Running On Fumes
A ho-hum Belmont served as a reminder that the Triple Crown races need a bigger payoff
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas was waiting in the middle of the track, standing in the stifling 92� heat and wearing his familiar wraparound, Cheshire-cat grin as his chestnut colt, Commendable, galloped toward him around the clubhouse turn at Belmont Park. Lukas is a skilled gloater—he has been singing "I told you so" in perfect tune since he won his first of 13 Triple Crown races in 1980, with Codex in the Preakness—and last Saturday the Hall of Fame conditioner was in good voice again. "All year long, all I've heard people say about this colt is that he won't run farther than seven furlongs," Lukas said. "If I had listened to them, I'd have been racing him in the [seven-furlong] Riva Ridge Stakes today."
A few minutes earlier Commendable and his superb rider, Pat Day, had stalked an extremely slow pace in the 1�-mile Belmont Stakes (while benefiting from Alex Solis's inexplicable lapse in judging the early fractions aboard favored Aptitude), taken over the lead midway on the final turn and held off Aptitude's belated charge to win by 1� lengths. Commendable's victory brought to a close one of the most inconclusive Triple Crowns in memory. The series began with Fusaichi Pegasus' spectacular triumph in the Kentucky Derby, which raised hopes that we might see our first Triple Crown winner in 22 years. But the series lost its glow when Red Bullet, who had ducked the Derby, won the Preakness on a rain-slicked track. Then the series utterly collapsed in a Belmont from which Pegasus and the Bullet had defected and which served only to reaffirm that hoary adage: Pace makes the race. In this case, though, the adage had a twist: The lack of pace made the race.
Sent off at odds of nearly 19-1 as the eighth choice in the 11-horse field, Commendable had done almost nothing to distinguish himself as a 3-year-old. He had not won since his first of two starts as a 2-year-old, and in his six races since that victory, including five stakes, he had run no better than fourth. The low point had come at the Derby, where he finished 17th while beaten by 26 lengths.
Commendable's owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis, had suffered the worst kind of heartbreak in the Belmont, losing two bids to win the Triple Crown—in 1997 with Silver Charm and last year with Charismatic. Bob Lewis admitted to having serious doubts when contemplating his horse's chances of turning things around. Three days before the Belmont he asked Lukas, "Are you sure we're doing the right thing?"
"Absolutely," said Lukas, who had touted the colt all winter.
Lukas's instructions to Day were simple: "Try to have an energy-saving ride."
Day rode the advice to the letter. Out of the gate, as Hugh Hefner went to the lead, Day put Commendable right behind him. Aboard Aptitude, Solis said he knew the field was cantering along. "I didn't know how slow it was, but I knew it was slow," Solis said. Aptitude was last, 11 lengths behind, as Hefner cruised the first turn. "I didn't want to be that far back," Solis said.
Then why was he? Down the backstretch, as Hef completed the half in an easy :49[2/5], Commendable inched up next to him. Still Solis kept Aptitude out of the race, lamely explaining, "If you're going slow and you're that far back, you don't want to make any moves just to get close to the pace. You'd be misusing your horse."
After loping a mile in 1:39[1/5], Commendable was still fresh, and by the time Solis woke up, Day was sailing to the lead. Aptitude never had a chance, so his trainer, Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, is still looking for his first Triple Crown win. Watching a replay, Frankel looked stunned at seeing Solis let his horse fall way back. "Incredible," he said.