The horses run the races, but the people make the sport so fascinating. From year to year, you never quite know who is going to show up for the Triple Crown races.
Well, you do know Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert and Nick Zito are going to show. Their clients expect to be in those races and the Hall of Fame trainers try to keep their clients happy.
What you don't expect is a trainer who once cared for the Oakland A's mule. It's true. Alexis Barba, the trainer of Make Music for Me, who will run in today's Belmont Stakes 5 weeks after finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby, grew up in Oakland, lived very close to the A's stadium and took care of the mule at the stables where she used to work and ride.
"I was the keeper of the mule," Barba said.
Charlie O, the mule, was named after A's eccentric owner Charles O. Finley. The mule came west with the A's from Kansas City.
"I used to take [the mule] to the ballgames and parades," Barba said.
Barba, 57, also rode the mule at the stables during the time the A's were winning three consecutive World Series (1972-74). Now, 36 years later, she is trying to become the first female trainer to win a Triple Crown race.
With just a six-horse stable, Barba was a longshot to be in one of these races. Make Music for Me was the last horse to get into the Derby because he had the fewest graded stakes earnings. The horse then ran fourth at 30-1.
Barba was Eddie Gregson's assistant trainer in 1982 when Gregson sent out longshot Gato Del Sol to win the Derby.
Make Music for Me has won just one race, a grass stakes at Santa Anita in March. But that has not deterred the colt's trainer, who has raced him in five Grade I stakes. Make Music for Me, however, has won $362,260, so you can't say the trainer has put him in impossible spots. In fact, she did run him in two maiden races. He finished fourth and sixth those days, two of just four times he has finished worse than third in nine races. So why not just shoot for the big money?
There will be $1 million on the line today in the Belmont. And $1.1 million on the line in three other Grade I stakes on the terrific card. In the race before the Belmont, the brilliant Gio Ponto tries to win the Manhattan Handicap for the second consecutive year.
That the Kentucky Derby (Super Saver) and Preakness (Lookin At Lucky) winners are not running obviously is disappointing.
"As a racing fan you always want to see the Triple Crown races be the best that they can possibly be," said First Dude's trainer, Dale Romans. "And it sure would have been nice to see one or both of the horses show up and take them on, but it's the Belmont. It's still a good race."
It is, indeed.
"I think [Derby runner-up] Ice Box is a good horse," Romans said. "I love Fly Down. We've run with him and were beaten by a head twice. We want a rematch with him. And I'm sure we'll hook up with both the Derby winner and Preakness winner down the road."
The Haskell and Travers are on the August horizon. Then, these 3-year-olds will really start to sort themselves out.
"You can't really judge a race until 6 months down the road," Romans said. "You'll see what all of them have gone out and done . . . think between now and the end of the year you [will] see many of these going on and winning a lot of big races."