Triple Crown Failures: Excuses, Excuses
“You never make excuses for great horses.” That's what the late Johnny Campo, trainer of 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony, said after the Buckland Farm runner finished third behind Summing and Highland Blade in the Belmont Stakes.
“It's no disgrace he got beat,” the trainer told the Thoroughbred Record after the mile and a half race known as the Test of the Champion. “He's still a good horse. He's not a great horse.”
Pleasant Colony may have had some excuses that hot and humid June afternoon. The son of His Majesty was spooked on his way from the Belmont Park stable area to the saddling paddock, and by the time he got there he was washed out in sweat. He was fractious in the starting gate, then was taken back to last in the 11-horse field by jockey Jorge Velasquez despite a pedestrian pace.
At first, Campo refused to blame his jockey for the length and three-quarter defeat. A couple of hours later, however, the New York native was in rare form when he spoke to a writer for the Thoroughbred Record.
“Five years ago I would have strangled him after the race,” the trainer said of Velasquez. “And before I killed him I would have told him what a bad race he had ridden.”
Pleasant Colony is the second of 11 Derby-Preakness winners to have been defeated in the Belmont since Affirmed's Triple Crown sweep in 1978. Some of the near-miss horses had more legitimate excuses than others. Several involved ill-timed rides, either moving too soon in the race or, as in the case of Pleasant Colony, too late.
Spectacular Bid looked unbeatable as the 3-10 favorite when he tried to become the fourth Triple Crown winner of the decade in 1979. But his jockey, a young and inexperienced Ron Franklin, had been intimidated throughout the year by Angel Cordero Jr., losing his confidence and focus.
In the Belmont,. Franklin made a foolhardy move early in the race, chasing fast fractions set by longshot Gallant Best and taking the lead down the backstretch. Bid opened up a three-length advantage with a quarter-mile to run, but he was spent by the time he reached the eighth pole. Coastal passed him in the stretch to win going away, with Spectacular Bid winding up third.
Franklin, who was arrested a short time later for drug possession at DisneyLand, never rode Spectacular Bid again.
But Franklin's questionable ride wasn't the horse's only excuse. The morning of the race, trainer Buddy Delp arrived at the barn to find groom Mo Hall almost apoplectic.
Hall discovered a safety pin used in ankle bandages lodged in the son of Bold Bidder's left front foot. Delp said Spectacular Bid favored the foot as he walked, though after the pin was removed he seemed to be OK. After consulting with the horse's owners and a veterinarian, the decision was made to stay in the race – though details of the safety pin incident were not disclosed until the next morning. Some speculated Spectacular Bid favored the left foot, staying on one lead for most of the race. The following day, the Bid had a fever and a foot bruise that kept him out of training for a period of time.
Delp, who famously called Spectacular Bid the “greatest horse to look through a bridle,” took the defeat in stride. “If you're not prepared to lose,” he said, “You don't belong in the game.”
Spectacular Bid won 12 of his next 13 races as a 3- and 4-year-old, his only defeating coming at the hands of Affirmed in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Alysheba defeated Bet Twice in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness of 1987, but Bet Twice soundly thrashed Alysheba in the Belmont, running away to a 14-length win. Alysheba, trained by Jack Van Berg and ridden by Chris McCarron, checked in fourth, not only blowing the $5 million Chrysler was offering for a Triple Crown sweep but the $1 million bonus going to the horse with the most points accumulated in the three races. Bet Twice took that bonus with his Belmont win.
“Maybe we ran into some kind of super mile and a half horse,” Van Berg said of Bet Twice. But he also said McCarron lost any chance when he took Alysheba back and allowed Bet Twice to gallop along on the front end.
“Yeah, Chris rode a bad race,” Van Berg said at the time. “We all have bad days, we all make mistakes.”
One thing Van Berg didn't use as an excuse was the inability to give Alysheba Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication he raced on in Kentucky and Maryland. Lasix had not yet been approved in New York. However, endoscopic examination showed Alysheba did not suffer from exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage in the Belmont.
Two years after the Bet Twice-Alysheba Triple Crown battles came a rivalry that pitted East Coast vs. West Coast in the form of 2-year-old New York-based champion Easy Goer against the Charlie Whittingham-trained California upstart Sunday Silence. Sunday Silence shocked the heavily favored Easy Goer in the Kentucky Derby, winning by two and a half lengths on a muddy racetrack.
Two weeks later, when the two colts met in the Preakness at Pimlico, fans overlooked the Derby result and made Easy Goer the favorite. Sunday Silence emerged with a nose victory over his rival in one of the most exciting stretch runs the Preakness had ever seen.
Whittingham was a master at winning distance races, dominating such events as the San Juan Capistrano over a mile and three-quarters at Santa Anita. Stretching Sunday Silence out to 12 furlongs for the Belmont proved to be too much for the Bald Eagle.
Easy Goer trounced Sunday Silence, who was finally made the favorite, winning the Belmont by eight lengths. Whittingham made no excuses, saying only that the jet-black colt might not have the pedigree to go that far. “His dam (Wishing Well) was a good miler while Easy Goer's dam (Relaxing) was a stayer,” said Whittingham. “Top class, too. But there's nothing wrong with being a good mile to mile and a quarter horse. Everybody says they make the best sires.”
Whittingham was right about that. Following his retirement the next year, Sunday Silence was purchased by Japanese breeder Zenya Yoshida and stood at the Shadai Stallion Station in Japan, where he became the most influential and successful sire in Japanese history. Many of Sunday Silence's best offspring did what he could not do himself: win Grade 1 races going a mile and a half.
Coming in Part 2: Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones and Big Brown.