Thirty-two years ago, Affirmed fought off Alydar in the Belmont Stakes and won the Triple Crown, the cherry on the ’70s sundae, a decade of plenty — first the incomparable Secretariat, then the fierce, unbowed Seattle Slew and finally the determined and courageous Affirmed.
The draught has been endless and has persisted through radical change in almost every facet of American life.
When Affirmed won the last Triple Crown beneath the 18-year-old Steve Cauthen, the average annual wage in the United States was $10,500. Jimmy Carter was president. Political correctness meant that you voted. Bottled water was introduced to a skeptical American consumer. Water, after all, was free. Gold reached an all-time high, $200 per ounce. In England, Lesley Brown gave birth to the first test-tube baby. The average monthly cost of home ownership in New York was $497. The average cost of a home in the United States was $54,800. For the first time, the Super Bowl was played at night. The Bee Gees were at the vanguard of the disco ere. Boogie Oogie Oogie was a hit.
Ten extremely talented but ultimately denied 3-year-olds have sniffed the rarest piece of American sporting history in the last three decades and change. Their bids have ended in various spasms of emotion, from Real Quiet’s desperate last gasp defeat to Big Brown’s bizarre, lifeless and never explained journey over the legendary 12-furlongs of sandy loam on Long Island on a day you could almost hear the wind rush from racing’s balloon as the largest crowd ever to witness a sporting event in New York turned sullenly toward the exits.
Racing fans and horseplayers now approaching middle age have never seen a Triple Crown winner and those long in the tooth who enjoyed the blush of youth when they watched the parade of brilliance that was the ’70s await the next, if indeed there will be a next in this lifetime, with hope annually renewed but too long and sometimes almost cruelly denied. No winner of the Triple Crown remains among the living. Of those who have trained a Triple Crown winner, only Billy Turner, who trained Seattle Slew, walks among us.
The appreciation of a Triple Crown, like a fine wine or a white truffle, requires having savored the experience. Otherwise, the concept is academic. Beyond the apprehension of recent failures, which is an essential ingredient but wanting when unfulfilled, the sight of Secretariat running a field off its feet while leaving would-be rival Sham a smoldering shadow en route to establishing a 31-length legend and record that still stands, a sublimely dominant Seattle Slew almost snarling as he dismissed at what was left of those who would oppose him in New York or Affirmed reaching deep within his very soul to repel his determined rival, Alydar, exists now only in memory, film and the ether above Belmont Park. The thunderous, enveloping cascade of sound, the hint of which rose on the Hempstead Plain if for only a moment when Smarty Jones turned into the Belmont stretch with a long lead and short stride, is beyond description in any known language. Nor are the afterglows or the instants of history frozen in time and memory that live forever in the present tense.
With more than three weeks remaining until he faces his next test in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, last year’s champion 2-year-old, Uncle Mo, stands unblemished and unthreatened after an impressive if virtually unopposed 3-year-old debut in the Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream Park and is the anointed one. A Grade 1 victory in Queens will propel Uncle Mo toward Louisville a clear favorite to win the 137th Derby. ‘Mo,’ in this case, is symbolic of momentum, which will gain new and prodigious force with a victory in the Wood.
Recent winners of the Wood Memorial have fared poorly on racing’s most brightly lit stage. This is probably a quirk or coincidence and many longstanding trends on the road to the Derby have fallen to contrarians in recent years. But recent Wood Memorial history suggests that premature immersion in the developing tide of Uncle Mo mania is probably ill advised. What you see at Aqueduct may be quite different from what you get at Churchill Downs.
A year ago, Eskendereya put up a powerful victorious performance in the Wood, the most impressive of the winter and spring by any member of his generation. He was easily the most talented 3-year-old of 2010, but never made the post parade in Kentucky or anywhere else. Nor did I want Revenge, dominant in the 2009 Wood and clearly favored in Louisville but scratched on the morning of the Derby and sidelined for months before returning finally to competition.
In 2005, Bellamy Road ran 9 furlongs in 1:47.16, set a stakes record in a 17 1/2-length siege of the Wood. He made the race at Churchill, was favored in the betting but empty at the quarter pole. He returned during that summer but was never the same colt, having left his finest hour in Queens.
Though 11 winners of the Wood, which was first run in 1925, have won the Kentucky Derby, the list of its winners since 1981, when it was won by eventual Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony, begins and ends with the volatile 2000 winner, Fusaichi Pegasus. During that period, all but four winners of the Wood — Irgun, Cahill Road, Coronado’s Quest and Buddha — ran in the Derby. Easy Goer, perhaps the best of Wood winners beaten in the Derby, slowed by an overflowing bandwagon and a muddy track, was 4-5 when he was upset by Sunday Silence in 1989.
Uncle Mo’s owner, Mike Repole, is a native of Queens with strong emotional attachment to Aqueduct and the Wood Memorial. New York guys love racing good horses at home. His family and friends will be present in force to see the current Derby favorite attempt to solidify that position on April 9. Should he win the Wood, Uncle Mo will be embraced by the New York fans, who will make him theirs. If all this comes together, the month between the Wood and Derby will be an exciting time in New York.
Perhaps Uncle Mo is the horse for which we have burned a candle since 1978 — the one to make all those tortuous waits until next year vanish; the one who sets loose that unforgettable roar at Belmont Park; the horse that even the most flint-hearted horseplayer will root for, even when he’s 1-9; the one you will never forget.
But, if the trend of the last 30 years is of any consequence, it is no time to jump on Uncle Mo in the next Derby Futures pool. He was the 3-1 favorite at the close of betting last time that wager was open for trading, not a price in the Derby that inspires bankrolls to be unfurled in a rush to the betting windows. Eskendereya looked the part, too. So did I want Revenge and Bellamy Road.
That mile and a quarter in Kentucky, with 20 horses all trying to get to the same place with only one chance in this lifetime is unpredictable and unforgiving. So are the two races and five weeks that follow.
An untimely defeat on April 9, though it may stun his supporters and connections and cool the fervor, may well serve Uncle Mo. Secretariat was upset by stablemate Angle Light in the Wood, leaving trainer Lucien Lauren if not the entire racing world dazed and speechless. Remember what happened after that?
Originally Posted on ESPN