The Third Time for Charm

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At the Preakness, Big Red was officially clocked at 1:54 2/5 for the mile-and-three-sixteenths, just two-fifths faster than Silver Charm, but the timing has long been disputed. Some watches said Secretariat set a Preakness record.

As for the 1973 Belmont, there is no dispute. In the single greatest performance in racing history, Secretariat demolished a field featuring Sham, Twice a Prince, My Gallant and others and won the twelve-furlong race by an astonishing 31 lengths. He stopped the clock in 2:24. Suffice it to say that sixteen years later, Easy Goer ran the next fastest Belmont ever--in 2:26. That's 10 lengths behind Secretariat. In 1995 Gary Stevens won on Thunder Gulch in 2:32. That's 40 lengths back.

To say that Silver Charm is no Secretariat is like saying Ellis Burks has a way to go before catching Henry Aaron. But does that diminish Burks or the brave gray colt? Absolutely not. If Silver Charm becomes the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, every racing fan will exult. And Bob Baffert will get to visit Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, here are the obstacles to glory:
1. History. The twelve Derby and Preakness winners who failed in the Belmont (five of them ran second) were anything but dog food. Put simply, it's hard for a three-year-old to run three grueling races in five weeks, especially when number three is a mile-and-a-half marathon, a distance most horses will never run again. No wonder only eleven greats have managed it.

2. Free House. Guess what. The Belmont Stakes looks endless, but in recent years it has often been won by a speed horse that is able to seize the lead, slow down the pace, then run on for home. Under savvy rider Kent Desormeaux, Free House is just that type. He's also run two monster workouts at Belmont. But do we think he can get the carnations? An emphatic no. House is good--he ran third in the Derby and got out-nodded in the Preakness--but he could be even more exhausted than Silver Charm. As for Captain Bodgit--Silver Charm's potential Alydar--he retired post-Preakness because he'd strained a tendon in his left front leg. So long, big fella. Have a high time in the breeding shed.

3. Touch Gold. Preakness-watchers saw the horrendous break Chris McCarron's colt got coming out of the gate May 17. Popular at the betting windows, Gold stumbled badly at the start, went almost to his knees, then gamely recovered and picked up horses for the next two minutes, finishing fourth while closing on the rail. How many lengths did he lose at the start? Plenty. Maybe enough to have won. But Touch Gold also has a quarter crack in one of his hooves. It's healing, but we still say no.

4. Wild Rush. Now, this is scary. Foreign horses and fresh horses who have won recent stakes races well are always dangerous in the Belmont, and Rush is the most dangerous of all. But first, the others. One outclassed newcomer, Irish Silence, has obviously been entered in the Belmont to serve the vanity of his owner, New York restaurateur Austin Delaney. He will justly go off at the kind of odds you'd get on Oprah if she fought Mike Tyson. Another Belmont mystery horse, Mr. Energizer, has won six straight races in Puerto Rico, including a Grade 3 stakes, but if he's ready for the big time, I'm Mickey Mantle. Arkansas Derby winner Crypto Star? He's got nagging respiration problems, a 3.73 Dosage Index (indicating he can't run this far) and, sad to say, a noticeable lack of heart. So we're happy to throw him out.

That leaves Wild Rush. The classic Belmont upsetter. After skipping the Kentucky Derby, the extraordinarily clever trainer Richard Mandella saddled his charge May 10 in the Illinois Derby at Chicago's Sportsman's Park. Sportsman's is not exactly the twin spires of Churchill Downs, but Kent Desormeaux got his colt going early, led every step of the way while setting very fast fractional times and won a Grade 2, mile-and-an-eighth event in a track-record time of 1:47 2/5. Wow! He races Saturday with one week's more rest than Preakness battlers Free House and Silver Charm, and he's got speed. And because Desormeaux is already committed to Free House, Mandella has settled on the services of...the most talented jockey on the face of the earth. Mister Jerry Bailey, the rider of Cigar, 1993 Derby winner Sea Hero and 1991 Preakness and Belmont winner Hansel.

If all that doesn't add up to a Silver Charm ambush, I don't know what does. After all these years, racing fans deserve another Triple Crown winner, and Silver Charm may be good enough for the job. But watch out.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo

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