Oh, what might have been. That’s the story of the Triple Crown for so many through the years. For all but 13, actually.
If only Alydar was born another year. If only Smarty Jones could have rated another few strides. If only Real Quiet hadn’t moved when he did. If only California Chrome could have...if only Funny Cide would have...if only...if only.
And that brings us to 2020, the year of the one-turn Belmont Stakes, the Travers prep, the September Kentucky Derby, the October Preakness. The year of the 15-week Triple Crown.
For Gary Stevens, he’s had plenty of moments to ponder the imponderable of the Triple Crown. The Hall of Fame jockey rode in 22 Derbies, won nine Triple Crown races, lost a Triple Crown in the final strides of one Belmont and derailed a Triple Crown in the final stride of another.
Fifteen weeks for Winning Colors? A one-turn Belmont for Point Given? More than two weeks be- tween the Derby and Preakness for Thunder Gulch? A Travers in between for Silver Charm? A June start for Firing Line?
Oh, let Stevens ponder the 2020 scenario for some of his partners.
“A horse like Firing Line, the most recent, he would have been allowed to develop more,” Stevens said of the 2015 Derby runner-up. “He would have been preparing for the Kentucky Derby, aiming for it and he’d have gotten a nice rest.”
Firing Line got closer to American Pharoah than any horse in that year’s Triple Crown, falling a length short in the Derby. Firing Line ran back in the Preakness, finished seventh, ran once more and was retired. A little more time, a later start, yeah, it could have been different.
“Horses have developed a lot since the first Saturday in May,” Stevens said. “He was better than what he was ready to do physically. If he was allowed to have that time...”
Trained by D. Wayne Lukas, Winning Colors wired the Kentucky Derby, finished third in the Preakness and sixth in the Belmont Stakes in 1988. The filly won twice in 10 starts after the Belmont. A late start and a long span would have hurt her.
“She was a ball of fire, I don’t know if Wayne... Wayne was the greatest I ever rode for but I don’t know if he could have even contained her enthusiasm to train all the way up to what we’re looking at now,” Stevens said. “It would have been very difficult to keep her mentally sound, not physically, because she was very sound, but mentally it would have been very difficult. What she did as a 3-year-old in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff that year with Personal Ensign, she was not a shadow of what she was in the spring and still just got beat.”
Stevens won two legs of the Triple Crown aboard Point Given in 2001.
The massive chestnut colt chased a hot pace in the Derby and wound up fifth. Two weeks later, he won the Preakness and three weeks later, he demolished the Belmont Stakes, drawing off to win by 12 1⁄4 lengths. He tacked on the Haskell and the Travers before retiring.
“Oh, he only got better through the summer,” Stevens said. “He was a beast. It would have been a mismatch in the Derby, the Preakness and Belmont, reversed. With the Belmont as a prep race, aiming at the Kentucky Derby three months from now, he would have only gotten better. A one-turn mile and an eighth with this shake up, with 10 horses...there’s not a horse that I rode who would have beat him.”
Only one horse beat Silver Charm in the 1997 Triple Crown and that was late-running Touch Gold in the Belmont Stakes. Stevens scoffed at anything bothering the point-and-shoot colt, earner of $6.9 million in a stellar career for trainer Bob Baffert. The Triple Crown could have been contested on three consecutive days and he would have given a good accounting of himself. Months wouldn’t have mattered much either.
“The Charmster wouldn’t have cared, he was my man, he was laid back,” Stevens said. “Bob could do with him what he wanted, when I worked him, I didn’t know if was working a $20,000 claimer or a stakes horse, he would only do what I asked him to do, he would not over train. He was pretty laid back in everything he did, it wouldn’t have affected him either way.”
Stevens flew back from Hong Kong to win the 1995 Kentucky Derby on Thunder Gulch. Two weeks later, they finished third in the Preakness. Three weeks later, they won the Belmont Stakes. Out of all of Stevens’ horses, perhaps, Thunder Gulch would have benefitted the most from the 2020 shakeup.
“He would have drilled them. He would have drilled them. Especially with the timing between the races,” Stevens said. “He ran such a big race in the Derby and it was the biggest effort that he had run. It was the bounce theory before anybody knew what the bounce theory was, you did as a rider and I did as a rider, but you could pull up after a race and tell when they were wiped out and he was wiped out after the Derby. He still ran huge in the Preakness. Just that extra week between the Preakness and the Belmont, that extra week, he ran huge in the Belmont. He had the same constitution as Silver Charm. Anything you laid in front of him, he ate up.”
As for this year, Stevens believes Tiz The Law has handled and will handle the audible better than any other horse.
“He’s only going to improve because he’s improved with every race,” Stevens said. “We’ll see something phenomenal on Saturday. He’s breathing different air than the rest.”
Different schedule. Different air.