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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Is the Triple Crown Too Hard?

by Richard E. Glover, Jr., National HBPA Director of Communications

At this time of year - especially if there is not a Triple Crown on the line (like this year, when neither the Derby nor Preakness winner will race in the Belmont) or if a horse has just failed in its Triple Crown bid - you hear a lot of talk about whether the Triple Crown should be changed because it is too demanding on a young horse and whether the Belmont should be shortened since the horses will probably never race 1 1/2 miles again in their careers. To me, the answer is simple - no on both counts.

Is the Triple Crown too demanding? Three races in five weeks at three different distances (1 1/4 miles, 1 3/16 miles, and 1 1/2 miles) is certainly a mammoth challenge for both horse and trainer. And no horse has been able to accomplish the feat since Affirmed in 1978.

That said, it's not like no horse has come close enough during those intervening years to keep us believing it could happen again. In fact, the following horses all went into their Belmont with a chance at a Triple Crown: Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), and Big Brown (2008). Furthermore, Swale (1984), Risen Star (1988), Hansel (1991), Tabasco Cat (1994), Thunder Gulch (1995), Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005) won two of the three Triple Crown races. That's 18 horses in the last 32 years that took two-thirds of the series, with 11 of those entering the final leg - the Belmont - with a chance for a sweep. In other words, during those 32 years since our last Triple Crown winner, the annual chances of a horse sweeping two legs of the Triple Crown has been over 50%, and over a third of the time, they had a chance to sweep the series with a Belmont victory.

Out of those near misses, there have been some so painfully close that they left no doubt that a Triple Crown winner was still possible.

How about Real Quiet in 1998? He swept the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and opened a daylight lead at the top of the stretch in the Belmont Stakes, only to be run down at the wire by Victory Gallop to lose the Triple Crown by the smallest possible margin - a nose. And right or wrong, many blamed that loss on the riding tactics of his jockey, Kent Desormeaux.

Or maybe Silver Charm in 1997? He took the Derby and Preakness and then was passed in late stretch by Touch Gold in the Belmont. Notably, Chris McCarron's shrewd riding job on Touch Gold might very well have made the difference that day as he guided his mount far outside of the gallant Silver Charm. Silver Charm, a notoriously game fighter, never saw his challenger and thus never dug down to engage in a battle to stave off Touch Gold's rally. In the end, he lost the Triple Crown by a neck.

Then there's Spectacular Bid - one of the greatest Thoroughbreds to ever grace the track. His third place in the Belmont is famously blamed on a safety pin he stepped on in his stall before the race (as well as what some considered a questionable ride by Ronnie Franklin). Just about everything The Bid did before and after that Belmont loss proved that he was worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as the 11 Triple Crown winners and that he was head and shoulders better than the other horses in his crop.

Sunday Silence came close in 1989, taking the Derby and Preakness over arch rival Easy Goer and then losing to that foe in the Belmont. While Easy Goer was a clear winner in the Belmont, Sunday Silence avenged the loss by beating Easy Goer in the Breeders' Cup Classic later that year. Both became Hall of Famers, and both could have been Triple Crown winners had they not been born in the same year.

Most recently, Smarty Jones took the Derby and Preakness impressively, and the went into the 2004 Belmont Stakes as a heavy favorite. But he came up a length short in the Belmont to the sometimes brilliant Birdstone.

If there had not been any near misses in the Triple Crown in the last several years, I might be willing to concede that the series needs to be tweaked. But that is simply not the case. Despite the distances and spacing, winning the three races is still possible or there would not continue to be so many near misses.

In any sport, the pinnacle achievement becomes just that because it is extremely hard to obtain. Decreasing its degree of difficulty simply to increase the chances of more frequent winners devalues the achievement.

In the era of salary caps and free agencies, it has become increasingly rare for teams to win consecutive championships in the NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL. Likewise, as the annual Thoroughbred foal crop continued to grow over the last few decades to a high at one point of over 50,000 in 1986, the per-horse chance of winning the Triple Crown decreased.

Thanks to the broken economic model of U. S. horse racing (owners sinking $2 billion per year into the industry but competing for only $1 billion in purses) and poor economic times, this year's foal crop is estimated to be about 30,000. Thus, the per-horse chances are going back up, though we saw in the case of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer that it only takes two great horses in a crop to stop what otherwise would have been an easy Triple Crown sweep.

The bottom line, however, is that changing the Triple Crown - whether it is tinkering with the distances or spacing the races out differently - would diminish the achievement. It takes a very special horse to achieve what Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and the unbelievable Secretariat did in the 1970s, and when the right combination of horse and trainer comes around again, we will finally have our newest Triple Crown winner.

It was 25 years between Citation's sweep of the Triple Crown in 1948 and Secretariat's tour-de-force in 1973. If waiting 32 years or more is what we have to do to find our next Secretariat, I am glad to do so. And that comes from someone who has been watching racing since 1981 and thus has never gotten to witness a horse sweeping the Triple Crown.

Sure, our sport will benefit from the media coverage when a Triple Crown sweep finally happens again. But we continue to benefit in the intervening years with every near-sweep. The length between winners and the difficulty of achievement is part of the reason the mainstream press is so fascinated when a horse enters the Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line. If the Triple Crown was changed to make it easier to sweep and it happened on a regular basis, the interest of the mainstream press and public at large would wane quickly.

Changing anything about the Triple Crown would be changing one of the only things that the sport-loving public find interesting about our sport. And the winners of an easier Triple Crown would always have an asterisk by their names in the minds of most fans of the sport - never quite earning the ability to be thought of in the same category as horses like Citation, Secretariat, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, etc.

What do you think? Should the Triple Crown be changed? If so, how and why?

1 comment:

K Stirling said...

The Triple Crown races are fine as they are. Too many horses are bred to sprint today, and the Triple Crown should not be tampered with to accommodate such fragile sprinters.

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