There were plenty of ambiguities involved in the outcome of the Flamingo Stakes, but the disqualification of Chief's Crown wasn't one of them. The stewards' decision to make Proud Truth the official winner was absolutely unjustifiable.
What happened in the stretch drive at Hialeah on Saturday happens at every track every day: A horse failed to keep a straight course and drifted wide, into the "paths" his rivals were running. If he were five lengths in front, would there be a disqualification? Of course not. Three lengths? Two lengths? No. This is only a punishable infraction when the leader takes away other horses' running room and prevents their jockeys from riding them all-out.
That never happened in the Flamingo, as Chief's Crown drifted wide in the stretch. Jockey Jorge Velasquez never stopped riding Proud Truth for a stride. But the stewards' rulings here this winter have been characterized by illogic and inconsistency. And on Saturday they were just about the only people at Hialeah who thought Proud Truth had been the victim of interference. It was probably the worst disqualification in a major stakes race since the Maryland stewards took Fort Marcy's number down in the 1971 Dixie Handicap at Pimlico.
Although Chief's Crown undeniably deserved the victory Saturday, it would be a mistake to think the Flamingo conclusively proved his superiority to Proud Truth and third-place finisher Stephan's Odyssey.
Chief's Crown was the only speed horse in the field, and he was able to control the race from start to finish. He forced his two main competitors to alter their usual stretch-running style and chase him early; jockey Don MacBeth was able to toy with his pursuers, open a narrow lead and spurt ahead at the optimal moment. If there had been one other formidable speedster in the race, I would bet that Chief's Crown would not have won.
But this argument can be made in favor of Chief's Crown: Having run in only one seven-furlong race this winter, he couldn't have been completely fit for the Flamingo. Both Proud Truth and Stephan's Odyssey were well-seasoned. Chief's Crown probably has a lot of room to improve over his performance on Saturday. The others don't.
Some people can look at the result and argue logically that Chief's Crown is the legitimate favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Others will argue that Proud Truth (now six for seven for his career) is the one to beat at Churchill Downs. In this debate, I am neutral. I think they are both grossly overrated mediocrities, and if either goes on to greater glory I might have to burn my speed figures.
Overlooked in all the postrace analysis of the Flamingo was this simple fact: All three of the principal horses ran dreadfully. The racing surface was so fast that even a low-grade, six-furlong allowance race for 3-year-old fillies was run in 1:09 1/5. On this track, Chief's Crown's time of 1:48 2/5 for 1 1/8 miles was dismal. (The day before, when the racing strip was slightly slower, an $18,000 claiming horse had covered the distance in 1:49 3/5.)
I would have thought the time was an aberration, that it was too bad to be true, except for one thing. The fourth-place finisher in the Flamingo was a colt named Important Business, who had been running without much success in $35,000 claiming races this winter. Important Business finished only 4 3/4 lengths behind the winner. So how good can Chief's Crown, Proud Truth and Stephan's Odyssey be? Not very good at all.
From Miami, these three colts will follow separate routes to the Kentucky Derby. Proud Truth will run next in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, where he will face Rhoman Rule, whose 1:47 4/5 clocking in a Hialeah stake suggests he is the best 3-year-old in the country. Stephan's Odyssey will go to Keeneland for the Lexington Stakes. Chief's Crown is expected to use the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland as his final Derby prep.
They all are going to be short-priced favorites because of their overblown reputations, and somewhere along the way to May 4 there might arise a golden opportunity to bet against them. This might not be an inspiring 3-year-old campaign, but it could turn out to be a profitable one.