Posted: 9:17 p.m. Friday, May 31, 2013
The three races of the Triple Crown are well known to most horse racing fans. Everyone knows about the Kentucky Derby, especially in my state of Kentucky. The Preakness Stakes always has the hope for at least 1:52-2:00 of possibly taking a Triple Crown chance to Elmont, New York for the Belmont Stakes. And the Belmont Stakes is either dismissed as a random 1 1/2 mile dirt race in a vacuum that only the die-hard fans like the ADTSTC staff tend to hone in on or the Belmont gets ALL THE ATTENTION because a Triple Crown winner could be a thing for the first time since Steve Cauthen rode Affirmed home in 1978. Since then, 11 ran in the Belmont and lost along with I'll Have Another defecting due to injury last year (2012). This has begged the question, is the Triple Crown too hard to win in its modern incarnation? Should we leave it as is? Should we change it, and if so, how?
Steve Cauthen has won all three of the English Triple Crown races at least once and America's Triple Crown with Affirmed. He won the 1979 running of the 2000 Guineas on Tap on Wood. He also won the Epsom Derby on Slip Anchor ('85) and Reference Point ('87). He won on Oh So Sharp in the '85 St. Leger, pulled a Derby-St. Leger double in 1987, and won his 3rd St. Leger on Michelozzo the year I was born in 1989. A good local connection for my neck of the woods, especially for a Walton-Verona HS (in Boone County, my home county) attendee and someone that started in River Downs. One of my best friends from high school/college was on a dance team with his daughters. Small world, Northern Kentucky. Anyway, back to the point at hand. Should we change the crown or leave it the same?
The traditionalist in me wants the Triple Crown to remain a 3 races in 5 weeks challenge. It is the stiffest test in horse racing, even over the English Triple Crown, which--while it has stouter distance challenges for its last two jewels, it has a shorter first leg in the 2000 Guineas and has bigger gaps than our Triple Crown, even. 1 mile on grass for the 2000 Guineas, 1 1/2 miles on grass for the Epsom Derby, and 1 3/4 miles+132 yards (a little over 1 13/16 miles, kind of like a ZOMG Beard Course) for the St. Leger. They run the Guineas in late April or early May, the Derby in early June, and the St. Leger in September. Considering the American Triple Crown is modeled somewhat on the English model, if anything, we made it much harder to win in theory, even if they've had a longer gap since its last winner (1970 to our 1978).
First, let's break down the Triple Crown winners and how they won their Crowns.
Sir Barton (1919)--He wasn't even the top stablemate, as Billy Kelly was the top horse in the barn that year. However, Sir Barton didn't get the memo. He won the Derby in an upset to break his maiden, something that probably won't happen again, even the way Lukas can run some of his starters today. It was also his first start of the year, something Todd Pletcher doesn't even do...yet. He won the Preakness 4 days later before he completed the sweep in the Belmont Stakes on June 11th against 2 other rivals. In between his Preakness and Belmont, he won the Withers Stakes. Back then, the Preakness was 1 1/8 miles and the Belmont was 1 3/8 miles. No one criticizes Sir Barton for having different distances to run in his races. Also, his Belmont Stakes was ran clockwise rather than counter-clockwise. If anything, his laying of the foundation was among the most difficult to do.
Gallant Fox (1930)--He was the first "star" to win the Triple Crown. Later, his son Omaha (1935) replicated the feat it'll probably the only father-son combo that will ever do it, too. He ran his Preakness Stakes (5/9) before the Derby (5/17) that year. His Belmont win took place June 7th. So he only had 4 weeks for his Crown, and still did it. He came back three weeks later to win the Dwyer Handicap, a rest period that would be criticized heavily today. So far, the argument for more rest is moot, but the horses were more sound then and trained much differently.
Omaha (1935)--You could say the Triple Crown ran in his family (pun intended), as his father did it 5 years earlier. May 4th, May 11th, and June 8th were his Triple Crown wins. His was the first "traditional" crown in the sense that the distances were the same that they are today. He lost the Withers in between the Preakness and the Belmont. Such a move today would raise more red flags than a delayed NASCAR race, but again, a different era. He was very Animal Kingdom-like in that he ran in England his four year old season and almost won the Ascot Gold Cup. Excepting Secretariat, he may have been the most versatile winner of the Crown.
War Admiral (1937)--His dad was the best horse not to win the Crown, but not because Man O'War didn't have the talent. His owner actually skipped the event because it was too early and too far west for the first Big Red. His most accomplished son, War Admiral, made up for it, though. He won his Belmont after tearing into his leg at the break, even. He had 4 weeks for 3 races as well. Most people my age know him for losing to Seabiscuit in the 1938 Pimlico Special match race, though this horse was never a slouch by any means. So far, it looks like 5 weeks might be babying the field.
Whirlaway (1941)--He had raw talent, but needed direction with blinkers, Eddie Arcaro, and Ben Jones to realize he needed to adjust his quirks first to be at his best. When he peaked, it was trouble for the rest of the field. He had 1 week between the Derby and Preakness as well, but still won both. He later won the Belmont and was a war hero for helping to raise war bonds through his track successes in his late 3 and early 4 year old campaigns. Heck, he even ran at 5 twice before calling it quits. 32 wins of 60 is something you only see out of claimers anymore--that almost never happens with top quality horses. He had 5 weeks for his 3 races, but was still a great. Definitely a top 4 Triple Crown winner with the Admiral, Big Red (the 1973 one), and Citation.
Count Fleet (1943)--He was the lone war-time winner--by that, I mean the US was officially involved, not just a helper behind the scenes like in 1941--of the Triple Crown. He won his three races May 1st, May 8th, and June 5th. He won with 5 weeks for the three races, though he had just the 1 week for the first two races to rest. He got hurt in his Belmont, though it didn't stop him from winning by 25 lengths. The horse that beat that mark did it the year he died in 1973.
Assault (1946)--The grinder of the bunch that did it, he was an underdog story compared to most others (besides maybe Sir Barton and Affirmed) that won the Crown. He was actually second choice in his Belmont going for the Triple Crown. That would never happen today, as Triple Crown triers are hilariously overbet for the souvenir effect in today's game. It was quite common early on, though, as he was the 7th in 27 years. He later retired the all-time money earner and lived a good long life until 1971. He was the last one week between Derby-Preakness horse to win the Crown.
Citation (1948)--Were it not for either Big Red in history (Man O'War or Secretariat for the newbies), he'd be the all-time great to look up to in racing lore. He beat his stablemate Coaltown in the Derby on May 1st. He was the first Derby-Preakness 2 weeks/Preakness-Belmont 3 weeks Triple Crown winner. I doubt anyone would rationally claim he's worse than the previous 7 winners because he needed that extra week. He ran the Jersey Derby in between the Preakness and Belmont because he wanted another race. He was Eddie Arcaro's second Triple Crown, and also Calumet's second. That won't happen anytime soon, either--two Crowns for a jockey or owner, that is.
Secretariat (1973)--What can be said that hasn't already? The greatest shock of his career is that he lost 5 times and was 4th in his debut. He was tired and against the bias both times Allen Jerkens trainees beat him, he couldn't run loose speed down with a tooth problem in the Wood Memorial, he got taken down in the Champagne when he'd probably have stayed up in 1st today, and got a terribad (there's the first use in 1500 words, a record for me holding out that long lol) trip in his racing debut at 2. Otherwise, he was racing perfection when at his zenith. He has three stakes records in the Triple Crown, though it took a while to get the Preakness one official. He also has had a few elsewhere, too. He has/had the 1 1/8 dirt and 1 1/2 turf records at Belmont Park in addition to the world record at 1 1/2 miles on dirt in his Belmont Stakes---the biggest stomping in horse racing EVAR. Lady's Secret and Risen Star were pretty good, and General Assembly replicated his Belmont in a sense when setting the Saratoga 1 1/4 mile track record in his Travers in 1979--but no one matched Big Red. The first Triple Crown winner my dad saw, he was. He died the year I was born--my older sister got to see him in person at Clairborne. I would NEVER assert he was bad because he had normal rest and more rest than the early winners did.
Seattle Slew (1977)--The bargain bin of the bunch, as he's the lone auction buy of the 11. He also got through the Crown unbeaten, though he lost the Swaps infamously running back too soon after completing the Crown. He was great all three years that he ran. Were it not for Affirmed, he might have done the double for Horse of the Year in 1978. He lived until 2002, though I never got to see him. He had the "normal" rest of today, though he's still great.
Affirmed (1978)--Unfortunately, he is the last winner before the Curse of Garfield struck. Garfield debuted nine days later in the comics after Affirmed's triumph. The two events aren't related, but it's funny to make it a "curse" to satirize how every shortcoming has to be a curse. He was great anyway, but his rivalry with Alydar made it all the better. His Belmont final 3/4 mile was faster than his first 3/4 of a mile. That's pretty darn rare, especially when in a duel for half the race. He had the normal rest, too.
Now that we've went tl;dr on the winners, let's see if changing it might help. I don't suggest going all Todd Pletcher on it and making the rest laughable, but extending it a little bit might heighten some big racing weekends for tracks. My dad and I think that if it changes--and it probably shouldn't--that keeping the Derby the first Saturday in May makes sense. Making the Preakness Memorial Day Weekend would heighten that weekend for Baltimore and keep them their jewel of the Crown. Making the Belmont the Fourth of July Weekend could make that great, too. Not that these races need more prestige, but bumping it to 3 races in 2 months is still a short time in today's game of needing 1-2 months off between races.
The Triple Crown has adapted to changes in the past, and the winners are all still considered legends. I don't think using the First Saturday in May/Memorial Day Weekend/Fourth of July Weekend method would hurt either. Then again, seeing it done "right" with 4-5 weeks rest would be good, too. Either way, the Triple Crown is tough and its winners are considered immortals of their sport. Heck, baseball saw it won by Miguel Cabrera last year, and it had been since 1967 since that happened. Maybe this gap will end someday, too. When it does, I want a good one for the first like my dad got to see Secretariat first when he was 21.
*Apologies for the rambling, this is something that's been on my mind off and on for 5 years*