In less than one month, the Triple Crown will be up for grabs again. The nation's finest three-year-old thoroughbreds will be poised in the starting gate at Churchill Downs; their owners will be sweating; and thousands of fans will be screaming as the chase for Secretariat's crown gets underway with the Kentucky Derby.
Penny Tweedy's champion did more for horse racing last year than any one man or horse had done for decades. His thundering 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes, capping off a sensational three-race sequence against America's best, bordered on the unbelievable. The horse had character, class, and a charisma that impressed millions.
But this is 1974. And this year's crop of speedballs has produced, thus far, no outstanding pretenders to Secretariat's throne. As a matter of fact, the three-year-old picture is a toss up.
Three weeks ago, a few horses had emerged as possibilities. Protagonist, winner of the Experimental Free Handicap, and Judger, the spectacular winner of the Florida Derby, were beginning to look like championship material. Protagonist proceeded to run fourth in the Bay Shore Handicap at Aqueduct that weekend, while Judger finished a tired third in the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah.
Judger's highly touted stablemate, Cannonade, faded from second to seventh in the same race. "What can I say? They got beat," trainer Woody Stephens stated prophetically after his two-horse entry, sent off as a 1-5 favorite, petered out in the stretch.
Last week in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, Protagonist continued to slide further out of the picture. The chestnut colt took a disliking to the sloppy going that day, loped around in last place most of the way and almost fell after stumbling just past the finish line. Trainer Johnny Campo's horse now has a swollen knee to contend with because of the mishap.
Meanwhile, Rube the Great (a fine name for a prospective Derby winner) charged past the field to win by five easy lengths. Capital Asset, Secretariat's half brother, and Capito, half brother to Riva Ridge, both suffered from an acute lack of speed in the race, and were never in contention.
So who's going to win the Derby?
It should be obvious by now that nobody has the faintest idea. Protagonist, Judger, Cannonade, Capital Asset, and Capito will all need some juicing up if they're going to do it. And can anyone see a beast named Rube the Great etching his name into the annals of history?
The general confusion has had one concrete effect on the upcoming Derby: more owners want to take a shot at winning it. It looks as though, believe it or not, so many want to enter their horses that the race will probably have to be run in split divisions. Right now, there are around 35 probable starters. Since you can't have more than 17 or so in any one race, the dilemma is obvious.
Should the race be run in two divisions, two winners will emerge. Either both will be named as Kentucky Derby winners, or else a run off between the two will ensue. Take a guess.
There are a few more races left before Derby Day, the most important of which will be the Wood Memorial on April 20. After that, the field of hopefuls should dwindle somewhat. It's doubtful, though, that the final number will be less than 20. Racing fans will get two races for the price of one, at least in the Derby.
Looking further into the future, to the Preakness and the Belmont, would be pointless right now. One thing is certain, though: it's a pretty good bet that there won't be a Triple Crown winner this year. But keep your eye on Penny Tweedy's twosome, anyway. Even a small-degree of association with her former champions may be enough to get Capital Asset and Capito by this year.
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