Union Rags roared from behind to win the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, one day after the winner of the first two legs of horse racing's fabled Triple Crown dropped out due to an injury.
BELMONT, N.Y. -- Late Friday morning, a cluster of photographers was gathered inside the homestretch rail at Belmont Park, staking out positions for the hundreds of cameras that would be put in place to capture horse racing history a day later. In the parking lots surrounding the big racetrack in Queens, portable lighting towers were readied for use in illuminating the acres of parking lots that surround the oval. Inside, workers applied paint and polish to the grandstand and clubhouse, readying for what would surely approach the record crowd of more than 120,000, as I'll Have Another attempted to become the first horse in 34 years to win the Triple Crown. Three weeks of anticipation were nearly over.
ELMONT, New York -- Early last Wednesday afternoon, Doug O'Neill was on his cellphone conducting a telephone interview. Since O'Neill trains I'll Have Another, who next Saturday will try to become horse racing's first Triple Crown winner in 34 years, O'Neill has been doing a lot of this for the past month. At shortly after 1 p.m., he got a call waiting notification from his publicist, Kelly Wietsma. O'Neill paused his interview and went to Wietsma, who said, "We have to talk.''
Most of them never see it coming. They work training racehorses, getting up before dawn to labor in a space where big trucks regularly pull up alongside their office and haul away piles of hay that are saturated with horse manure and urine. They might be successful in their own world (wealthy, even), but to the broader universe of sports and culture they are anonymous.
Michael Matz has spent a lifetime working with horses -- first as a member of the U.S. showjumping team that won the silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and more recently as a trainer of racehorses. But he will always be remembered for just one: Barbaro.
The Belmont Stakes, the final leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, is being billed as Round 3 between Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness Stakes champ Shackleford. That marketing hype -- in lieu of a Triple Crown attempt, build up the best storyline and pray for a healthy turnout -- is understandable though a bit shortsighted. The top seven finishers from the Kentucky Derby are back to contest the Belmont, making Saturday's "Test of the Champion" more than just a two-horse race.
Congratulations to all who had Animal Kingdom winning the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago. This handicapping column did not have the chestnut colt as its top selection. (He was sixth on the list.) But as he returns to the track in Saturday's Preakness Stakes with a chance to add the second leg of the Triple Crown, we have enthusiastically jumped on the Animal Kingdom bandwagon.
ELKTON, Md. -- Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom has spent the last 11 days at home in a place called Fair Hill, which sounds like a '90s Hugh Grant movie (a bad one, just to be clear). But Fair Hill is actually a sensational place for a horse, as thoroughbred trainers like to say, to be a horse, instead of an object of pari-mutuel angst and media scrutiny, which is what the stately beasts become as soon as they are unloaded from a van and placed into a stakes barn somewhere.
Every year my Kentucky Derby day ends roughly the same way: A couple hours of chasing down owners, trainers, jockeys and various others connected to the race and its winner, followed by a 28-minute walk from Churchill Downs back to my hotel to write the story of the race for SI. (My personal best on this walk is 26 minutes, but there can still be crowds, which slow it down; occasionally it's raining, which can be hell on a cheap suit.)
LOUISVILLE -- Trainers preparing for the Kentucky Derby keep saying the same thing, over and over again. The race is wide open. There was Kiaran McLaughlin, a Kentucky native who saddled 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil, standing in the morning cold and wind Wednesday on the Churchill Downs backstretch.
Before we dive into the Belmont Stakes, let's look back at the Preakness. This space could not have been more wrong about Super Saver. The race looked to be set up perfectly for him and, indeed, he was in the garden spot stalking a good, but not unreasonable, pace.
BALTIMORE -- It's been pretty well established at this point that at the age of 43, Calvin Borel owns the Kentucky Derby. Three times in the last four years he has ridden the winning horse in the most important race in America, a transcendent event that owners, trainers and jockeys collectively spend entire careers dreaming of someday just contesting. Never mind winning.
1. CURLIN The decade's only two-time Horse of the Year was a tough-as-nails gamer who, according to trainer Steve Asmussen, "got better the more he got stretched out [pushed hard] in a race." Curlin came back on Street Sense in the 2007 Preakness to score one of the grittiest big-race victories in recent racing history, and then became just the second three-year-old in the 2000s to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. His owners did racing a favor by keeping him on the track as a four-year-old, and he won three more Grade I races before retiring.
These lists are not mere compilations of all-time bests in their respective sports but all-time bests at quickening the pulse and evoking a visceral response from those fortunate enough to have witnessed their artistry.
Late Saturday afternoon, Calvin Borel will chase an odd piece of history: He will try to become first jockey in history to win horse racing's three Triple Crown races on two different horses. His pursuit creates an odd slice of sideways hype for a race that truly needs a horse -- not a human -- to attract mainstream attention.
Preakness Stakes favorite Rachel Alexandra lived up to her billing Saturday, thundering past an all-male field of competitors and becoming the first filly to win the Triple-Crown's second jewel since 1924.
BALTIMORE -- With super-filly Rachel Alexandra's courageous -- and narrow -- victory over Kentucky-Derby winner Mine That Bird at Pimlico on Saturday, the 134th running of the Preakness Stakes provided vindication for two horses, and more than a little redemption for the sport of racing itself. After more than a week of controversy and unsportsmanlike behavior had taken some of the shine off the Bird's shocking win in Kentucky, both horses refocused everyone's attention on Saturday with performances that exceeded all expectations. Rarely has the loss of a Triple Crown gone down so easily.
BALTIMORE -- At shortly before 6 p.m. Wednesday, wine magnate Jess Jackson conducted a media teleconference in advance of Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. Jackson, 79, had purchased gifted 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra a week earlier and will run her in the Preakness against 12 colts, including unlikely Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.
One of the co-owners of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird told SI.com he will not enter any other horses in the Preakness to block filly Rachel Alexandra from running. Mark Allen had told Horse Racing Television on Sunday afternoon that he was planning to enter winless 3-year-old Indy Express in the Preakness, which might have helped keep Rachel Alexandra out of the race and keep jockey Calvin Borel on Mine That Bird.
LOUISVILLE -- They feel neglected. The trainers, the owners, the jockeys. The players in Saturday's 135th running of the Kentucky Derby are part of one of the great sports spectacles in America, and yet this year the stage feels a little smaller. The spotlight leading to the race feels a little dimmer.
In gathering darkness last Saturday at Belmont Park, trainer Nick Zito watched as horses walked on a dirt path inside his backstretch barn, cooling themselves after racing in punishing 90° heat. A tall, brown colt walked slowly past on a groom's lead, dropping and then raising his head with each weary step. "Hey, Da' Tara," said Zito, calling the horse's name in a raspy growl. Then he turned to a small group of visitors. "Right there," said Zito, nodding toward the horse. "That's the winner."
One of the most tumultuous and controversial Triple Crown seasons in history is finished. Many questions remain about the five weeks just finished and about the years ahead for horse racing. Some of the questions, and some possible answers:
ELMONT, N.Y .-- We all fell for it, and we should have known better. After five weeks spent watching Big Brown dominate races in Kentucky and Maryland, it was just too easy to go along with trainer Rick Dutrow when he predicted victory for his colt this weekend in New York. That's right, we said, nodding in agreement, nobody else has even come close to the horse, so how can anybody hope to beat him now? So confident were we in his eventual victory that the big bay went off in Saturday's Belmont Stakes at odds of 1-4, the lowest since railbirds sent Spectacular Bid to the post as the 1-5 favorite in 1979. The outcome of the race was a foregone conclusion (never mind that the Bid had eventually lost his Belmont). This was going to be a cakewalk. All that was left was the winning.
"Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings," said the famed English poet and writer Samuel Johnson, who likely would have found Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow an interesting character. Since his horse romped in the Preakness, Dutrow has taken self-confidence to another level, talking big and trash-talking at every corner of the barn. Below, we offer the many guarantees of Dutrow, in his own words:
Rick Dutrow is more than happy to explain that Saturday's Belmont Stakes is not a rider's race. He is, in fact, more than happy to explain that any race in which Big Brown is a participant is not a rider's race. Or a trainer's race. Or an owner's race.