Whenever a horse has won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the key issue in the Belmont Stakes is whether he can do it again. Will he maintain his sharp form after two hard races? Will he be effective at the Belmont’s 1-1/2-mile distance?
Neither Silver Charm nor any member of his generation has ever run a better race than Touch Gold did at Pimlico. The colt stumbled at the start so badly that his nose smacked the ground. Trailing the field by several lengths going into the first turn, he displayed stunning acceleration as he moved into contention; he made up more than 10 lengths at a stage of the Preakness when the leaders were in high gear. Touch Gold was in close quarters on the rail in the stretch. And still he lost by less than 2 lengths.
If he can duplicate the quality of this performance, he will win the Belmont, even though three of the entrants, in addition to himself and Silver Charm, have strong credentials:
Free House beat Silver Charm in the Santa Anita Derby, finished third to him in the Derby and missed by only a head-bob in the Preakness. But he benefited from a perfect trip at Santa Anita, and he had optimal conditions at Pimlico, too, seizing a clear early lead on a speed-favoring track. If he couldn’t hold off Silver Charm’s rally in the Preakness, there is no reason to think he will be more effective at 1-1/2 miles.
Wild Rush, yet another star developed by the brilliant trainer Richard Mandella, won the Illinois Derby May 10 in sensationally fast time, but his performance was slightly deceptive. The Sportsman’s Park racing strip was very rail-favoring and speed-favoring, and Wild Rush took advantage of the bias by leading all the way. Nothing else in his record to date suggests that he can beat his accomplished rivals in the Belmont field.
Crypto Star is the one habitual stretch-runner in a Belmont filled with speedy horses. He made an eye-catching late move when he won the Arkansas Derby in April, and he has trained much better for Saturday’s race than he did for the Kentucky Derby. But history is against him. No horse has come out of the Derby to win the Belmont without an intervening prep race. Moreover, despite myths to the contrary, plodders such as Crypto Star have had little success in the Belmont. This race is most often won by horses with controllable speed - horses such as Silver Charm.
Silver Charm is, of course, Touch Gold’s most formidable adversary today. He possesses a sprinter’s speed, but he can sit and wait to make his move when jockey Gary Stevens asks. By scoring tight photo-finish victories in the Derby and Preakness, he proved that he is a fierce competitor, reminiscent of Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner. He is durable and consistent; he will surely run his race in the Belmont.
So can Touch Gold beat him? The negative and affirmative arguments sound equally persuasive.
The Preakness was an extraordinarily stressful race for Touch Gold. He hurt himself slightly, cracking a hoof that had to be patched, and missed some training. Under the circumstances, it would be natural for the horse to follow his peak effort with a sub-par performance - what handicappers call a “bounce.” Even trainer David Hofmans said, “I really don’t know if he will bounce off the Preakness when he had so much to do, or if he has had plenty of time to recover.”
Touch Gold’s inexperience is also an issue. Handicapper Steve Davidowitz, in his commentaries on workouts for the National Racing Report, noted that Touch Gold has often looked nervous, impetuous and immature in his training. Such traits could wreck his chances in a 1-1/2-mile race, where a horse must relax and wait to make his move at the optimal time.
One positive sign for Touch Gold was his 7-furlong work in a blistering 1:23-4/5 to prepare for the Belmont. The colt is healthy if he can work so fast. An even stronger plus is the skill of Hofmans, a patient, judicious horseman who would not push Touch Gold into the Belmont rashly.
In any case, the Belmont does not offer much in the way of betting opportunities. Silver Charm will be a short-priced favorite, of course. Touch Gold will be coupled in the wagering with Wild Rush because both are owned by Canadian Frank Stronach, and as a result he will offer no value, either. But every handicapper wants to be right about a race like this, and after picking the Derby and the Preakness correctly I’d like to win my own Triple Crown.
I have vacillated about the positives and negatives concerning Touch Gold, and the deciding factor is this: Based on what I saw in the Preakness, he’s the best horse - the best of his generation, maybe the best 3-year-old in many years. Even if he doesn’t run quite the over-powering race that he did in Baltimore, he still ought to be good enough to spoil Silver Charm’s bid to make history.
xxxx TRIPLE CROWN WINNERS
1919 Sir Barton 1930 Gallant Fox 1935 Omaha 1937 War Admiral 1941 Whirlaway 1943 Count Fleet 1946 Assault 1948 Citation 1973 Secretariat 1977 Seattle Slew 1978 Affirmed