fading noticeably in the shorter Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

"Animal Kingdom has been the fastest horse at the end of both of the first two races in this series," Breech wrote. "Having more room to run can only be to his benefit."

I agreed with that when I read it the first time. I still agree with it today, about three hours before race time.

Breech's colleague at Sports Illustrated, Gene Menez, is on the Animal Kingdom bandwagon, too, but he insists that the hype about today's race being Round 3 between Animal Kingdom and Shackleford sells the rest of the field short.

It is "more than just a two–horse race," he writes.

And he mentions several horses that could pull off upset wins. It wouldn't be a new experience for a longshot to win the Belmont. Three have done so in the last decade.

But Menez is sticking with Animal Kingdom. "Everything points to another big race from the Derby winner," he writes.

Brad Telias of The Sporting News rightly calls the Belmont "a race like no other."

And, when all is said and done, Telias picks Nehro in "a mild upset." That isn't a bad choice; Nehro, as he points out, was an "impressive runner–up" to Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby and should be well rested after skipping the Preakness three weeks ago.

"Animal Kingdom will relish the distance and he's coming in the race without showing any signs of fatigue or wear and tear," writes Telias. "His downfall may come from his come–from–behind style in a race that promises a slow pace."

I'm sticking with Animal Kingdom.

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