If Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand were facing Preakness winner Snow Chief in the Belmont Stakes, their rematch would have provided an interesting and fitting end to the Triple Crown series.
But because Snow Chief was run, instead, in the $1 million Jersey Derby and then sent home to California, Ferdinand is left to face nine undistinguished rivals. The rest of the field consists of unseasoned colts who are shooting for the moon or seasoned ones who have fully established that they are not stars.
This, of course, is the second straight year in which the Triple Crown series has fallen flat.
Last year, Spend a Buck bypassed the Preakness and the Belmont after winning the Kentucky Derby in a runaway. His defection to the Jersey Derby prompted the managements of Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park to band together under the aegis of "Triple Crown Productions" and to acknowledge the need to put up a monetary bonus for the whole series. So what's happened to the bonus?
"It's still in the works," Pimlico General Manager Chick Lang said. "We've talked about various options, such as awarding points for finishing one-two-three and paying a bonus to the horse with the most points. That would give owners an incentive to run in all three races. We've had a series of ongoing dialogues with corporate people about getting involved in sponsorship with the Triple Crown."
But the idea of corporate sponsorship has problems. Of the companies that have expressed interest, one is in the liquor business and the other in the tobacco business, which would prevent them from advertising their Triple Crown connections on television.
And the track managements wouldn't permit another commercial sponsor to be excessively commercial. Lang said, "We're not going to have the 'Budweiser Kentucky Derby' or the 'Esskay Preakness.' "
There is another possibility: Why don't the tracks themselves put up the money for larger purses or for a Triple Crown bonus?
"Because we don't have it," Lang said.
Pardon us while we dry our eyes, Chick. The Derby and Preakness (which this year attracted crowds of 123,819 and 87,652, respectively) generate far more revenue for their tracks than any other races in America. Yet the purses for Triple Crown events last year were only the 16th, 18th and 19th largest in America.
Other tracks put up bonuses for winning a series of races. Garden State, Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands offer $1 million to a horse who wins the Jersey Derby, the Haskell and the Pegasus Stakes. It is foolish and shortsighted for the Triple Crown tracks not to do the same, because they are going to continue to lose their top box office attractions if they don't.
The absence of Snow Chief from the Belmont is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not the least that his presence would have made it easy to pick a winner.
The Belmont is most often won by horses who fit this profile: They have been sharpened by a recent prep race, instead of coming into the 1 1/2-mile event after a three-week layoff from the Preakness. And they typically have speed, mocking the myth that a plodder who comes from 20 lengths behind is the perfect type for the Belmont. Snow Chief would have fit on both counts.
Ferdinand doesn't fit either part of the profile, and he would ordinarily be the type of favorite I would love to bet against. But he may simply be the best horse in the field.
Rampage, the probable second choice in the wagering, won't be able to win after a five-week layoff since the Derby. Danzig Connection and Johns Treasure have some speed and the benefit of a recent prep race, but the former doesn't have enough ability and the latter doesn't have enough seasoning.
Mogambo does come into the Belmont after a good prep in the Jersey Derby, where he chased Snow Chief all the way around the track and lost by two lengths. He showed that he is quick enough to stay close to the leaders in the Belmont.
If my bankroll had not been depleted by Badger Land in the Preakness, I would play a Mogambo-Ferdinand exacta on Saturday. But I don't mind passing this race, because Mogambo is a horse I have always loathed anyway. He has rarely run fast, never won a stake under anything but optimal conditions.
It is an indictment of this year's Belmont that Mogambo looks like a potential winner, and that such colts as Johns Treasure and Danzig Connection are widely considered serious contenders. But the Triple Crown runs the risk of having more such drab attractions in the future unless the managements of the three tracks are willing to (pardon the expression) spend a buck.