Friday, June 6, 2014

Triple Crown might be bad for racing

By Steve Kallas (posted by Rick Morris)

The buzz in New York is palpable as California Chrome will try and become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.  The city is not going totally crazy over this event (as 11 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and then did not win the Belmont since Affirmed; plus the Rangers are playing for the Stanley Cup), but you can still expect 120,000 or so fans at Belmont this Saturday.

While many believe that “this [a Triple Crown winner] is just what the sport needs,” this writer isn’t so sure about that.  Unless the Triple Crown winner continues to race during his three-year-old season (and maybe, with these salt-of-the-earth owners who essentially bred this horse for $10,000, his four-year-old season as well), there really won’t be much of a boost for the industry other than the afterglow of a Triple Crown winner.

It won’t increase attendance for other races; it won’t solve the multiple problems facing the industry (declining attendance, drug issues that seem to plague virtually every sport, etc.); and it won’t help the view that this sport isn’t always on the up and up.


Well, for some time there has been a big split in the industry as to whether the timing of the Triple Crown races should be changed.  This year, Tom Chuckas, the president of the Maryland Jockey Club (the Preakness is held in Maryland), came right out and said that the timing of the races should be changed to the first Saturday in May (Kentucky Derby as it is now), the first Saturday in June (Preakness) and the first Saturday in July (Belmont).

Indeed, some five years ago (in a New York Times article by Joe Drape), none other than legendary Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas suggested exactly the same thing with a slightly different timing: first Saturday in May, Memorial Day weekend for the Preakness and July 4th weekend for the Belmont with, according to Lukas, the Travers at Saratoga at the end of August to wrap up the “Grand Slam.”

Of course, many feel that the timing should remain the same.  From trainer Billy Turner (of Seattle Slew fame) to Penny Chenery (owner of Secretariat) to Steve Cauthen (Affirmed’s jockey) to many present-day horsemen, there is much support to keep things as is in terms of timing.

Since this writer strongly believes that the timing should be changed, the potential negative impact would be that if California Chrome, trained by 77-year-old Art Sherman (who was the exercise rider for Swaps when that one won the 1955 Kentucky Derby), wins the Triple Crown, many will view that as proof that the timing of the three races should remain the same (it says here that three races in five weeks at three different tracks is virtually absurd today given the way these modern horses are bred and trained).

Sherman, by his own admission an “old-timer,” maybe trains his horse a little harder, maybe has an understanding of what it takes to win the Triple Crown (although this is his first horse in these events), maybe is a little smarter in terms of how they used to do it in the “good-old days,” you know, when horses raced often and not one or two months apart.

Contrary to popular belief, the timing of the Triple Crown has not always been first Saturday in May, then two weeks to the Preakness, then three more to the Belmont.  In fact, for a number of years, the Preakness was raced before the Derby, which certainly makes sense from a distance perspective (why the first race, the Derby, is longer than the second race, the Preakness, has always been beyond me in terms of common sense). 

The point here is that the “tradition” that everyone talks about didn’t even exist in the first, at least, 30 years or so of the Derby and Preakness and Belmont.  It reminds this writer of the misnomer of the “Original Six” in the National Hockey League.  The six-team NHL didn’t occur until 1943, some 17 years after the National Hockey League started (you hockey historians remember the Montreal Maroons and the New York Americans, let alone the Pittsburgh Pirates, an NHL team in the late 1920s).  So much for the original part of “Original Six.” 


Well, it says here that there is a strong analogy between baseball pitchers then and now and horses then and now.  Nobody today would even think of saying that virtually every time a pitcher goes out today he would have to pitch nine innings, which is what happened frequently if you go back to the 1950s, ‘60s, into the ‘70s and, of course, before.

Today, a starting pitcher who comes out for the seventh or eighth inning is viewed to be some kind of hero, a gritty guy who is tough.  Of course a generation (maybe two) ago, this was the minimum (if that) expected of a starter.

Just as pitchers are not expected to “go the distance,” so, too, it says here, that horses should not have to go through a grind that, once upon a time, horses were bred and trained for.  Today, thoroughbreds are bred and trained for speed, not durability.  Today, trainers train their top horses to race five or six or seven times a year, not 15 or 20 or more.

For the traditionalists (and frankly, this writer considers himself a traditionalist, but a realistic one), the analysis should be that was then, this is now.  Imagine today if a major league manager handed his starting pitchers the ball and said “you’re going nine today.”  Obviously, he wouldn’t be a manager for long.


This wrier, always trying to beat the favorite, will go with Tonalist, a fresh horse who won the Peter Pan at Belmont on May 10th.  Tonalist was on the Derby trail but contracted a lung infection, missed the Wood Memorial, and was pointed to the Peter Pan.  His trainer, highly regarded Christophe Clement, added blinkers for the Peter Pan and saw his lightly-raced three-year-old run off by four lengths in the slop at Belmont (always nice to have a win over the track).

In addition, Joel Rosario, a top jockey who won the Derby last year aboard Orb, chose to ride Tonalist over his Preakness mount, Ride on Curlin, who finished a good second to California Chrome in the Preakness.  It says here that Tonalist will be on or near the lead at the top of the stretch, someplace you generally have to be to win the Belmont (despite the distance).

For an interesting discussion on the race itself and the timing issue of the Triple Crown between this writer and WFAN’s Jody McDonald, see the attached link (Jody Mac is strongly in favor of leaving the timing the way it is now).





While it will be a wonderful story if California Chrome and his connections win the Triple Crown (and he certainly is the best horse and the heavy favorite on paper), this writer simply isn’t sure that it will be the best thing for the industry.


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