Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 21, 2017

Triple Crown Party Is Lost In The Cloud

It was going to be one hell of a party. Two Brooklyn natives, railbirds as kids at the mile and a half track known as the Big Sandy, coming back to Belmont Park as the owners of a horse with a chance at the Triple Crown. That was what Vincent Viola and Anthony Bonomo promised Saturday afternoon, not long before the Preakness field broke from the gate. The two are the majority owners of Always Dreaming, the 3-year old colt who looked so impressive in splashing through the mud to win the Kentucky Derby two Saturdays ago.

Viola and Bonomo grew up as neighbors in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, long before gentrification transformed it into one of Gotham’s hippest centers of art and culture. Their fathers were dedicated horseplayers who took their sons to Belmont and Aqueduct, and both boys fell in love with horse racing. In the decades since Viola made a fortune on Wall Street and now owns the NHL’s Florida Panthers, while Bonomo amassed his own large nest egg in the insurance industry. Their wealth has allowed them to move from trackside to the owners’ suites, with both maintaining a stable of horses. Together they paid $350,000 for a yearling son of Bodemeister at Keeneland’s annual sale, naming the horse Always Dreaming.

In the wake of the Derby victory the owners were cautious, but by the time the field was being saddled for the Preakness the excitement of the moment and the potential for having their horse race into history on their home track got the better of them. So, Viola and Bonomo predicted a massive party at Belmont on the second Saturday in June, with thousands of old Brooklyn friends and family members on hand to celebrate.

Horseplayers are a superstitious lot, so there are no doubt those who will insist that the boys from Brooklyn jinxed their mount by in effect promising that Always Dreaming would win the Preakness. But it doesn’t take any mystical intervention to see that the first two races of the Triple Crown were profoundly different this year.

The Derby was run on a sloppy track, with its customary full field of twenty horses. The number of entrants injects a large element of luck in the outcome. When the field breaks from the starting gate much can happen as that wall of horseflesh charges down the Churchill Downs front stretch. This year one of the unluckiest Derby entrants was Classic Empire. The morning line favorite and second choice at post time broke from stall 14. To his immediate right, McCraken turned dead left out of the 15th stall, slamming into Classic Empire and knocking him sideways. Thrown off his stride, a horse that likes to run in front was shuffled back into the middle of the pack, where he was pinballed around some more. By the end of the race, after rallying for fourth, Classic Empire went back to his barn with cuts on his front legs and a bruised right eye.

In contrast the track at Pimlico improved throughout the day on Saturday. Initially rated good, it was upgraded to fast about an hour before post time for the Preakness. There were also just ten entrants, half the number at the Derby. Always Dreaming had the good fortune of a clean break and a perfect trip at Churchill Downs; at the Preakness, it was reasonable to expect minimal trouble for any of the horses in the field, with the element of racing luck thus greatly reduced.

The other major difference for Always Dreaming, Classic Empire, and the three other Derby runners who were in the field was that this was the first time any of them had raced with just two weeks’ rest. Given the light schedules that trainers now prefer, the Triple Crown calendar presents a unique challenge to modern thoroughbreds. At no other time in their careers do horses run three times over five weeks. It is so out of step with current training methods that during the long interregnum between Affirmed in 1978 and American Pharoah two years ago calls grew to spread out the three races so that horses had more time to recover between each of them. That didn’t and won’t happen, but the schedule does open the door to so-called fresh shooters, horses that didn’t participate in the previous race and thus come in with longer rest between starts. Fresh shooters have often spoiled Triple Crown dreams at the Belmont, but this year hopes for a Triple Crown died at Pimlico thanks to a horse who had qualified for the Derby field but didn’t run that race.

Always Dreaming and Classic Empire broke from adjoining stalls, and jockey Julien Leparoux aboard the latter immediately urged his colt into high gear. Always Dreaming went to the front as usual, but this time with Classic Empire right on his shoulder. They raced that way around Pimlico’s first turn and all the way down the back stretch. Then on the far turn Leparoux opted to make his move, and Classic Empire took over the lead from his rival. As the field turned for home that lead grew, and as others crept up on Always Dreaming, who would eventually fade to eighth, it was suddenly clear that the party at Belmont was about to be cancelled.

But just as the day appeared to belong to Classic Empire, with his lead at one point growing to three lengths, Cloud Computing came charging down the middle of the lane. With each stride jockey Javier Castellano brought the 13-1 long shot closer to the leader. With fifty yard to go the two raced side by side, then Cloud Computing put his neck in front at the wire. It was just the fourth race this year for the winner, and the first in six weeks, since a third-place finish at the Wood Memorial. That finish along with an earlier second at the Gotham Stakes earned Cloud Computing enough points to qualify for the Derby, but trainer Chad Brown chose to pass on Churchill Downs and pointed for Pimlico instead.

It was the first win in a Triple Crown race for the 39-year old Brown, who is highly regarded as a trainer of turf horses. On Saturday, thanks to the home stretch charge of his lightly raced fresh shooter, he was the best dirt track trainer in the country. As part of his reward, he may have gotten to attend a neighborhood party, though it wasn’t the one that had been publicly announced before the race. Seth Klarman, one of Cloud Computing’s co-owners, turned 60 this weekend, and grew up just three blocks from Pimlico.

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