Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Triple Crown is Terribly Unfair and Absolutely Perfect

More than 100,000 people crammed into Belmont Park on Saturday.

More than 20 million people watched the Belmont Stakes on NBC.

belmont stakes crowd
More than $150 million was bet on the card, shattering by an order of magnitude the amount of money bet on any other day of horse racing in the history of New York state.

And because California Chrome came up a couple lengths short, we should blow it all up?

Through this year’s Triple Crown chase, there was a single voice advocating for any sort of change to the Triple Crown series. That person was Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, and his goal was clearly self-serving – he wanted to move the Preakness to the prime date that the Belmont Stakes currently holds in early June.

His concerns, also, had little to do with the Triple Crown races themselves as much as the supporting races. Churchill Downs has a string of top races during Kentucky Derby weekend. The race before the Derby featured reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan.

At Belmont Saturday, the card featured a who’s who of horse racing including the top three older mares in the country – Beholder, Princess of Slymar and Close Hatches – and the top older dirt horse in training, Palace Malice.

“I think at the end of the day we owe it to our fans to put the best product on the table,” Chuckas said. “Wise Dan ran in Churchill the other day. Bring him back to the Dixie (at Pimlico) and then bring him up to New York for their race.

No one agreed with Chuckas for a full month. Then California Chrome came up short. Then Steve Coburn opened his mouth. And then reporters who cover horse racing once a year – morons like Pat Forde – were suddenly saying the Belmont Stakes should move to the first week of July.

Did you see those numbers I cited at the top? You might as well suggest moving the Belmont Stakes to the moon.

If there had been a movement to change the Triple Crown before California Chrome lost, then maybe we would have a real issue to deal with. But the reaction – coming mostly from the casualest of casual fans – reveals that it’s derived from the crushing disappointment that California Chrome simply didn’t win like he should have.

The problem with the notion of changing the series is that winning the Belmont Stakes for a Triple Crown contender is not some sort of far-off fantasy in which no one can ever conceive it happen.

In 1997, Silver Charm lost by less than a length. In 1998, Real Quiet lost by a nose. In 1999, Charismatic finished third despite an injury. In 2004, Smarty Jones should have won but ran this first mile-and-a-quarter fast enough to win about 75 percent of Kentucky Derby races.

And this year, are we so sure California Chrome would have lost if Victor Espinoza had taken the lead on a rail that was hot all day?

It’s very hard for any horse to win three Grade I races in a row, regardless of time, track, distance or competition. The fact that Chrome had done so – including the Santa Anita Derby in April – to get to the Belmont Stakes proved that he was a great horse. Does finishing a couple of lengths behind Tonalist on Saturday diminish any of that?

The only reason for changing the series would be if we found the wear and tear on horses was ending careers and causing injuries. There is no indication that three races in five weeks do anything but challenge them greatly.

There has developed the notion that horses are not bred to win at the one-and-a-half mile distance but every year, a horse wins the Belmont Stakes and, sometimes, very impressively. Palace Malice won the Belmont last year and came back to win the Met Mile on Saturday. Afleet Alex and Point Given, in 2005 and 2001 respectively, had no problem winning at the distance impressively. The distance didn’t seem to bother Tonalist, right?

The Triple Crown is the hardest feat to pull off in sports and that’s why it matters. Lest we forget that it had been 25 years of no Triple Crown winners before Secretariat pulled off the feat in 1973.

Spectacular Bid, a horse that won 26 of 30 races lifetime and is inarguably one of the greatest racehorses in history, lost the Belmont Stakes in 1979.

Alysheba, a horse that retired as the richest in history, was dusted in the Belmont by 10 lengths to Bet Twice.

2014 belmont stakes
Yet for all the near-misses and heartbreak, this is the first time we’ve decided that it’s time to address the drought and change it so a horse wins.

At the end of the day – does it even matter if a horse doesn’t win the Triple Crown?

For as much as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed are ingrained in our collective consciousness as winners, those who have lost the Belmont in the past 36 years have formed their own club of exclusivity. California Chrome will be forever linked with Smarty Jones, Silver Charm, Sunday Silence and Spectacular Bid as amazing horses that couldn’t quite get it done at Belmont.

That’s okay.

If California Chrome had won, there would have been much rejoicing and I may have even cried tears of joy. But it wouldn’t have altered the landscape of sports so dramatically that we should rig it to happen.

If we make it easier for one horse to win all three, wouldn’t we make it exponentially more likely a horse wouldn’t even win the first two?

The beauty of the Triple Crown is in its rhythm. It is the buildup to the Kentucky Derby, when spring has arrived and possibilities are endless. We move to Baltimore, where the eyes descend on one horse and one group of connections. If they fail at Pimlico, the Belmont Stakes is merely a really, really fun day of horse racing.

But if that horse wins, the sport of horse racing captivates a nation. The jockey ends up on David Letterman. The trainer throws out the first pitch at a Yankees game. NBC moves the Stanley Cup Final to take advantage of it.

And for a few hours on a June Saturday, everyone focuses in on a massive racetrack in the shadow of New York City. People show up because they know history will be made, one way or another.

You don’t fix what is not broken. The Triple Crown is not broken. It is as perfect as it ever was. 

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