Last weekend while watching the Belmont Stakes, I had a disturbing thought: The Triple Crown is now “ridiculous.”
Not in a singular way, but ridiculous on two very important fronts. It didn’t used to be, but it is in 2010.
Now, before you start writing your angry comments, hear me out.
If you could find some savvy animal experts from some other planet (or at least a developed nation that wasn’t familiar with horse racing) and you couched the question in the particular fashion below, what sort of response would you get?
So let’s break it down to the basic elements and not consider all the plethora of mitigating and complicating factors. If you told our independent focus group that the sport’s marquis event involved animals who average six or seven events per year competing in three events over a five week period all at distances longer than their previous race or the average race nationally and that two of the races are run at distances that these horses may well never run again (and that are hardly ever run, period), what would they say?
How about, “that’s ridiculous.” And they might follow that up with "What's wrong with you people?"
It’s like the World Cup matches being longer and played on a bigger field with a different ball. The Indy 500? How about 750 miles making right hand turns with less fuel. The Super Bowl? Three downs, 125 yard field, narrower goal post with just two days (not two weeks) between the championship games and the Super Bowl itself.
Put the Triple Crown in a comparable frame of reference with other major sports and what we do seems pretty ridiculous when compared to the "regular season" of racing.
Or simply compare the Triple Crown to the Breeders Cup. When we test the champions of each division on BC Day, the races are run at appropriate distances. We don't ask a horse to run the Breeders Cup Sprint going seven furlongs or a flat mile, and we don't ask the horses in the Breeders Classic to prove themselves at 12 furlongs even if it is November. But we still ask three-year-olds to win three races in the spring going distances they have never run and are unlikely (save the Travers and a few big races for older horses) to run again.
The outside observer would call that "counter intuitive" at best.
Of course the Triple Crown is a test – a stern test. It’s not meant to be won by every good horse, just the really great ones. But racing has evolved while the modern racehorse has devolved to a place where the entire concept seems…well…ridiculous, and, quite frankly, almost (if not completely) impossible to accomplish.
It’s been 32 years since the great Affirmed did it. Today, the modern breeding and racing industries are burdened by crushing economics (OK, and maybe some greed) which have caused an emphasis on and reliance upon more speed, shorter races and earlier racing.
The value and earning potential of the small elite group of Grade I stakes horses seems to have created racing and training patterns that diminish rather than enhance long careers while decreasing the ability to win at distances beyond 9 furlongs. And many of the ones that do find their way to the winners’ circle in Kentucky and New York on the first Saturday’s of May and June don’t have a major impact on the breed as stallions.
Either way, breeders want to either sell their horses for a profit or get them to the racetrack and earning money as fast as possible. Costs are so high to produce and train these horses that nobody can blame breeders and owners for looking for the fastest possible return on these major investments. If this were Europe where the owners are still primarily part of the wealthy class of sportsmen (a dwindling group here in the U.S.), this might be different. But, this is America, we are turbo-charged capitalist and our industry runs on money.
As a result, we find our industry mired in a Catch 22 which may well preclude the production of a sufficient number of classic horses while actually hindering the development so desperately needed to withstand these rarely seen and somewhat formidable distances just a few weeks apart.
Think about it for a moment. What is the same about the Triple Crown since Affirmed and Seattle Slew accomplished the longshot back-to-back crowns in 1977 and 1978? Again, consider the base elements: the tracks, the distances and the calendar are the same. Everything else is different. The horses, the people, the environment, the air, the water, the track surfaces, the stress levels, the medications, the pedigrees, the economy – all different, and none of these important factors seem to be moving us closer to finding a horse that can win at 10 furlongs and 12 furlongs five weeks apart.
And on that not-so-positive note, here’s the other “ridiculous” notion about the Triple Crown – the notion that a Triple Crown winner would save, or even dramatically improve, Thoroughbred racing.
The key to this concept is “generating meaningful long-term benefit,” with the key words being meaningful and long-term. Would a Triple Crown winner create great buzz for the sport and an uptick in popularity and interest? Of course it would.
But would those benefits hold up long-term? History says probably not.
Back to the World Cup. Remember when the U.S. women’s team won the World Cup back in 1999? It was the most-attended women's sports event in history with an official attendance of 90,185 at the Rose Bowl. The dramatic U.S. win peaked an interest in soccer (and specifically women’s soccer) for a short period of time.
How long you ask? For as long as the known stars of that team (Brandy Chastain, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brianna Scurry) were making news, folks stayed interested. Once they retired, interest in women’s soccer, soccer in general and the biggest single sporting event in the world – the World Cup – waned here in the U.S.
In this decade with modern culture featuring a number of characteristics not typically beneficial to racing (including a short attention span), the same pattern would likely have happened in horse racing had War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones or Big Brown won all three three-year-old spring classics.
The moral of this ridiculous tale is that meaningful change comes from the inside, not the outside. If we want horseracing’s lot to improve, we need to take long hard looks at every component of the game no matter how sacred. Whether it’s the Triple Crown or year-around racing, change is needed.
Our job is to control whether the inevitable changes are good, bad or…ridiculous… -- Glenn Petty