Never is a long time, during which many unlikely things will happen, so the saying “never say never” probably is apt. Still, when applied to thoroughbred racing’s annual Triple Crown series, it’s hard to avoid using the “n” word.
No horse has won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes since Affirmed did it in 1978, and none is likely to do it any time soon. That includes the cycle that begins with the 139th Derby on Saturday, May 4. That’s not so much a commentary on the immediate field as it is on the general state of my favorite participant sport. When you bet, you participate.
Few enterprises are as badly run as the erstwhile Sport of Kings, and its clinging to tradition in staging the Triple Crown races—its best yearly shot at attention in an ever-more-crowded sports calendar—is the best evidence. That’s because the timing and conditions of the series’ components, established willy-nilly in years past, run contrary to long-term trends at the ovals. The fact that everyone in the sport knows this has made not a whit of difference.
To win a Triple Crown a three-year-old colt or filly (a colt formally becomes a horse and a filly a mare at age five) has to overcome his or her own breeding and history in addition to strong competition and the usual vicissitudes of racing luck. Worse, given the fate of many of those who have vied seriously for the honor in recent years, owners and trainers risk the careers of their most-valuable animals even to try it.
The Triple Crown never has been easy to win, which is why it’s one of sports’ most cherished prizes. Since 1930, when the writer Charles Hatton of The Daily Racing Form coined the name, it has been captured but 10 times, and that number jumps by just one if you go back to 1919, when Sir Barton won it unawares.
It begins the first Saturday in May with the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, which at 1 ¼ miles is the farthest by 1/8-mile that any competitor will have run. Two weeks later comes the 1 3/16ths-mile Preakness at the old Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore. The final leg, staged three weeks after that, is the hardest—the Belmont in New York, which at 1 ½ miles covers a longer distance than any but a handful of American thoroughbreds ever go. Winning three grueling races in a five-week span is even more difficult for three-year-olds—the only horses eligible for the series—who are the equivalent of teenaged humans, well short of their mature strength and development.
Out of practice
In years long past a Triple Crown at least was thinkable. Race horses back then, well, raced. Citation, the 1948 winner, came to Churchill Downs on Derby Day with 16 starts under his cinch. The great Secretariat, the 1972 champ, had 12 pre-Derby races, and Affirmed had 13. By contrast, most of the entrants in this year’s go will have stepped on a track in earnest a half-dozen times or fewer.
That’s mostly because the economic focus of the sport has changed from racing to breeding. Racing is in permanent decline on these shores, a casualty of our society’s growing distance from all things horsey and the out-of-fashion, iron-butt study needed to try to pick winners intelligently.
Still, it thrives in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and bidding for elite equine prospects has gone global. That’s meant that just about any horse that scores big on the track is whisked off to the breeding shed, post haste. Consequently, thoroughbreds these days are bred for speed, not stamina, not only meaning that they can’t stand up to frequent racing, but also that they’re more prone to breakdowns than were their predecessors. The increasing use of drugs in the sport—illegal as well as legal—exacerbates that development.
I’ll Have Another races no more
American racing’s biggest story of recent years was a sad one—of the colt Barbaro, who decisively won the 2006 Derby but broke a leg trying to win the Preakness and died of the injury. One recent winner of the Derby and Preakness—Smarty Jones in 2004—never raced again after failing in the Belmont. Big Brown accomplished the Derby-Preakness double in 2008 but dragged home last at the Belmont and raced only twice more. I’ll Have Another won the Derby and Preakness last year but was scratched from the Belmont with an injury and never raced again.
A simple way to make the Triple Crown more viable would be to put more space between its parts, keeping the Derby in its traditional first-Saturday-in-May slot but running the Preakness the first Saturday in June—four weeks later—and the Belmont on July 4, about four weeks after that. That would give the contestants a bit more time to catch their breaths and heal from the small hurts that can turn into larger ones.
I’m not the first to propose this, but in racing what makes sense counts for little. Tradition is one obstacle to change, as is the politics that always surrounds the awarding of racing dates in states with more than one track (including Kentucky, Maryland and New York). The fact that the sport lacks a national governing body is a third; indeed, the sports that need the most regulation—it and boxing—get the least.