This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Vance Hansen of Brisnet.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Does Horse Racing Need Triple Crown Winner?
“It’s too close to call! Was it Real Quiet or was it Victory Gallop? A picture is worth a thousand words — this photo is worth 5 million dollars!”
Tom Durkin’s call of the 1998 Belmont Stakes ended with these words, and while his emphasis was on the material reward if Real Quiet won the head bob over Victory Gallop, millions of viewers were just as keenly attuned to the historical significance.
It had been 20 years since Affirmed became the last horse to win the Triple Crown, and five other colts before Real Quiet had come to Belmont and fallen short. Real Quiet turned out to be the sixth, and by the dirtiest of noses.
In the 13 years since then, four more colts and one gelding have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to find victory in the Belmont beyond their grasp. Racing fans of long standing could explain away the defeats of these 11, not to mention those of Risen Star (1988), Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005), who met defeat in the Kentucky Derby before romping in the Preakness and Belmont, thus showing that they, too, had been cruelly denied their own chance at glory.
The current Triple Crown drought, now at 33 years following Animal Kingdom’s defeat in the May 21 Preakness, is the longest in the series’ history, much longer than the 25-year gap between Citation’s sweep in 1948 and Secretariat’s record-shattering brilliance in 1973.
The decades of futility have prompted some both inside and outside the industry to ask whether there will ever be another Triple Crown winner and whether racing, which has seen a marked decline in popularity since the glory days of the 1970s, needs a Triple Crown winner to revitalize its status as a mainstream sport.
If the close call by Real Quiet in the 1998 Belmont proves anything, it’s that the Triple Crown is still attainable even if the task itself — asking a not-fully mature Thoroughbred to win three different races over three different distances and racetracks in the span of five weeks — seems disproportionately demanding.
Indeed, there is no other series throughout the horse racing world which requires the mixture of speed, class, form, resiliency — and let’s face it, luck — as that demanded by the American Triple Crown.
In an era when the average racehorse is making fewer lifetime starts, and with longer gaps between races, the Triple Crown might appear an anachronism. And while a vocal group of horsemen and media members have called for adjusting the distances and/or time between the three races, the feeling that the Triple Crown should stay as is seemingly remains the majority view.
“One of these days, a super horse will come along,” said trainer Dale Romans after his colt, Shackleford, won the Preakness and ended Animal Kingdom’s bid for a Triple Crown sweep. “I don’t think anything should be changed about it.”
Those whose patience are wearing thin and feel the Triple Crown is being handcuffed by tradition often point out how the dates and distances of the three races have never been completely uniform, even during the years of the earliest Triple Crown winners.
While evidently true, the three horses who accomplished the feat in the television era — Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed — did so under the current conditions and are the yardstick by which all future Triple Crown winners will be judged. Any deviation from the course those three took to attain the goal would make it difficult for a future Triple Crown winner to be looked at in the same vein.
The last three Triple Crown winners also set a bar most observers feel are unrealistic to expect from any future winner of the series. Secretariat raced six times after his historic 31-length romp in the Belmont, while Seattle Slew and Affirmed continued to race through their four-year-old seasons. Neither scenario seems remotely plausible given the convoluted economics of the sport, where a horse’s worth as a stud outweighs any earnings he could possibly make at the racetrack.
“Unless he was a gelding, any Triple Crown winner most likely would be retired weeks into the summer,” said Steve Davidowitz, a noted turf writer and handicapper. “At most, we might see this new star paraded at a few tracks for ‘farewell appeal.’
“Economically speaking, it would be too risky for such a valuable stud prospect to be risked in competition. Essentially, there would be little to gain unless the owners and future breeders were die-hard, old-school types who wanted to see just how good their horse might really be when he comes back as a four-year-old. The odds on that happening are greater than whether or not we will see a Triple Crown winner in the next five years or so.”
Which begs the question: What impact would a future Triple Crown winner have on racing if he won’t be around long enough to maintain interest in the sport? Davidowitz said while there would be a temporary positive surge of media interest following a Triple Crown sweep, it would take reforms of other factors negatively affecting the sport’s popularity for fan interest to be sustained.
“Racing does not need a Triple Crown winner as much as it needs good horses to remain in competition beyond a win in a Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup race,” Davidowitz said. “Not as much as it needs fewer tracks open simultaneously in neighboring states, with shorter, better-designed and coordinated racings schedules, with fewer or no legalized race-day drugs.
“And some serious efforts to promote its greatest yet least promoted asset: that horse race handicapping and betting on horses is probably the most intellectually satisfying, best gambling game man has ever invented.”
While the Kentucky Derby is the sport’s premier event and the Triple Crown its most elusive prize, there is much more to racing than the casual fan might be aware of. The results of dozens of graded stakes throughout the year play a role in determining the sport’s 11 divisional champions, among which one is voted Horse of the Year. It’s a process repeated every year whether there is a Triple Crown winner or not.
A great horse can come from anywhere, and as the examples of Cigar, Zenyatta and even Seabiscuit show, catching a whiff of the hoopla surrounding any of the Triple Crown races is not a prerequisite for a horse to earn the sport’s highest distinctions or penetrate the mainstream consciousness.
Of the 18 horses who have taken two-thirds of the Triple Crown since 1979, 17 have gone to be named divisional champion, five have won Horse of the Year titles and an equal number have been enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame. While the doors for a Triple Crown sweep have closed on Animal Kingdom and were shut earlier for Shackleford, there is much left for them to run for beyond the Belmont Stakes.
For the sport of Thoroughbred racing, it’s business as usual until next year.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?