Trainer Woody Stephens' fifth consecutive Belmont victory, like the triumph of 54-year-old jockey Bill Shoemaker in the Kentucky Derby, was a result that delighted the sentimentalists, but otherwise it was a drab conclusion to a drab Triple Crown series on Saturday.
Only one horse, Ferdinand, came into the Belmont with solid credentials, and trainer Charles Whittingham said in advance that the Derby winner would have trouble handling the sloppy track. Danzig Connection was able to win because neither Ferdinand nor anybody else ran well; the time of the 1 1/2-mile race, 2:29 4/5, was dismal.
Danzig Connection is certainly not in the same class with Snow Chief, whose decisive victory in the Preakness was surely the best performance in the spring classics. But even Snow Chief is no world-beater. He won the Preakness (as he won the Jersey Derby, the Santa Anita Derby and the Flamingo Stakes) without any pressure for the early lead. The only time time that he faced tough competition for the early lead, in the Derby, he was trounced by 19 lengths. By the end of the year, his limitations will be exposed, and he probably won't even be considered the country's leading 3-year-old.
In contrast to the 1970s -- the "decade of champions" -- the 1980s have produced a disheartening number of forgettable Triple Crown events. Not many people will be regaling their grandchildren with tales of the day they saw Gato Del Sol or Aloma's Ruler or Tank's Prospect or Summing or Danzig Connection win one of the spring classics.
In this decade, there have been no more than one or two genuinely brilliant performances in the Triple Crown: Spend a Buck's triumph in the Derby last year and (maybe) Conquistador Cielo's runaway in the 1982 Belmont. This may be just a bad streak, but it could be the start of a trend, since the Breeders' Cup races later in the year are the events that reward the winners with big money and Eclipse Awards.
What is unfortunate about the lackluster Triple Crown races is that the media still concentrate on them and hype them while ignoring just about everything else in the sport (except the Breeders' Cup). It is as if newspapers and television covered baseball by focusing all their attention on the American League West and disregarding the other three divisions.
Danzig Connection's victory over a mediocre group on Saturday was automatically considered a major story, but when he faces the exciting 3-year-old Ogygian in next month's Dwyer Stakes at Belmont -- a race that could produce a genuinely brilliant performance -- it will not get the same kind of national attention.
Casual fans will never know that 1986 may be a terrific year for racing. Among the 3-year-olds, both Ogygian and Meadowlake are gearing up for a summer campaign after missing the spring classics because of injuries. Both of them have shown unmistakable signs of greatness early in their careers. If the two of them hook up with Snow Chief, which may happen in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, it would be a memorable confrontation.
The competition among the country's older horses in the summer and fall figures to be exceptional. The stretch-running Turkoman is one of the most exciting horses I have seen in years, and yet he was beaten in the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont by Garthorn, a 6-year-old who came to this country from Europe and still has never lost a race on the dirt. The two of them may carry on an exciting rivalry in the upcoming handicap races this summer. Later in the year they may be matched against Precisionist and Greinton, the two superb California-based veterans.
There are stars of the first magnitude in other categories, too. Lady's Secret is an extraordinary filly who dominates her own sex and can hold her own with the best males in the country. Phone Trick could be the best sprinter of the decade; undefeated in eight career starts, he has run six furlongs in an astonishing 1:08 flat, seven furlongs in 1:20 4/5.
So racing fans who were unthrilled by likes of Danzig Connection and Ferdinand need not despair. There is life after the Triple Crown series.