Here we go again.
The chorus line for some this time of year regularly digresses into a call for altering the makeup of horse racing’s Triple Crown series after another thoroughbred’s failed attempt at sweeping the American classics.
This year, those rumblings appear to be especially loud, including some highly publicized bitter remarks from the owner of the most recent contender to fail to win all three races.
Following California Chrome’s loss on Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, it will be 37 years next spring when the next installment of racehorses enters the gates in pursuit of a sweep of the prestigious challenges for 3-year-olds and the opportunity to solidify their place among racing’s immortal elite.
But before embracing changes to one of the most indelible and celebrated accomplishments in sports in an attempt to improve the likelihood of a 12th Triple Crown winner, the powers that be must consider what undoubtedly would be the cheapening of the feat and the ensuing asterisk effect.
Like potential baseball hall of famers tied to the steroid-era awaiting their fate and fan reaction in the event they reach Cooperstown, the accomplishment of racehorses that were to sweep the Triple Crown after the five-week schedule had been changed or the distances of the individual races shortened would forever be compromised. Yes, such and such horse won the Triple Crown, but … would always follow as part of the dialogue. There would be no escape from what some have aptly dubbed “Triple Crown Lite.”
After all, such an accomplishment was never meant to be easy. Nor should racing heed the naysayers whose growing impatience is behind the cries for knee-jerk change: More time between the races. Shorter distances. Maybe even reserving the Triple Crown series for 4-year-old horses instead of their younger brethren.
But for the long-term good of racing, enacting such changes is not the way to go and would be considered heresy by purists. The drought will eventually come to end. Hopefully. And that horse will be celebrated like few before it.
It wasn’t too long ago the winds of change were pushing the opposite direction. Triple Crown winners had become as commonplace as bell-bottoms, hot pants and polyester suits by the late 1970s.
Following a 25-year hiatus since Citation won all three races in 1948, the decade ushered in an era of equine excellence beginning with Secretariat in 1973 and then back-to-back champions Seattle Slew and Affirmed within a six-year span. Many at the time were concerned the feat had become too easy. But calls to make changes then were ignored, as they should be now.
It’s true the landscape of racing has changed a lot since Affirmed wore the carnation blanket in the winner’s circle in 1978 at Belmont, having completed the last sweep of the Triple Crown. These days, American racehorses are bred for speed, speed and more speed, often at the expense of other important character traits such as endurance and temperament.
Precocity is the name of the game. Breeding has become much more lucrative than racing, resulting in early retirements to stud duty. And drug use, even legal medications sanctioned by racing jurisdictions, is rampant.
It’s also true that the Triple Crown series itself is no stranger to change, though the format has remained the same during the past sixty years.
In earlier times, the races individually have undergone changes in distance, calendar spacing and even format. The Derby had been run at a 1 ½ miles for 20 years before switching to its current 1 ¼ miles.
On 11 occasions, the Preakness – which has experienced eight changes in racing distance itself before settling on 1 3/16 miles – was run prior to Derby. And jockey weights for Belmont winners have ranged from 107 pounds to the mandated practice of carrying 126 pounds as horses now race the 1 ½ miles in the “Test of the Champion.”
But tweaking the distances and offering horses additional time off between classics is not tantamount to ensuring sweeping success. And despite the challenging current conditions, racing has come darn close to crowning a champion in recent years.
Thirteen horses in the past 36 years have won the Derby and Preakness, but for whatever reason failed at Belmont. Five others during that period collected a Preakness-Belmont double. Two won both the Derby and Belmont. And, at least on a few of those occasions, the margin of defeat – and the difference between legendary status and that of just another good horse – was one length or less.
To change the makeup of the Triple Crown not only does a disservice to the 11 champions that endured the challenges of their time and preserved to success. It also belittles the efforts of those horses and their connections that came oh, so close.
It’s unlikely there will be changes soon to the format of the races, or the five-week racing schedule that captivates more than just diehard racings fans each spring. But as there are those who feel it necessary to spend a few moments this time each year offering ways to fix an unbroken model, voices expounding a different point of view remain relevant.