Some of us who watched the Kentucky Derby might have thought Chief's Crown lost because Spend a Buck ran too fast for him. But yesterday's Daily Racing Form corrected this simplistic view.
According to columnist Joe Hirsch, "Stable sources have indicated that Chief's Crown didn't care much for the firm going at Churchill Downs on Derby Day and was able to finish third on his own class and courage."
How stupid of us not to have realized that Chief's Crown didn't like the track! We might have been misled by the fact that the champion colt previously had raced over seven tracks (including a couple that were as lightning-fast as Churchill Downs) and had scored victories over each. But, of course, the Derby is an exceptional race.
In other races, one horse wins and everybody else loses. In the Triple Crown, one horse wins and everybody else has an excuse why he should have won.
Of the Derby horses in the Preakness, everyone had an alibi. Like Chief's Crown, Tank's Prospect couldn't deliver his best performance on the rock-hard Churchill Downs track. Eternal Prince broke a bit tardily from the gate and got a horrible ride from jockey Richard Migliore. I Am the Game cut himself during the race.
All this information is enough to drive a well-intentioned handicapper nuts. It's tough enough to deal with well- established principles of the game like speed and class, but how can anybody deal rationally with the knowledge that a horse jumped over a shadow at a crucial stage of the race (Personality in 1970), got hit in the head by a flying beer can (Bombay Duck in 1975) or lost a couple of teeth during the race (Sham in 1973).
It was the latter incident that crystallized my whole philosophy of dealing with alibis. At the start of that memorable Derby, Sham rapped his mouth on the iron bars of the gate, tearing loose two teeth. Author Bill Nack wrote, "He drifted suddenly to the right, as if careening to the taste of blood." Minus the teeth, Sham lost by 2 1/2 lengths to Secretariat.
In the two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness, trainer Pancho Martin recounted his colt's dental misadventures a thousand times, and predicted that with normal racing luck Sham would turn the tables on Secretariat at Pimlico. The excuse was as plausible as they come. But in the Preakness, Secretariat beat Sham again. The margin: precisely 2 1/2 lengths, again.
Because they are so close to their horses, trainers tend to overrate the importance of minutiae that don't really have much bearing on the outcome of races. So this is my general rule: Ignore all alibis except the ones you can see for yourself during the running of the race.
Chief's Crown has no legitimate excuse for losing the Derby. Neither does I Am the Game. Neither does Tank's Prospect (although trainer Wayne Lukas was so plainly unhappy about the hard racing strip before the race that his excuse might have a bit of validity).
Eternal Prince, however, did have visible difficulties. Migliore's tentative riding in the first few strides left the colt engulfed in heavy traffic for a quarter-mile. A habitual front-runner, Eternal Prince had no chance after that. He is a rarity, a horse who comes into the Preakness with a bona-fide excuse for losing the Derby.