The owners of thoroughbred racehorses ought to be seen and not heard. When they attempt to influence the actions of a professional horse trainer, their meddling almost invariably proves to be a mistake.
But when Jane duPont Lunger made the surprise announcement that her colt, Linkage, would be entered in the Belmont Stakes, the decision was in part a triumph for an owner's good sense.
Lunger and her son-in-law Richard Jones, who runs the Christiana Stable, apparently had to give trainer Henry Clark a little gentle prodding so he would go to New York and score the greatest victory of his long career.
Lunger took pains to stress that this was Clark's decision, but in fact the trainer had manifested no interest in the Belmont until he met with the owner in Wilmington on Monday night.
The pressure, the hoopla and the glare of publicity that accompany the Triple Crown races do not suit the 77-year-old horseman, and after Linkage lost the Preakness, he said, "I'm very glad it's over. I think we can relax for a while now." Clark indicated that he would wait and prepare Linkage for the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August.
This would have been a terrible mistake.
Until now, Clark's handling of Linkage has been in many ways masterful, and in all ways characteristic of him. He has always believed in developing horses patiently, never asking more of them than they are prepared to deliver. While some trainers would throw a horse into the Kentucky Derby on a whim, Clark wouldn't enter Linkage in a six-furlong stakes race with a $25,000 purse until he had the proper foundation.
Every time Linkage reached a milestone--his first start, his first stake, his first distance race, his first classic race--he was so thoroughly prepared for it that he could handle the challenge easily.
There are, of course, some drawbacks to this kind of judicious training. Linkage is (in my estimation, at least) every bit as good a racehorse as Affirmed.
But by this stage of his career, Affirmed had already won an Eclipse Award, 10 major stakes races, the first two legs of the Triple Crown and more than $1 million. For all of Linkage's ability, his greatest achievement to date has been to win an important prep race for the Kentucky Derby and then skip the Derby.
Still, the careers of horses who have been managed in this fashion shows that such judiciousness pays off in the long run. Now that Linkage has such a solid foundation, he is ready to deliver the payoff. To pack him away and await a race in August would have been preposterous.
Linkage has had a thorough preparation for the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont. After passing the Derby he may be fresher than some of his rivals; after running in the Preakness he is in sharp condition. My colleague Clem Florio, whose judgment I trust in these matters, wasn't especially impressed by Linkage's appearance before the Preakness. (And he correctly picked Aloma's Ruler to win it). But when he saw Linkage a few days after the race, he was stunned: the colt now looked vibrant with energy.
Of course, Clark knows better than anyone how well Linkage is doing now; he surely would not have agreed to the Belmont venture otherwise.
But if the decision had been entirely his, he probably would have skipped the race. When Lunger and Jones are smiling for the photograph in the winner's circle on June 5, they will deserve a share of the credit for getting there.