Once again we will not have a Triple Crown winner - and we need one. The jewel of thoroughbred racing, a triple header of three races, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont, has not been won since 1979. We have come close a number of times in the last decade with horses like Smarty Jones winning the Derby and the Preakness only to fade in the Belmont, but this year's surprise upset Derby winner Giacomo was trounced in the second leg by Afleet Alex.
I have an interest in thoroughbred racing (aka The Sport of Kings), simply because it helped pay my university tuition: every morning for four years I would wake up when it was still pitch-black out and make my way to the backstretch in all kinds of weather in order to gallop racehorses around the track before heading off to class. I wasn't a jockey - I'm neither small enough nor light enough - I was merely an exercise rider. But it was a job I liked on a number of different levels, in spite of the fact that it was the most physically challenging thing I have ever done in my life.
When the movie 'Seabiscuit' came out two summers ago, there were hopes that it would help revive the flagging thoroughbred industry which has been in a slow decline since the economic crash of the mid 1980s. Likewise, every year that the Derby comes around people hope for a Triple Crown winner for the same reason.
Tommy Wolski, on-air commentator and former jockey, was asked recently if Derby winner Giacomo should win the Triple Crown and he said no. No, because he felt Giacomo was not a great horse. Maybe a lucky horse, but not a great horse, and what thoroughbred racing needs is a great horse. I might agree with the sentiment, but I disagree with his reasoning.
I don't think anyone would have called Seattle Slew a great horse, pre-Derby. A $17,000 purchase, he was likely one of the cheaper horses to run in this class of race over the last 30 years. But he won the Triple Crown, and went on to be a very good (if not great) sire. As far as I'm concerned, the proof is in the pudding: if the horse wins, that is what makes him great, not the fact that he's by a famous sire or he brought a huge pricetag or he has a well-known owner or trainer.
Afleet Alex is another interesting case. He was a long shot for the Derby, but finished a gallant third. Then in the Preakness he was making his move in the turn when he was bumped and went down to his knees. Few horses survive a mis-step like this at that speed; often they will go down, taking others with them. But not Afleet Alex: he not only regained his balance, but he then surged forward and won by an amazing four lengths. Not amazing in the way Secretariat pulled away from the pack by 25 lengths way back when, but amazing nonetheless considering the potential disaster he had just recovered from.
Likewise, Afleet Alex comes with a great human interest story: bought for $75,000 (not considered a lot of money if you're running in this class) by first-time owners, much of the money he makes goes to a young girl named Alex (for whom the horse is named) who is raising money for cancer research with her Alex's Lemonade Stand.
Go to www.afleetalex.com for more details.