Archive for Belmont Stakes

What Could Derail California Chrome’s Triple Crown Attempt???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steve Davidowitz of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Can it happen to California Chrome?

Not many people would argue that California Chrome is a deserving odds-on favorite to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the rare sweep of the American Triple Crown.

Yet the same was true for many of the 12 winners of the Derby and Preakness since 1978 who failed to win the 1½-mile Belmont.

In his latest column for ESPN, Bill Finley described what happened to those 12 horses in sufficient detail to underscore how difficult it is to win the Belmont after winning the first two jewels in the crown.

In these next paragraphs, I’d like to focus on three of those failed bids from a slightly different perspective. Specifically, the race that Alysheba lost in 1987; the one that Real Quiet literally blew in ’98 as well as Smarty Jones’ failed bid in 2004.

Two of the “upsets” are worth close inspection to appreciate the extreme pressure California Chrome’s veteran trainer Art Sherman is under. The other illustrates a lesson that California Chrome’s jockey should heed.

First, let us acknowledge that any horse that sweeps this difficult three-race series at three different distances on three different racing surfaces in three different states during a compressed five-week period automatically deserves to be considered among the great horses in American racing history. That does not mean we have to rank any Triple Crown winner as the equal of Secretariat or Citation. But we should give more than a passing nod to the high level of talent it took to win the three classics when so many others have failed.

Forget speed figures, pace numbers, competition rankings and/or other measuring sticks. If California Chrome can complete a sweep of the 2014 Triple Crown, he will be an automatic Horse of the Year winner as well as a bona fide first-ballot Hall of Fame member when he becomes eligible down the road.

Beyond that, here are the stories behind three Derby and Preakness winners who did not complete the sweep.

In 1987, I was clocking horses privately for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, at his request. Going into the Belmont Stakes, Alysheba had defeated Bet Twice in the Derby and Preakness. He certainly was bred to handle any distance and had not reached his physical potential. Alysheba’s 1988 Horse of the Year campaign would confirm that.

But I gasped when I saw Alysheba work a mile a week after the Preakness, then officially work again, a week before the Belmont, a work that was posted by the New York Racing Association clockers as a mile in 1:44. The simple fact, however, was that Alysheba did not work a second consecutive mile; he worked the full 1½-mile Belmont Stakes distance that day, stopping my watch in 2:35.

I asked Jack if he went too far or too fast, and he said: “No, the horse is a bull. He needs to work hard to keep him in top shape.”

In the Belmont Stakes, racing without Lasix, Alysheba finished a tired fourth, caught at the wire for third by Gulch, one of the best sprinter-milers of the past 50 years, but a horse who was not built for nor trained to go 12 furlongs.

Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron took a lot of blame for Alysheba’s defeat — for taking him under restraint heading into the first turn. With considerable grace, McCarron accepted the blame. But as I witnessed it, Alysheba was somewhat overtrained for the grueling climax to the Triple Crown, and the evidence was on my stopwatch and in his final furlong on race day.

In 2004, the opposite occurred with Smarty Jones. While I was not clocking for trainer John Service, I was fascinated by the enormous public support the horse was gaining day by day as he approached his Belmont Stakes.

I was in Philadelphia when several thousand people showed up at Philadelphia Park for his key final workout for the Belmont, clocked officially in 1:29 ⅕ for seven furlongs.

I got him going five furlongs in a leisurely 1:02 flat, galloping out seven furlongs in 1:29 ⅖, while hardly acting as if he had worked at all.

“No matter,” I thought, “he lays over the Belmont field.”

Well, not quite. As the race was run, Smarty Jones was unusually rank, hard to control, hard for jockey Stewart Elliot to keep him out of a surprising speed duel with Purge and Rock Hard Ten, who went six furlongs in 1:11.76 and a mile in a blistering 1:35.44. The fast pace for the 12-furlong distance took its toll on Smarty Jones as long shot Birdstone began to close ground coming out of the final turn and nailed the exhausted 3-10 shot approaching the wire.

Upon further examination, two things stood out:

Smarty Jones was “too fresh” for the Belmont, and Birdstone was a vastly underrated colt who had shown signs of class as a 2-year-old in 2003. He not only won the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes the previous fall, but two months after the Belmont, he won the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

When I wrote this all up after the Belmont for a monthly magazine, I received an intriguing letter in the mail from the great trainer Michael Dickinson, who said: “You were 100 percent right about the lack of serious training that horse had for the Belmont. I thought the same exact thing.”

Dickinson’s letter did not prove me correct, but forgive me for taking it as an endorsement for my line or reasoning.

Using just these two examples, there is this much to conclude and keep in mind regarding California Chrome:

As good as he has been, trainer Art Sherman must train his horse perfectly to keep him in top shape for the task at hand. So far, Art and his son Alan have made no mistakes. Yet, I cannot remember any horse going into the Belmont who has been trained more sparingly than California Chrome.

Since the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, “CC” has had only four workouts, each at the relatively short four-furlong distance, all at Chrome’s home track of Los Alamitos. This Saturday he is scheduled to have his only workout since the Kentucky Derby four weeks ago — a four- or five-furlong drill at Belmont Park. The Shermans both say he won’t be asked to show much speed.

Speed is not the issue, and his daily gallops might be all he needs. But we should pay attention to what he does and how he does it. We should check out his daily moves on the NYRA website and via YouTube. If he goes into the Belmont with too much energy, even the usually calm California Chrome could get caught in a speed trap, just like Smarty Jones.

Going back to 1998, jockey Victor Espinoza might also learn an important lesson.

In that Triple Crown season, Real Quiet defeated Victory Gallop in the Derby and Preakness. But in the Belmont, as Finley pointed out in his column, jockey Kent Desormeaux moved sooner than needed to open up at least four lengths approaching the final furlong. Fact is, Real Quiet had hit the wall.

He was game but staggered to the finish line and was caught right on the wire by his chief rival, Victory Gallop, a talented colt who won the Stephen Foster and Whitney Handicaps the following season.

The lesson here for jockey Espinoza is straightforward: Remember that the Belmont main track is 1½ miles. While most victory moves begin entering the far turn on one mile and 1⅛-mile tracks, that spot on the oversized Belmont racetrack is nearly five furlongs from home. Too many jockeys have moved too soon at Belmont Park regardless of distance. In the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes, that can be a costly error.

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Despite Reports, I’ll Have Another’s Treatment Proper

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Bill Finley of ESPN…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

What’s The Big Deal?

Trainer Doug O’Neill has taken his lumps, many of them deserved. And owner Paul Reddam has taken his lumps for employing O’Neill. But recent news reports about their handling of I’ll Have Another during his run at the Triple Crown and how they dealt with the colt’s problems with arthritis shed new light on the pair. This is obviously not a win-at-all-costs owner-trainer team but one that in this instance played by the rules and in the end did the right thing by their horse.

I’ll Have Another retired at Belmont Park.

That probably wasn’t the intent of a spate of stories that came out earlier in the week that pointed fingers at O’Neill, Reddam and the sport in general because veterinary records showed that I’ll Have Another was x-rayed after his win in the Preakness and the x-rays revealed that the colt had osteoarthritis. He was treated with painkillers and a synthetic joint fluid. At first keeping a tight lid on the situation, O’Neill and Reddam could have been more transparent. But, eventually and apparently, they gave up on trying to get the horse right and announced that he had been withdrawn from the Belmont because of “tendonitis” and retired.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, one of the most respected equine veterinarians in America, has read the stories and studied the veterinary reports and has come to the same conclusion most people in racing have — this is much ado about nothing.

“I would guess that with every horses over the last 34 years that won the first two legs of the Triple Crown they were x-rayed after the Preakness,” Bramlage said. “That’s routine care. Further, I bet Michael Phelps got done over with a fine-toothed comb after he qualified for the Olympics in the trials. Probably you have to put air coolers on those MRI machines down at the Olympic training center because they’re looking for any little, bump, bruise, anything they need to be aware of when those athletes are training.”

On the fact that I’ll Have Another had osteoarthritis, Bramlage said: “He had only run four days before they took the x-ray and won the second leg of the Triple Crown, so how can they allege he had been having serious problems all along? They must not have been too serious. How unusual is it to have this problem? It’s not unusual at all. Dr. [Jim] Hunt [who treated I’ll Have Another] said it was a small localized place. Osteoarthritis is a very general term.”

The story of I’ll Have Another sounds a lot like Shaquille O’Neil’s battle with arthritis in a toe. Then with the Lakers, he played through the injury thanks in part to a painkiller called Indocin. When it became more than he could bear, he underwent surgery and missed the beginning of the 2002-2003 season. No harm, no foul.

If some are to be believed, the backstretches of America’s racetrack are shadowy, nefarious places where outlaw trainers and vets run amok. There very may well be available illegal concoctions that O’Neill could have used that would have had I’ll Another feeling no pain by Belmont Day, but those sorts of drugs never entered into the picture. Everything given to the horse to deal with his ailment was legal.

With attempts to manage the arthritis apparently not working to their satisfaction, O’Neill and Reddam had a choice to make. They could have run I’ll Have Another in the Belmont, taken their shot at racing immortality, a $1 million purse and a victory that would have added many millions more onto his stud value.

“I think some people would have chosen to run him,” Bramlage said.

But it wouldn’t have been the right thing do and O’Neill and Reddam knew it.

“I don’t think he would have suffered any sort of catastrophic injury had they run him,” Bramlage said. “I do think the injury would have gotten worse and I think it would have affected his performance. Had it come out that he ran with an injury that would have been so much worse than this on so many different levels.”

The horse racing industry has been bombarded with negative publicity over the last several months, and some of it has been fair. There are far too many drugs, legal and illegal, in the sport and the cheaters are rarely handed anything more than ineffective and insubstantial penalties. Having been suspended because some of his horses tested positive for elevated carbon dioxide levels, often the result of a trainer using an illegal potion known as a milkshake, O’Neill has been a part of the problem.

Here, though, he didn’t cheat, didn’t use anything illegal. He dealt as best he could with a problem and when he saw that it had turned into a serious concern he looked out for his horse and didn’t risk putting him in any danger by running in the Belmont.

Nothing bad happened here. Nothing at all.

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Needles’ Jockey Criticizes Mike Smith’s Belmont Ride

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Michael Veitch of The Saratogian…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Veteran rider Dave Erb on Union Rags victory at Belmont

An outstanding rider who circled the field to win the 1956 Belmont Stakes aboard Needles, the 88-year-old youngster today does the same to fellow golfers at Brookhaven.

This I know from personal experience.

I thought it would be instructive to ask him about last weekend’s exciting renewal of “The Test of the Champion,” in which Union Rags rallied along the rail in deep stretch to edge Paynter.

Paynter controlled the pace from the outset of the race at 1 ½ miles.

He was ridden by Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who took the blame for allowing his rival enough room to get through.

“Yeah, he did indeed give it away,” said Erb. “When I was coming up, you were always taught to never let anyone through, at any time. Mike Smith was right when he said it was criminal for a man with his experience to do that.”

Jockey John Velazquez, who will join Smith in the Hall of Fame this summer, was aboard Union Rags.

Erb is convinced that Union Rags could not have gotten up in time had Smith shut off the rail.

Belmont Park is a massive track, and its circumference of 1 ½ miles is three-eighths of a mile longer than Saratoga.

Visiting jockeys are often overwhelmed by the size of the famous place.

“Make no mistake, the Belmont is a rider’s race,” said Erb. “A new rider can absolutely be awestruck. When I rode Needles, his owner and trainer had me come to New York a week early and work him the full distance before the race. When I got there, I went up into the stands and counted the poles to try and be familiar with it. Believe me, I was well aware that it was a mile and a half.”

Erb piloted Needles to victories in the Flamingo, Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes that year.

He lost the Preakness by a length and three quarters to Fabius, and turned the tables on that rival in the Belmont.

A confirmed stretch runner as he got older, Needles had won the previous year’s Hopeful Stakes by more than three lengths over Career Boy, who fell a neck short of him in the Belmont.

“Needles really liked Belmont Park and he handled that track just fine,” said Erb.

But there was a hiccup

early in the Belmont Stakes just before leaving the clubhouse turn.

At that time, Belmont Park included the old Widener Chute, which provided for straight races of up to nearly 7 furlongs.

It intersected with the main track on the clubhouse turn, near the point of the backstretch.

“I remember distinctly that when Needles saw the change in the track as he crossed over, he kind of pricked his ears and stuck his toes into the ground for a couple strides,” said Erb.

Needles, who was champion 2-year-old of 1955 and champion 3-year-old of 1956, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000.

Erb presented the plaque to Scott Dudley and Bonnie Heath III, sons of owners Jackson Dudley and Bonnie M. Heath, respectively.

The skilled hands and quick mind of Dave Erb played an important role in that honor.

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Winning A Triple Crown is Entering a Special Sector of Thoroughbred Greatness

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Andrew Beyer of The Daily Racing Form…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Triple Crown bid is a race against history

When I’ll Have Another attempts to win the Belmont Stakes on June 9 and capture the Triple Crown, he must do more than defeat a formidable group of opponents. He must overcome history.

The Triple Crown series almost unfailingly thwarts horses who are not among the sport’s all-time greats. In the past 64 years, only Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed have swept the 3-year-old classics. Since Affirmed’s success in 1978, a total of 11 horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before failing in the Belmont Stakes.

If a committee of experts tried to design a definitive test of American racehorses, it could not have devised one more effective than the Triple Crown series. In theory, a less-than-great horse ought to be able to beat a subpar group of rivals three times or hit a streak of hot form lasting for a few weeks. But of the 11 Triple Crown winners, only one – Omaha in 1935 – might be considered a fluke.

No one conceived or planned the Triple Crown. It evolved haphazardly. The distances and schedule of the races underwent various changes over the years before it took its present form in the 1970s: the 1 1/4-mile Derby is run at Louisville’s Churchill Down on the first Saturday in May. The 1 3/16-mile Preakess is contested two weeks later at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Three weeks later, Belmont Park on Long Island is the site of the 1 1/2-mile final leg of the series.

When Sir Barton won the three stakes for 3-year-olds in 1919, there was no Triple Crown. Charles Hatton, a Daily Racing Form columnist, began using the term in the 1930s, and when Whirlaway completed a sweep in 1941, he was the first horse universally hailed as a Triple Crown winner. The Thoroughbred Racing Associations created a Triple Crown trophy in 1950.

Four horses won the Triple Crown in the 1940s, but no horse did it in the quarter of a century between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973. The 1970s, the so-called decade of champions, produced three Triple Crown winners. But now 34 years have passed since Affirmed outdueled Alydar in an epic Belmont battle.

Before 1978, horses who captured two-thirds of the Triple Crown were just as likely to be foiled in the Derby or Preakness as the Belmont. Racing luck was a frequent culprit; Native Dancer’s rough trip cost him the 1953 Derby and Little Current was badly blocked in 1974.

But since Affirmed’s triumph, the Belmont Stakes has become the great obstacle in the Triple Crown. Two changes in the modern game have made the Belmont so elusive. American Thoroughbreds have become less durable, and running three times in a five-week period is more stressful for modern horses than for their ancestors. (The schedule used to be even more demanding. Sir Barton had only three days’ rest between the Derby and the Preakness.) Relatively few modern-day horses compete in all three legs of the series unless they are pursuing a Triple Crown sweep, in which case they are usually facing a field of fresher rivals.

The major difficulty in the Belmont, however, is its distance. Contemporary American horses almost never compete at 1 1/2 miles on the dirt. Few are bred to run so far. The history of the race suggests strongly that a horse’s running style plays a great part in determining his effectiveness. And the ideal style for the Belmont is antithetical to the style that often succeeds in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Horses frequently seize command of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with one bold move – usually on the final turn. But when a horse tries to unleash a similar burst at Belmont Park, he still has a seemingly endless stretch in front of him, and rarely can sustain momentum to the finish line.

Many horses have won the Derby or the Preakness with eye-catching acceleration on the turn: Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999). All of them lost their Triple Crown bid in the Belmont, and almost all of them were fading in the last quarter-mile.

Plodders sometimes win the Belmont and speed horses often do – but in either case they are likely to be even-paced runners, not ones whose forte is sharp acceleration. When Affirmed led all the way in 1978, he meted out his speed, running the first quarter-mile in 25 seconds flat and the final quarter in 25.20. Such controllable speed is the most formidable asset a horse can have in the Belmont. It is no coincidence that the past four Triple Crown winners won the race by leading all the way.

As I’ll Have Another bids to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, he has certain obvious strengths and weaknesses. He has not yet proved himself to be in the class of greats such as Secretariat and Affirmed. He will be competing for the third time in five weeks against challengers who have been given a breather before the Belmont. But he appears to have a respectable pedigree, and he possesses a blend of speed and stretch-running ability that could add up to an effective running style at 1 1/2 miles. Now he has a chance to add his name to a list that includes some of the greatest Thoroughbreds who ever lived.

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Flay, Repole and Plank Show It’s Hip To Own A Horse

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Case Clay of The New York Times…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

A Toast to Horse Racing, With a Classic Twist

Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Cary Grant had more than one thing in common. They were not only entertainers, but they were horse racing enthusiasts, fans and owners. As a 37 year old who has grown up in the horse industry, I often hear folks talk about the “good old days” and how these three men created a great allure to horse racing, making it hip to own a horse.

When I hear this sort of chatter the next time, I will let the folks know there is a chance for “good new days” ahead.

On Saturday at Belmont Park, hours before the third leg of the Triple Crown, the modern-day, business version of the Crosby/Astaire/Grant trio got together for the first time in the same room and shared a drink. I got the feeling it won’t be the last. Three young horse owners, the celebrity chef Bobby Flay (age 46), the Under Armour founder and chief executive Kevin Plank (age 38) and the co-founder of Vitaminwater Mike Repole (age 42), are the new faces of horse racing, and it’s quite refreshing.

Each of the entrepreneurs is fun and engaging, each has earned a coveted Breeders’ Cup victory, each has built internationally recognized brands, but most importantly, they share a genuine passion for horse racing as a sport and will do whatever it takes to let people know that if you don’t own a racehorse, you’re missing an unbelievable opportunity.

“We love to promote,” Plank said, “and the three of us are getting together and saying ‘We want other people to take interest in this game that was once the most popular sport in America and say, ‘Why not again?’”

Individually, their intensity and enthusiasm is infectious, but together, when discussing horse racing, their enthusiasm rises to another level, and their love of horse racing is off the charts.

“It’s an unbelievable game,” Plank said. “There’s nothing like watching the horses coming down the stretch and crossing the finish line. And no matter what the odds, short or long, the winning is contagious and the beauty of the horse is something you can’t express. It is the prettiest thing I have ever dealt with in my life.”

The nice thing about Repole, Flay and Plank is they don’t take themselves too seriously either. As the discussion continues, I’m imagining Crosby, Astaire and Grant doing the same thing years ago, as these three gentlemen playfully weave verbal pokes back and forth to one another in jest as if they have known each other forever. They quickly maneuver between seriously passionate and hilarious zingers, which become fun to watch.

Repole and Plank, who had Stay Thirsty and Monzon, respectively, in the Belmont Stakes, asked Flay which horse would win the Belmont, each giving him a look that their horse better be mentioned. Without missing a beat, Flay smiled and said, “Santiva, definitely,” which immediately earned the payoff laugh from the other two guys.

Flay then switches back to serious and answers my question about what it was like to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf with his filly, More Than Real.

“I’ve probably watched the race replay 300 times,” Flay said. “Actually I watched the replay this morning. I had about 12 people over to my house for brunch and we showed it to the guests. Somebody at the table said, ‘You can’t bottle that feeling.’ He’s right, you can’t bottle it. For me, it didn’t feel real, so I always have to watch the replay to make sure it actually happened.”

Repole comes back right on cue, “You had 12 people over for brunch, and we weren’t invited? Kevin, do you believe that?”

Plank responds, “Bobby, are you a cook or something?”

Repole pulls it right back to the passion and what he loves about horse racing. “This is what racing is about,” Repole says as he points to his 80 friends and family gathered at tables behind him. This is a celebration today,” he continues. “Whether my horse comes in 1st or 12th, it doesn’t matter. This is what racing can be about. You can come here and have a great time, spend $200, get something to eat, and possibly walk out of here with a thousand dollars. You go to a great restaurant with $200, and you’re not coming out with possibly more money in your pocket, especially if it’s one of Bobby’s restaurants!”

Flay laughs.

While they are riffing, I can see their minds moving, using what made their businesses successful to promote horse racing.

“For young guys in horse racing, the luck we have is more like a naiveté, which I promote more than anything,” Plank says. “Don’t tell me what can’t happen or what has to happen. Hopefully we can pick up a lot of trophies and have other people say, ‘I’d like to do that, too.’”

Plank, Flay and Repole were all underdogs at one point in their self-made lives. When you talk to them, you get the sense that they embrace the challenge of promoting a sport, which, like any sport (disputes and lockout discussions in the N.F.L. and N.B.A.) has its challenges; and will not let horse racing go away on their watch.

“It’s too important to let it go away,” Flay says. “We’re doing our best in this game, and we want this game to be the best it can be.”

These guys are winners and their attitudes are contagious, which is a good combination for horse racing.

“We wouldn’t have gotten into it if we thought it was going to lose,” Plank adds.

Repole, Plank and Flay don’t know what the future holds, but that certainly doesn’t stop them from dreaming. On Saturday, Flay’s filly ran a solid third in the Grade I Acorn, and he’s off to Royal Ascot to watch his Breeders’ Cup winning filly run. Repole’s horses ran third in the Grade II True North Handicap and second in the Belmont Stakes. And although Plank’s underdog didn’t take the Belmont this year, don’t bet against his long shots (his Breeders’ Cup winner was 46-1).

In the Crosby, Astaire, Grant days, it was hip to own a horse. Thanks to Bobby Flay, Mike Repole and Kevin Plank, it’s getting hip again.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

How Much Effect Would a Triple Crown Winner Actually Have???

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.
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