This afternoon’s Man o’War at Belmont carries several intriguing storylines, perhaps unusually for a mid-July race. The first, of course, is the return of Curlin to New York, the site of his most famous defeat, in last year’s Belmont. He’s
gone undefeated lost only once since then, in the Haskell (thanks, Ernie, for writing with the correction) since then, racking up victories in his march to world domination on the dirt.
Another story of the race is its move from its traditional place in the fall to the middle of July, the cause of some grumbling and criticism from several sources, including Frank at That’s Amore Stable. And while weeks ago, one might have scratched one’s head, wondering what prompted this move, NYRA looks pretty good right now, with the Horse of the Year and two other Grade I winners showing up to contest the race. If I’m a fan of the United Nations and Monmouth Park, I’m not so happy, but New York race fans are, and I’m sure that the folks in the NYRA office are high-fiving themselves over this one.
In seeking a historical slant on the Man o’War, I perused 1987 reports because of Theatrical’s win—I’m a big Shakespeare fan (the playwright and the horse), and I was curious to read about his sire’s win. The race itself sounds unremarkable—Theatrical won easily, as predicted—but I found in the reports some threads that will sound familiar to us today: similar races carded too close together, and weak fields of undistinguished horses.
In 1987 the Breeders’ Cup was held on November 21st, much later than it’s contested now, and the Man o’War was held on October 24th, at Aqueduct. In his preview of the race, Crist bemoans the lack of talent in the field–two Grade I winners, one stakes winner, and a smattering of horses eligible for various allowance conditions—and attributes it to scheduling idiocy that resulted in three major grass races being run within two weeks of each other:
The rest of the field is astoundingly weak…The problem is that every major
Eastern track wants to put on a rich grass race late in the fall, trying to
catch a European import or two who might go on to glory. The trend accelerated
in 1983 when the French filly All Along arrived in the midst of a dismal crop of
American grass horses and won the Horse of the Year title by winning three rich
grass races in North America.
At least the tracks cooperated in scheduling their races that year; now, everyone is competing for the same limited pool of horses. There was the New Jersey Turf Classic a week ago, the Rothmans International five days ago, now the Man o’ War tomorrow and the Washington D.C. International eight days from now. It is too much of a good thing and only makes all the races suffer. (New York Times)
In his re-cap of the race, Crist notes that the Man o’War lost horses to the other two turf races, partly because of scheduling and partly because of Theatrical’s expected dominance. In his blog yesterday, Crist characterized this year’s Man o’War field: “Nor is this a collection of slouches that has been rounded up to flatter Curlin: Four of his six opponents are Grade 1 or Group 1 winners, including BC Turf winners Better Talk Now and Red Rocks. While none of them is in world-class form these days, they’re a sufficiently salty group…”
Better Talk Now’s run in the Manhattan in early June indicates that he continues to be a worthy contender on the grass; Red Rocks beat Better Talk Now in the 2006 Breeders’ Cup, but hasn’t demonstrated similar form in quite some time. And while Curlin may well be the class of the field, he’s running on grass for the first time, so he can’t be considered a lock, the way Theatrical was in 1987.
I stand with those who stand against the move of the Man o’War; it’s a loss to the fall Belmont schedule, and it is not sporting to compete directly with our neighbors to the south. But hey, it was a bold move that resulted in a race with a potentially historic outcome, and that’s a gamble that seems worth taking. If Curlin wins, the bettors won’t make much, but NYRA will certainly have scored. And maybe the big chestnut will be able to put this memory out of his mind…
Photo credit to Adam Coglianese; used with permission