The first Saturday in May plays host to the 19th Annual Bluegrass Derby, but for the first time in its storied history, the first leg of the sim’s Triple Crown could play out on something other than a fast track. 19 years, 19 fast tracks. But on Saturday, May 6, 2017, the weather forecast for Churchill Downs shows a 45% chance of an off-track.
Of course, there’s precedent in real life and the sim for one leg of the Triple Crown to have been run in the slop. Both Exaggerator and American Pharoah took home the Preakness Stakes in driving rain and a sloppy track, and the two sim monsters UNBRIDLED FURY (dixie) and I SEEK U (indy) won The Middle Jewel Stakes and The New Yorker, respectively, on a sloppy track. Additionally, both lenny and nextbonus have won The Middle Jewel Stakes on a track listed as good.
The true shock to the Triple Crown in 2017 is that two weeks after Louisville, the circuit heads to Baltimore where The Middle Jewel Stakes is expected to be run with a 20% potential of an off-track. And not to be outdone, entries in The New Yorker will be expected to run 1 1/2 miles on a track that is 75% likely to run off-track. None of the previous off-tracks have come in the same year, which is what makes the 2017 Triple Crown a first of its kind.
Trotter has spelled out what it takes to win the Bluegrass Derby, but will any 3 year old have what it takes to run down one or all of the Triple Crown races on a potential off-track?
In 2002, UNBRIDLED FURY won The Middle Jewel Stakes on a track listed as sloppy, and with a speed figure (SF) of 119, the fastest the son of UNBRIDLED ever posted. In that race, UNBRIDLED FURY beat TOWER STORM (lonespeed), a horse who beat him by 3.5 lengths in The Bluegrass Derby, and thwarted a Triple Crown run. UNBRIDLED FURY never won a Grade I stakes race after Baltimore, and 66% of its graded wins were on an off-track, so it’s fair to argue the sloppy track played a heavy role in this horse winning a leg of the Triple Crown.
2010 placed filly YOU SEE LA, trained by nextbonus, front and center after she shipped to Arlington Park and subsequently won the Chicago Derby. Less than a month later, she found herself in the shadow of the Twin Spires against the boys, but fell 2 lengths short of LUCKY’S HOWIE. Not to be discourage, nextbonus had his filly in form for The Middle Jewel, and this time the horse closed from 7 lengths back to win by almost 2 lengths while posting a 111 SF. YOU SEE LA went on to win the Eclipse Award after finishing 3rd in The New Yorker, 1st at Woodbine in the Clerk of Scales, and 3rd in the Travelers.
Just two years ago, lenny used the sloppy Tom E. Nearctic Dirt Route and The PRAYING FOR RAIN (Grade I) as preps for SUICIDAL DREAM’s Triple Crown hopes. In those races, SUICIDAL DREAM (MEDAGLIA D’ORO x SMART STRIKE x NIJINSKY 2ND) won by a combined 8.25 lengths. The fast track of Churchill Down provided a challenge for SUICIDAL DREAM, as he drifted well off the pace and finished 5th to SWINGING BIG SHAFT. The Middle Jewel provided redemption for lenny, as SUICIDAL DREAM flew past the competition en route to a 3.25 length romp in Baltimore. In the end, lenny pointed SUICIDAL DREAM away from Belmont, and the horse went on to earn more than $2,500,000.
The 2017 Triple Crown contenders will need to be built like the indy’s 2003 trainee, I SEEK U (GONE WEST x UNFUWAIN x MR. PROSPECTOR). After winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown by a combined 8 lengths, a sloppy Belmont track awaited I SEEK U. Unlike UNBRIDLED FURY in the previous year, none of I SEEK U’s preps were run on an off-track. Undeterred, I SEEK U, mounted by his Derby and Middle Jewel jockey B. Renfroe, shot off to the lead and never relented. I SEEK U won the 1 1/2 mile final leg of the Triple Crown by just under a length, and still remains the sim’s only Triple Crown winner.
It’s always tough to predict who will contend for any leg of the Triple Crown, but certainly this year will provide a unique handicapping challenge. WARRIORS DANZ TED (MAJESTIC WARRIOR x DANZIG x BUCKPASSER; woodenjock) has won a listed stakes, the Grade II Stanford, the Grade I North Fork Stakes, and took home the Breeders’ Bowl Juvenile, but has yet to win on an off-track. Of the horses currently in the Top 10 of the 3 Year Old Dirt Long Division, LOW FIDELITY (carsoncity; 3/4 length), SONAR YAFEELNLUCKY (overburdened; 2.25 lengths), and ZIP ZAP YO (phillipines; 1/4 length) have won a Grade I stakes on an off-track.
While analyzing the current favorites is well and good, all sim trainers know that the winner of any of the Triple Crown races has yet to emerge. That’s why it will be important to watch (or enter, if you are so lucky) the following preps likely to be run on an off-track: Felipe Alou Stakes (Grade II; CA; 8.5f; 45%), The Buccaneer Derby (Grade III; FL; 8.5f; 25%), and the Corkscrew Stakes (Grade I; KY; 9.5f; 20%).
This is certainly to be a Triple Crown to remember in the sim.
(h/t to Itch, who handled all the research for this article)