Never is a long time, during which many unlikely things can happen, so the saying “never say never” probably is apt. Still, when applied to thoroughbred racing’s annual Triple Crown series, it’s hard to avoid using the “n” word.
No horse has won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed did it in 1978, and from the looks of things none is likely to do it in the cycle that begins with next Saturday’s Derby (May 7). That’s not so much a commentary on the immediate field as it is on the general state of my favorite participant sport (when you bet, you participate).
Few enterprises anywhere are as badly run as the erstwhile Sport of Kings, and its clinging to tradition in staging the Triple Crown races, its best yearly shot at attention in an ever-more-crowded sports’ calendar, is the best evidence. That’s because the timing and conditions of the TC’s components, established willy-nilly in years long past, run directly contrary to recent and current trends at the ovals. The fact that everyone in the sport knows this has made not a whit of difference.
To win a Triple Crown today a colt or filly (a colt officially becomes a horse and a filly a mare at age five) would have to overcome his or her own history in addition to strong competition and the vicissitudes of racing luck. Worse, given the fate of some of those who have vied seriously for the honor of late, owners and trainers risk the careers or even the lives of their most-valuable animals to even try it.
The Triple Crown never has been easy to win, which is one reason it’s one of sports’ most cherished prizes. Since 1930, when the writer Charles Hatton of The Daily Racing Form coined the name, it has been captured but 10 times, and that number jumps by just one if you go back to 1919, when Sir Barton won it unawares.
It starts the first Saturday in May with the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, which at 1 ¼ miles is the farthest by 1/8-mile any competitor will have run. Two weeks later comes the 1 3/16ths-miles Preakness Stakes at the old Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore. The final leg, staged three weeks after that, is the hardest—the Belmont Stakes in New York, which, at 1 ½ miles, covers a longer distance than all but a few American thoroughbreds ever run. Winning three grueling, highly contested races in a five-week span becomes all the harder when it’s noted that the three-year-olds that are eligible for the series are the equivalent of 16-year-old humans, well short of their mature strength and development.
In years long past, such a feat was at least thinkable. Race horses then, well, raced. Citation, the 1948 TC winner, came to Churchill Downs on Derby Day with 16 starts under his cinch. The great Secretariat, the 1972 champ, had 12 pre-Derby races and Affirmed 13. By contrast, most of the entrants in Saturday’s go will have stepped on a track in earnest only four or five times, all at distances shorter than that of any of the Triple Crown tests.
That’s mostly because the economic focus of the sport long since has changed from racing to breeding. Racing may be in permanent decline on these shores, but it thrives in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and bidding for elite equine prospects has gone global. That’s meant that just about any horse that scores big on the track is whisked off to the breeding shed, post haste. Consequently, thoroughbreds these days are bred for speed, not stamina, meaning not only that they can’t stand up to frequent racing but also that they’re more prone to catastrophic breakdowns.
American racing’s biggest story of recent years was a sad one—of the colt Barbaro, who decisively won the 2006 Derby but broke a leg trying to win the Preakness and later died of the injury. One recent winner of the Derby and Preakness-- Smarty Jones in 2004—never raced again after failing in the Belmont. Big Brown accomplished the same double in 2008 but dragged in last at the Belmont and raced only twice more before being retired. “Too much too soon” applied to them all.
There’s a simple way to make the Triple Crown viable again. That would be to put more space between its parts, keeping the Derby in its traditional first-Saturday-in-May slot but running the Preakness the first Saturday in June—four week later—and the Belmont on July 4, about four weeks after that. That would give the contestants time to catch their breaths and, maybe, heal from the small hurts that can turn into larger ones.
I’m not nearly the first to propose this, but racing being racing, what makes sense counts for little in the decision-making process. Tradition is one obstacle to progress, as is the politics that always surrounds the awarding of racing dates in states with more than one track (including Kentucky, Maryland and New York). The fact that the sport lacks a national governing body with clout is a third.
But overriding is the plain ineptitude that kept from happening a match race in 2009 or 2010 between Zenyatta and Rachael Alexander, two sensational fillies who singly put a rare spotlight on the sport in those years. Like an updated Triple Crown series and the attention a winner would bring, that could have been a lifeboat for an activity that’s drowning, but in racing the only sounds you hear are “glub, glub, glub.”