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Triple Crown near-misses have been bizarre

Coastal, with jockey Ruben Hernandez in light cap

Coastal, with jockey Ruben Hernandez in light cap riding, starts to pass Spectacular Bid, with Ronnie Franklin in the saddle, as they come through the final turn. (June 11, 1979 Credit: AP

How hard is it to win the Triple Crown? Not even Spectacular Bid, considered one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time, could do it. The Bid was considered a sure thing in the 1979 Belmont Stakes, then bad things began to happen.

On the morning of the race, trainer Bud Delp said he found a large safety pin embedded an inch into one of Spectacular Bid's hooves. He was walking gingerly before recovering. Then human error kicked in with jockey Ronnie Franklin, who moved much too early and finished third at odds of 1-5.

"It was just a bizarre set of circumstances," NBC racing analyst Randy Moss said this week. "Then Spectacular Bid got what in my opinion was one of the worst rides in Belmont Stakes history."

Little did the racing world know it was only the beginning of torment for horses who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before arriving at Belmont Park. In the previous six years, Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1997) and Affirmed (1978) swept the 3-year-old classics, and Bid's failure was shocking.

Back in the late Seventies, the question wasn't "Will we see a Triple Crown this year?" but "Who's going to be the next one to do it?"

The next 12 Triple Crown contenders were denied in strange, highly unpredictable ways. I'll Have Another was the latest ambush victim Friday, when he was scratched from the Belmont and retired because of a tendon injury in his left foreleg. He endured hard stretch drives at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, and the grind finally wore him down.

NBC racing analyst Gary Stevens is a Hall of Famer who was denied racing's most coveted trophy on Silver Charm in the 1997 Belmont and spoiled Real Quiet's quest for glory by a nose in 1998. Stevens recalled the 1988 Triple Crown when he rode the filly Winning Colors, who won the Derby before finishing third in the Preakness and last in the Belmont.

"It's a tough grind, and I saw the weight loss of Winning Colors from the Derby to the Preakness and into the Belmont," Stevens said. "It was hard on her. It's hard on all horses.

"Now even the ones with strong constitutions rarely race back in three weeks.

"You don't have that luxury with the Triple Crown. The schedule of those races is set in stone."


NBC starts from scratch

Besides I'll Have Another's connections and the New York Racing Association, no one felt worse about the Belmont favorite's scratch than the people at NBC Sports. Only 27 hours before airtime, almost all plans had to be changed.

"The format was ripped up and the producers basically had to start over," Adam Freifeld, NBC Sports vice president of communications, wrote in an email to Newsday. "Some of the features we planned could still be used, but the production team worked through the night to reformat the show."

In other races

Former claimer Caixa Eletronica rallied powerfully to win the True North by three-quarters of a length over Justin Phillip. It was the 7-year-old's third stakes win for owner Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher. He paid $9.20 for his 18th victory in 54 starts . . . Jeter, the 3-year-old gelding, disappointed any Yankees fans who made a hunch bet on the third race. Jeter ran fifth as the 6-5 favorite . . . Former Yankees manager Joe Torre was in the winner's circle to hand out the trophy for the Grade I Manhattan, won by Desert Blanc by a nose over Papaw Bodie. Desert Blanc, ridden by Ramon Dominguez and trained by Chad Brown, covered the 11/4 miles in 1:59.65 and paid $14.80 to win.

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