Over the past week and a half two sides have emerged in the debate over whether Street Sense should be pointed towards the Belmont Stakes. While many pundits and fans say the connections should enter the third jewel of the Triple Crown for the good of the sport, others contend that trainer Carl Nafzger should make a decision based on what's good for the horse. I contend that the two ideas are not mutually exclusive and going to the Belmont is both good for the sport and good for the horse.
I would ask the "good for the horse" contingent if they would be so accommodating if there was an 8 or 12 inch difference in the Preakness, with Street Sense winning and therefore eligible to sweep the Triple Crown? If folks still think it would be OK for a trainer with a fit and race-ready horse to bypass the Belmont, then I simply have to wonder about the sport as a whole.
The Triple Crown trail is horse racing's season that is most analogous to that of other sports. The 2YO year is the pre-season. The early 3YO Triple Crown trail stakes are the regular season. The late-March/April stakes are the playoffs. And the Triple Crown is the championship. How could fans be so nonchalant about the championship event? And if folks do believe a race-fit Street Sense would have a near-obligation to go on to the Belmont if a Triple Crown were on the line -- how do they justify giving the connections a pass because of a mere eight inches?
It's not as though we're asking Nafzger/Tafel to enter the Podunk Derby. The Belmont Stakes is a nationally televised, million-dollar, Grade One classic. And while a Triple Crown winner is virtually assured the 3YO Eclipse (and perhaps HOTY), a winner of two jewels is historically very likely to win the divisional title. So sure, it will be great for racing if Street Sense runs, but it will be very good for the connections if Street Sense wins.
The "good for the horse" side of the debate seems to imply that running in the Belmont Stakes will be detrimental to Street Sense. When did this event become the bogey-man of horse-racing? Folks point to Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones as having succumbed to the grind of the Triple Crown, never racing after the Belmont -- but look at the past ten winners of the Florida Derby ('97-'06), six of them had their last race before the end of the summer of their 3YO season. Should we be leery of sending horses to the Florida Derby?
Does this all say that the Triple Crown trail itself -- including the preps -- is a debilitating grind? Or does it perhaps say that the breeding industry has become the tail that wags the dog and when a horse shows some precociousness and talent in the preps and/or the Triple Crown races themselves the clock starts ticking and the siren call of the breeding shed and the big dollars inevitably starts to tug that horse away from the racetrack?
Ask yourself this: When Funny Cide ran into some physical problems in the summer of his 3YO year, do you think if he wasn't a gelding that he would have continued on to the BC Classic and then to a 4YO season that included a G1 win and $1 milion in earnings -- or would he have been whisked away to the breeding shed, and thus added to list the of examples people use to demonstrate the "grind" of the Triple Crown and the Belmont Stakes?
In today's racing/breeding climate if one of these talented youngsters has a hiccup in their schedule due to even a minor injury it's likely to bring the curtain down on their career. This is just another reason to run a horse now if it's racing fit. And certainly after Street Sense's Wednesday work Carl Nafzger gave no indication that the horse is anything other than racing-fit and ready.
We don't have to dial back any farther than this past week to see how unpredictable this sport can be: Great Hunter and Sedgefield both declared out of the Belmont with injuries. This just amplifies the notion that the right time to run a race-fit horse is: now. In this day and age planning and waiting for races four, five, six months down the road can leave fans and connections alike frustrated and empty-handed.
The opportunity is now for owner Tafel and trainer Nafzger to let their charge add his name to the likes of Northern Dancer, Spectacular Bid, Sunday Silence, Point Given, and the recent Hall of Fame inductee Silver Charm on the distinguished list of horses that have won two jewels of the Triple Crown. If he's ready to go he should be pointed for the starting gate on Belmont Stakes day. It's good for the horse, and the sport. Let's hope that's what we hear from the connections on Thursday morning.
[And another question, perhap for another time: If there was no Breeders' Cup, would we even be having this discussion -- or would Street Sense be an "automatic" for the Belmont? And what does that say about the Breeders' Cup and its' effect on racing as a whole?]
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