Archive for Triple Crown

Could Churchill Use The Popularity of the Kentucky Derby to Make Positive Changes in Horse Racing???

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

Churchill could spark change

Imagine a run-up to the Triple Crown that didn’t include the Florida Derby or the Fountain of Youth or the Louisiana Derby. Such an upheaval to so traditional a road is unlikely, of course, but if it did happen, if an imperative forced the highway to take a dramatic detour, then after a few shocking moments and a few more aftershocks it would probably be good for racing.

Yes, good for racing, salubrious even. The sport must make dramatic changes. Wagering on horse racing has declined 2.41 percent from a year ago, according to Equibase; purses are down, too. The stakeholders must shake off their inertia and embrace change. Racetracks can’t operate like little fiefdoms, nor states like islands. In the struggle to achieve uniform medication rules, Churchill Downs could do the sport a great service if it would strip the Florida Derby, the Fountain of Youth and the Louisiana Derby of all their precious Kentucky Derby qualifying points, and, even better, nullify the Lecomte, Holy Bull, Tampa Bay Derby and Risen Star Stakes, too, along with, don’t forget, the Delta Downs Jackpot.

Such extremes probably wouldn’t be necessary. A warning might suffice, making clear that all of Florida’s and Louisiana’s Derby preps could be erased from the ruddy Derby roadmap, effective in, perhaps, 2016. That warning would allow their advocates a little time to recover from apoplexy and attempt to do something about it.

And that, of course, would be the actual goal, their doing something about it. The threat of such a seismic shift would contribute to the longterm health of the sport if it forced Florida and Louisiana to adopt, at the very least, the Controlled Therapeutic Medication Schedule of the model rules recommended by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and the Association of Racing Commissioners International. Keep in mind that these model rules developed by veterinarians and scientists are based on years of research and piles of data, not on horsemen’s hankering. The rules are strict, but also organic, incorporating the latest findings and analysis. And the rules’ adoption is positively essential if racing is to prosper, for they’re the foundation of the uniform rules that the sport desperately needs.

For any number of reasons, one of them being that Churchill owns the Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans, it’s a wild idea, linking the Kentucky Derby points to uniform rules. Then again, it’s even wilder, perhaps crazy, that there are no nationally uniform medication rules, and that’s really the point.

In the last year, horse racing has made significant, even great, progress towards the adoption of uniform medication rules. As a result, in the next year the number of states operating under the model medication rules will increase from four to 16. But, most notably, six states have yet to adopt the rules — Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio. They’re stuck in a morass of bureaucracy and, in some cases, stupidity. Churchill Downs could encourage them out of that morass, as could the American Graded Stakes Committee.

The American Graded Stakes Committee has added eight graded stakes for 2015 and two of those, the Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park and the Penn Mile at Penn National, are run in states that have not adopted the model medication rules. But Pennsylvania “should be very close to fully implementing” the model guidelines, according to Dionne Benson, who’s both a veterinarian and an attorney and so ideally qualified as the Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. And in Florida, she said, horsemen have endorsed the Controlled Therapeutic Medication Schedule; they’re not to blame. The obstacle to fully adopting the rules in Florida, she said, is largely legislative. Florida and Pennsylvania, in other words, have made significant progress in the general direction of uniform medication rules.

Oklahoma, on the other hand, has not. Oklahoma allows for the race-day use of phenylbutazone at a level that’s 2-1/2 times what the RMTC recommends in its model rules. In addition, Oklahoma permits the use of another pain-killer, flunixin (Banamine), and of two corticosteroids. Flagrantly and ponderously out of step with the progress throughout the sport, Oklahoma has the most permissive medication rules in the country. It’s a level of permissiveness that not only indulges some people’s inclination to rely more on medication than horsemanship, but also threatens to harm the bettors, the sport and, most important, the jockeys and horses. Regulators and horsemen there damage the sport and abuse its fans by not embracing medication reform and, more specifically, the model rules.

And so perhaps it’s not coincidental that the Springboard Mile is not among the eight races that in 2015 will be graded for the first time. Will Take Charge, the runner-up in the 2012 Springboard Mile, went on to be the next year’s champion 3-year-old. And at least the first three finishers in Sunday’s renewal at Remington Park in Oklahoma City — Bayerd, Shotgun Kowboy and High Noon Rider — appear to be very promising. Based on the quality of its competitors, the race is on the cusp of being graded. But based on the recalcitrance of Oklahoma’s medication policies, neither the Springboard Mile nor any other stakes in Oklahoma will be graded anytime soon, even though Remington Park itself has publicly and officially supported the model rules.

Based on the quality of its competitors, the race is on the cusp of being graded. But based on the recalcitrance of Oklahoma’s medication policies, neither the Springboard Mile nor any other stakes in Oklahoma will be graded anytime soon, even though Remington Park itself has publicly and officially supported the model rules.

Clearly the American Graded Stakes Committee has paired progress on medication reform with grading. Grading stakes is a powerful tool, and in this regard the committee is using it wisely for the amelioration of the sport. The message is that no racing jurisdiction can prosper as an island. The next step would be to downgrade existing graded stakes in states that have not adopted the model rules. Pennsylvania, you and your Penn Mile have a year. Florida, you have a year before the Donn and the Gulfstream Park Handicap slip to Grade 2.

But in some jurisdictions, Churchill Downs has an even more powerful goad, those cherished Kentucky Derby points that determine who’ll be in the roseate field. Would Florida lawmakers continue to loll in their morass if their derby were about to be relegated? That’s a question Churchill could ask for the good of the sport — might even enjoy asking.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

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Will the Derby and Preakness Wins Be Enough For “Chrome” To Hold Off Shared Belief for Three Year Old of the Year????

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

Double Crown title streak could end

As any schoolchild knows, every 3-year-old since 1978 who won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness failed to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the Triple Crown. But did you know there’s an even longer streak regarding the winners of the first two legs of the Triple Crown?

Since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971 through last year, 16 horses have won the Derby and Preakness – and every single one of them won the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old: Canonero II (1971), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2001), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2007), I’ll Have Another (2012) and … wait, not so fast on adding California Chrome (2014) to the list.

After Shared Belief’s impressive victory against his elders in the Pacific Classic last Sunday, he inched ahead of the idle California Chrome in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly Horse of the Year poll. (Shared Belief and California Chrome are now ranked second and third behind the 7-year-old gelding Wise Dan.)

You have to go back 45 years, before the dawn of the Eclipses, to find a 3-year-old who won the Derby and Preakness but was not acknowledged as the division’s champion: That would be Majestic Prince in 1969. He beat Arts and Letters by a neck in the Derby and by a head in the Preakness, but Arts and Letters beat him by 5 1/2 lengths in the Belmont and then reeled off consecutive victories in the Jim Dandy, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. (He also won the Blue Grass and, in between the Preakness and Belmont, the Met Mile.) Arts and Letters was understandably acclaimed as the champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year.

It looked as if things might go the same way a couple of times since. Twenty years after Arts and Letters, Easy Goer had a very similar streak after falling short to Sunday Silence in the Derby and Preakness. He was heavily favored to complete the turnaround in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but then Sunday Silence beat him for the third time in four meetings and was deservedly a nearly unanimous choice.

In 2003, it seemed that Empire Maker had edged ahead of Funny Cide when he beat him in the Belmont, giving him a 2-1 lead in head-to-head meetings and a 3-2 lead in Grade 1 victories. Neither one of them, however, won a race past June, and by the time ballots were due in December, Funny Cide’s Derby and Preakness made it seem to a majority of voters that he had been the more successful 3-year-old and deserved the nod.

The 2004 voting would have been interesting if Birdstone had won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. After denying Smarty Jones’s bid for the Triple Crown by beating him in the Belmont, Birdstone returned to win the Travers. Would a BC Classic victory have pushed him past the Derby-Preakness winner? We’ll never know since he finished seventh, and Smarty Jones was an easy Eclipse winner.

So, the question now is whether Shared Belief can catch up to a Derby-Preakness winner. Let’s say he makes his fourth and final start of an unbeaten 3-year-old season in the BC Classic and wins it, beating California Chrome in their only meeting. Would it be enough? California Chrome would still have a 3-2 lead in Grade 1 wins (Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness vs. Pacific Classic and BC Classic), but Shared Belief’s two big victories would have been against older horses instead of the uninspiring 3-year-olds whom California Chrome was walloping last spring.

Still, winning the Derby and Preakness is a powerful double that tends to look even better in hindsight. The discussion then comes down to accomplishment vs. talent. It’s possible that one could simultaneously believe at season’s end that Shared Belief is the better horse but that California Chrome accomplished more this year.

It would be a fascinating debate if we get that far. Maybe the best part is that this could develop into more than a one-race rivalry: California Chrome is scheduled to race as a 4-year-old, and Shared Belief is a gelding with an unlimited future on the track. These things are always best settled on the racetrack, so here’s hoping.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

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.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

The Belmont Signals The End of The Triple Crown and the Beginning of Focusing on the Older Horses

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

With Triple Crown over, the grown-ups finally take center stage

Will someone please peek out of the curtains to see if the coast is clear? Any of those young hooligans still hanging around, trampling the lawn and playing their loud, rappity-rap music? Is it finally safe again for the adults to come out and play?

Sunday could be the day, because that is when the quest for the 2013 Triple Crown finally will have reached an end and, for want of a better date, the second half of the season begins. Come the dawn there suddenly will disappear any need to wonder what Todd Pletcher is thinking about a 3-year-old at any particular moment or when a van is scheduled to leave Churchill Downs heading east. The words “frac” and “daddy” need never appear in the same sentence again, at least without good reason, as the rest of the top-flight Thoroughbred population finally emerges from behind bushes and rocks to take their turn in the sun. If it ever stops raining.

It is unreasonable to expect a second half in 2013 like 2012, especially among the older males, when at one time or another such talented animals as Wise Dan, Fort Larned, Point of Entry, Game On Dude, Little Mike, Flat Out, Mucho Macho Man, Ron the Greek, and To Honor and Serve caught the eye.

Ditto the older fillies and mares, who mixed it up with the best of the 3-year-old fillies in 2012 to provide outstanding entertainment, thanks to Royal Delta, Groupie Doll, Include Me Out, Zagora, Love and Pride, Tapitsfly, Questing, and My Miss Aurelia.

By now, the game’s camp followers have come to understand that each season is a chapter in a never-ending story. Characters come and go with heartless impunity, sometimes evaporating completely from view. It’s never wise to get hooked on a particular hero.

The first half of Royal Delta’s year was sacrificed on the altar of the Dubai World Cup, where she is clearly not at home. As for Groupie Doll, she has not run at all and may not for several months.

At least Wise Dan has provided two quality appearances befitting a reigning Horse of the Year, and Game on Dude is a perfect 3 for 3 running East and West. But Little Mike ran twice to no avail in Dubai, Include Me Out remains among the missing, and Point of Entry had just one race this year before his scheduled appearance in the Manhattan Handicap on Belmont Day.

The most frustrating encore for any of the stars of last year has been the two appearances by Fort Larned, winner of the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic in a tenacious battle with Mucho Macho Man. Among those behind them that day were the winners of the Woodward, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Santa Anita Handicap, the Stephen Foster, the Californian, and the Hollywood Gold Cup.

In his debut as a 5-year-old, Fort Larned dumped Brian Hernandez at the start of the March 9 Gulfstream Park Handicap, charged through the field to the lead, and ran willy-nilly around the course to cross the finish line far in front of his more traditionally mounted opposition.

After getting him back in one piece, trainer Ian Wilkes produced Fort Larned a month later in the Oaklawn Handicap. Hernandez stayed on board this time, but the real Fort Larned didn’t show. After stalking the pace of local favorite Cyber Secret, the Breeders’ Cup winner surrendered without a fight to finish fifth.

Wilkes retreated to his Churchill Downs home base and took a deep breath, or maybe a valium.

“What a way to start the year. It was not a pretty sight, what happened at Gulfstream,” Wilkes said Friday from Churchill. “I watched him closely for the next week, and the horse didn’t leave any feed. All indications were showing that he bounced out of it the right way, and no harm done. But obviously it took a little more out of him than I thought, and we just didn’t know it until he got back to the races.”

In a way this makes sense. Classy animals do not tip their weaknesses easily. The good ones play hurt and rarely complain. The riderless Fort Larned was hand-timed in a track record for the mile of the Gulfstream Handicap, and man was he a beautiful sight in full, majestic flight. Given the controlled parameters of training and racing, however, it presented a wild-card scenario that would have challenged anyone.

Because the Oaklawn Handicap unfolded in a more customary, if unsatisfying, manner, Wilkes at least knew he had a short horse who should be tighter next time around. That opportunity comes up June 15 at Churchill Downs in the $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap, a race in which he finished eighth in 2012 in a duel with division leaders Wise Dan, Ron the Greek, and Nate’s Mineshaft. Royal Delta also is scheduled to return that afternoon in the Fleur des Lis.

“The last few weeks his works have been tremendous here,” Wilkes noted. “I’ve no complaints with the way he’s doing. He’s a maturing horse still, maybe a bit bigger than he was this time last year. And he’s doing the little things differently, like a more mature horse. I see no reason why he can’t get back to the same top level he was at last year.”

In the meantime, for those who just can’t wait, there is a countdown clock ticking at the top of the official Kentucky Derby website maintained by Churchill Downs. At the start of business Friday, the day before the Belmont Stakes, there were 329 days, eight hours, 48 minutes, and 17 seconds until the Triple Crown started again.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

Is The Triple Crown Harder Than Ever To Win???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Alice Wincze of Lexington Herald-Leader…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Why winning the Triple Crown is harder than ever

The fervor of the question increases with every passing year. And as the years turn into decades — three now and counting — the subject gets dissected so exhaustively that even those deemed experts abandon trying to come up with one concrete answer.

I’ll Have Another’s victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes have gathered the racing world to its latest roundtable discussion over why it has been 34 years since a horse has proven capable of capturing the three-race, five-week gauntlet that is the American Triple Crown.

Though just 11 legends have accomplished the feat, the current drought has long since passed the previous record 25-year gap between Citation’s sweep in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973.

The one thought most agree upon is if I’ll Have Another wins the Triple Crown, he’ll have done so in an era unlike that of any of his predecessors.

To merely say it takes a special horse to win the Triple Crown is too simple a way of explaining why a generation of fans exist who have never witnessed a sweep. Some of the greatest horses of our time, most notably Spectacular Bid (1979), Alysheba (1987) and Sunday Silence (1989), made it to this very point only to be tripped up by various factors during their 11/2-mile journeys around the Belmont oval.

For the majority of the 11 horses that have failed to finish the job since Affirmed did so in 1978, their attempts have come at a time when the racing landscape is drastically different than it was for the 11 who succeeded.

This is not your grandfather’s racing. As the Thoroughbred breed has changed — for better or worse — so too have training styles and the attitude within the sport.

“I think it has (become harder to win) because of the reasons for which we breed horses,” said Penny Chenery, owner of Secretariat. “Back in the ’70s we were still breeding horses to race them, and so much of the industry now is concentrated on sales. So you breed a good-looking, early speed horse who isn’t equipped to go a mile and a half, or to run three hard races in five weeks.

“We just have a different set of goals with the horses we breed now.”

The Triple Crown races have not changed since the Thoroughbred Racing Association formally recognized the three-race series in 1950. The variables needed to notch victories in the trio, though, have grown to titanic proportions

Size matters

Of the 11 Triple Crown winners, only the great War Admiral in 1937 began his run by defeating 19 others in the Kentucky Derby.

With the first leg now the most famous race in the sport and long-shot winners showing a Derby victor can come from anywhere, 19- and 20-horse fields have become the norm in the past decade, increasing the odds that even the most talented horse of a generation could be derailed by a troubled trip.

Though field sizes in general have declined over the years, the Triple Crown races regularly hit their starting-gate limits.

Citation only had to beat 15 total horses en route to his coronation. Secretariat defeated 21 others during his Triple Crown run. Seattle Slew and Affirmed faced 29 and 20 total rivals, respectively.

I’ll Have Another took on 19 in the Derby, 10 in the Preakness and could encounter nine more foes in the Belmont

“It’s not too tough to win the Triple Crown. It’s just these fields are always full fields and it’s all about getting a good trip,” said Graham Motion, trainer of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. “There is always going to be a horse in the Derby that’s not going to get a good trip and that’s what’s going to make it so hard to have a Triple Crown winner.”

How one even gets a horse ready for the Triple Crown races is a different animal than it was in the ’70s.

First, there is the trend of trainers wanting to allow more time between starts in hopes of avoiding the dreaded “bounce” factor off of big efforts. However, with the 20-horse Derby field being determined in part by graded stakes earnings since 1986, some say they now have to ask more of their prospects earlier in order to secure the crucial money needed.

“It is not a three-race series anymore, it’s more like a five-race series,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, winner of 13 Triple Crown races. “In the ’50s or ’60s, you could take a soft approach and train your horse and come May say, ‘I think he’s good enough’ and run him in the Derby against 10 or 12 horses. Now you cannot do that.

“You’ve got to say, ‘We better run good in the Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby, the Fountain of Youth.’ We better go to the well because the earnings are so imperative for us to get in.”

While the race for graded earnings has played a role, it is the monetary action brought on by the auction arena that has been arguably the biggest factor in the Triple Crown drought.

Money changes everything

Where once homebreds ruled the classics, the rise of the commercial marketplace in the past 30 years has prompted breeders to produce a different type of athlete than previously demanded.

With deep-pocketed buyers like Robert Sangster, Coolmore, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum arriving on the scene in the 1980s, wild bidding wars erupted that produced seven- and eight-figure yearlings as well as broodmare prospects.

Since buyers need to get as much return as possible on such lofty investments, precocious babies that could inspire a strong following in the breeding shed went to the top of buyers’ wish lists, regardless if they had classic ability.

“There might be a tendency to try and breed a powerful speedy horse as opposed to one that looks like it could run a distance of ground. But you have to understand that commercial breeders are breeding what they think they can sell,” said bloodstock adviser Ric Waldman, who managed the career of leading sire Storm Cat. “And I think the end user has wanted a speedy horse.

“It’s not like we don’t want to breed Derby winners, everybody wants a Derby winner. But it goes back to the type of horse we think will make a good stud horse. And the kind of horse we think will make a good stud horse has typically been one that has shown speed and precocity.”

In trying to breed fast, pretty horses, some argue the durability of the modern Thoroughbred has been sacrificed along with the stamina. Today’s runners might not be the iron horses of the past, but part of the issue behind their perceived fragility may be just that — perception.

“I cannot believe how well these horses handle the comeback (during the Triple Crown),” Motion said. “Animal Kingdom went into the Preakness great, he went into the Belmont great and I never could have predicted that having never done it before. I don’t think we give these horses enough credit for how durable they are.”

Given the way the sport has changed, some like Lukas have said the Triple Crown should change with it, both in terms of the races’ distances and spacing.

If I’ll Have Another ends up winning this challenge, he’ll not only have racing’s greatest achievement on his résumé, he’ll have overcome a new set of obstacles in doing so.

“It shouldn’t be easy,” Waldman said. “While everyone is hoping we have a Triple Crown winner, the fact there hasn’t been one in such a long period of time underscores how difficult it is. You add in the component that maybe we’re changing the breed over this period of time and that compounds the difficulty in trying to achieve it.”

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

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.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

Do Horse Racing’s Hot Button Issues Boil Down to What Benefits Fans?

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

Taking care of fans is key to growth

Kentucky is usually known for its original horse power. Sleek thoroughbreds dot the landscape, and come the first Saturday in May, they take center stage.

In recent weeks though, the state has been making national news for its problems dealing with man-made horse power. The traffic problem that occurred outside of Kentucky Speedway during its first NASCAR Sprint Cup race has only been made worse by the defiant nature of Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith.

Because I live in the state, it has been impossible not to hear about how the poorly the debacle has been handled. Some fans sat in traffic for more than six hours trying to get to the race only to be denied entry because there was nowhere to park. Instead of giving cash refunds, Smith has simply passed the blame to everyone else.

America is a country of customer service, and that is never more true than when it comes to sports. At the end of the day, a sport cannot survive without fans.

Although they both feature speed, NASCAR and horse racing are in very different places at the moment when it comes to fan base. I understand that. But at a time when discretionary income is hard to come by, angering the people who allow you to exist seems a bit foolhardy.

While pondering this, I couldn’t help but think of the difficulty horse racing has faced while trying to maintain and expand its fan base. As an industry, horse racing has been aware for some time that in order to survive it must do this, but that is far easier said than done.

The tricky thing with horse racing is there are no teams to cheer for. Loyalty to a runner rarely can last more than a few years, simply because said horse will be retired. People have favorite trainers and jockeys, but the star of the game has always been the horse.

It’s not like an NFL team that a family will follow for generations, through thick and thin. For instance, my family’s team is the Denver Broncos. While John Elway will always be beloved, our loyalty to the Broncos did not change when he retired. I guarantee that some of the fans Zenyatta picked up along the way retired from racing when she did.

Another unique aspect of the game is the gambling. Getting people in the door simply isn’t enough. The success of a race meet is not only judged by attendance but by handle.

For instance, Lone Star Park ended its spring thoroughbred meeting with a 10 percent increase in average daily attendance, which was the largest average daily attendance increase in the track’s history. But, overall handle was down and that had to be addressed.

Also, for better or for worse, racing has no commissioner. Rules and regulations vary by state and for the average fan, that can be confusing. It can also lead to almost cannibalistic in-fighting at times because tracks have to take care of themselves before they worry about the whole.

All of that said, horse racing has been making steps in the right direction.

This year, for the first time since 2005, all three legs of the Triple Crown were aired on the same network. Even though no horse was going for racing’s ultimate prize, viewership of the Belmont was up 44 percent from 2010. It seems unlikely that it was pure coincidence. People like things to be easy, and splitting the races between networks simply wasn’t.

Also, in an effort to capitalize on the popularity of 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta, the Breeders’ Cup has designed a Web page exclusively for the purposes of marketing the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Most of the Breeders’ Cup Classic challenge races will also be aired on national television, and on-track fans will be able to compete in a free fantasy-type game where they own virtual shares in competing horses. The game, which hinges on who wins the Classic, features a $250,000 jackpot.

The Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup are racing’s biggest events. Positive actions by both entities benefit the sport as a whole.

Furthermore, serious discussion about the use of race-day medication continues.

Earlier this year, the Association of Racing Commissioners International called for the end of race-day medication within five years. This summer, Breeders’ Cup Ltd. announced plans to ban race-day medication in Breeders’ Cup World Championships juvenile races in 2012, and it will not allow it in any of the event’s races in 2013.

No matter where you stand on the hot-button issue, the fact it is being discussed and analyzed is a good thing.

There has also been a focus in recent years about what happens to a horse when his or her racing days are over. Although no perfect solution has been found and problems still exist, addressing the issue and trying to fix it is key.

Doing what is right for the horse can only help racing’s persona. After all, one of racing’s biggest issues is perception. It is hard to bring new fans into the sport when they are worried about how the horses are treated and if the game is fair. Who can blame them?

The other issue is simply exposure. Thankfully, the wireless world we now live in can help with that, as long as we make use of the available technology. It is important to make the sport not only accessible but engaging.

No sport can take its fans for granted. People simply have too many other options these days and once they are gone, they are unlikely to come back.

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but I do know that fans must be taken care of or the sport cannot survive.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?