By NICK HAHN
Do you think racing can't turn on a dime? Last weekend I saw it flow from the anticipation of what might have been the most visible day of racing since the Carter Administration to the antics of independent minded equines at a racetrack less than half the size of mighty Belmont Park. From regal destination to Interstate stop off, I was reminded racing still remains a compelling game. At any level and at any role of participation you play, kings can be humbled and peasants can rise to unimaginable heights.
From the time I started following racing, I've picked only two Kentucky Derby winner since 1995. I'll Have Another was my pick to win the Santa Anita Derby which he did in determined yet largely unimpressive manner with a novice jockey aboard. Yet, I always thought he was one horse who could win the Derby.
Arriving at Churchill Downs, I'll Have Another was the first Kentucky Derby horse I recognized as I arrived on the grounds Thursday morning. He was walking through the gap onto the track for his morning gallop. Later that morning while listening to interviews of trainers on the backstretch, Bob Baffert commented that he believed California had the best group in years and that this year's edition of the Kentucky Derby was going to be the best in years. My thoughts drawn to the first colt I saw earlier that day.
|The first time I saw I'll Have Another in person was on his way for a gallop.|
The following day during our Kentucky Oaks broadcast of "Off to the Races," I was unsure of my Derby pick even after the show started. Pressed by Derby Bill for a pick as we have done on the show for 15 years, I went with I'll Have Another. My pick was steered by Derby Bill's selection of Bodemeister and that Bodemeister was likely going to be the favorite. Derby Bill and I will never pick the same horse and I can't think of a realistic scenario where I take the Kentucky Derby favorite. There's just too much opportunity in the race.
I'll Have Another delivers two ninth inning, buzzer beating, Hail Mary wins in the first two legs of the Triple Crown at the expense of Derby Bill choice Virginia-bred Bodemeister ran second. Remember, Bill and Baffert pointed me to this horse more than anything. In between starts, I visited the Derby winner's stall before the arrival of the media onslaught the following week and was allowed to squish a sponge on the blaze of his head. O'Neil and I shared thoughts on planter fasiciitis prior to his team's start in a 5K race.
|The Saturday in-between Triple Crown races was personal time for the Derby winner.|
In New York for the Belmont Stakes, I was tying the laces on my shoes when at 6:00 a local news weather told me that Triple Crown candidate had already galloped Big Sandy and was back in the Stakes barn. The early morning trot was pre-planned by O'Neil and Reddam. Only the seasoned veterans that report racing weren't fooled by the dawn trisk. Later than morning on "Sportsphone with Big Al" I reaffirmed that he would be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed.
The news of the pending scratch of Triple Crown candidate hit the Belmont press box like the Hindenburg. I first learned of it when a young reporter, wearing a baseball cap backwards walked up to his mentor and asked, "So, how should I write the piece on the scratch of I'll Have Another?"
|Probably not the crowd many were expecting at the Belmont Stakes.|
Jaws dropped and programs fell to the floor after a subtle silence. In denial, I initially discarded the remark as a sarcastic prank in poor taste. Couldn't believe it. Only moments later when incoming confirmations jumped all over the press box had I realized its truth. On the way up the elevator I had crossed the track employees hastily moving a podium to the backstretch "for an announcement that wasn't on their schedule sheet." The same podium Reddam and O'Neil would later be used in the 1:00 pm press conference.
|Not far from where O'Neil announced his disappointing news , it was great to share brews with O'Neil on an evening when he probably really needed one.|
Charasmatic broke down, War Emblem went to his knees, Funny Cide lost in a driving rainstorm, Smarty Jones was a half dozen lengths in front the last time I saw him at the 3/16ths pole, Big Brown was pulled up. None of those were by Derby picks and I watched all of these bizarre endings in person. When it was time for my Derby winner to attain racing's most challenging quest, he never made the gate. Still, for the thrills I had following this colt, I figured that if anyone deserved "another", it was the horse.
I'm not complaining as my Derby and Preakness winning trifectas were generous. Bodemeister twice gave me winning straight exacta picks. With each winning Triple Crown race a toast on the balcony to my handicapping brilliance. I can't tell you how good it feels to walk by Hank Goldberg on the way to the cashing window. (For the record, I like Hank.)
|When it came to his Triple Crown wins, all I could say is "Thank You, I'll Have Another."|
After the Friday afternoon thud that was the press conference announcing the scratch of I'll Have Another, my Belmont handicapping, was well, lackluster. If not for Virginia-bred Reedemed scoring an impressive 10 length score in the Brooklyn Handicap, I may have whiffed the weekend. I had written Union Rags off as a colt with a solid two year season that had run out of Triple Crown excuses.
|If it weren't for Virginia-bred Redeemed, I might have had to walk home.|
So on the Sunday afternoon drive back to Charlottesville, I stopped at Charles Towns for my first visit since 2006. Former Colonial Downs chart caller Kyle Fitzgerald and I looked over horses in the paddock and I selected #7, Wild Captain Bob. After a gate disruption, the horse turned 180 degrees and proceed to attempt to break the track record at Charles Town for 5 & 1/2 furlongs going the wrong way. At the top of the stretch he ran through the gap and was corralled prior to encircling the barn. (He appeared to be just fine after his gallop and capture.)
Fine conclusion my 2012 Belmont Stakes experience. I had every confidence that my Derby selection was primed to capture the Triple Crown and SI's Sportsmen of the Year. What had started the aspirations of the most historic moment in a generation complete with $2 uncashed win tickets concluded with a hastily exchanged teller transaction on my first bet at Charles Town in 6 years. I returned to the track with a $5 show ticket on a mediocre horse in a six-horse field. Care to hear the result?
|My selection Wild Captain Bob went AWOL from the starting gate.|