By Steve Kallas
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The buzz in New York is palpable as California Chrome will try to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. The city is not going totally crazy over this event, but you can still expect 120,000 or so fans at Belmont this Saturday.
While many believe that “this (a Triple Crown winner) is just what the sport needs,” I’m not so sure about that. Unless the Triple Crown winner continues to race during his three-year-old season, there really won’t be much of a boost for the industry other than the afterglow of a Triple Crown winner.
It won’t increase attendance for other races and it won’t solve the multiple problems facing the industry –declining attendance and drug issues that seem to plague virtually every sport. It also won’t help the view that this sport isn’t always on the up and up.
BUT WHY MIGHT A TRIPLE CROWN WINNER HURT RACING?
Well, for some time there has been a big split in the industry as to whether the timing of the Triple Crown races should be changed. This year, Tom Chuckas, the president of the Maryland Jockey Club, came right out and said that the timing of the races should be changed to the first Saturday in May (Kentucky Derby as it is now), the first Saturday in June (Preakness) and the first Saturday in July (Belmont).
Indeed, some five years ago, none other than legendary Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas suggested exactly the same thing, with a slightly different timing: first Saturday in May, Memorial Day weekend for the Preakness and July 4th weekend for the Belmont. And, according to Lukas, the Travers at Saratoga at the end of August to wrap up the “Grand Slam.”
Of course, many feel that the timing should remain the same. From trainer Billy Turner (of Seattle Slew fame) to Penny Chenery (owner of Secretariat) to Steve Cauthen (Affirmed’s jockey) to many present-day horsemen, there is much support to keep things as is in terms of timing.
Since I strongly believe that the timing should be changed, the potential negative impact would be that if California Chrome — trained by 77-year-old Art Sherman — wins the Triple Crown, many will view that as proof that the timing of the three races should remain the same.
Sherman, by his own admission an “old-timer,” maybe trains his horse a little harder and maybe has an understanding of what it takes to win the Triple Crown. And maybe he’s a little smarter in terms of how they used to do it in the “good-old days,” — you know, when horses raced often and not one or two months apart.
Contrary to popular belief, the timing of the Triple Crown has not always been the first Saturday in May, then two weeks to the Preakness and then three more to the Belmont. In fact, for a number of years, the Preakness was raced before the Derby, which certainly makes sense from a distance perspective.
The point here is that the “tradition” that everyone talks about didn’t even exist in the first, at least, 30 years or so of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. It reminds me of the misnomer of the “Original Six” in the National Hockey League. The six-team NHL didn’t occur until 1943, some 17 years after the National Hockey League started. So much for the original part of “Original Six.”
WHAT DO BASEBALL PITCHERS HAVE TO DO WITH ALL OF THIS?
There is a strong analogy between baseball pitchers then and now and horses then and now. Nobody today would even think of saying that virtually every time a pitcher goes out he will have to pitch nine innings. Of course, that is what happened frequently in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s — and before.
Today, a starting pitcher who comes out for the seventh or eighth inning is viewed to be some kind of hero, a gritty guy who is tough. Of course, a generation (maybe two) ago, this was the minimum expected of a starter.
Just as pitchers are not expected to “go the distance,” horses should not have to go through a grind that, once upon a time, they were bred and trained for. Today, thoroughbreds are bred and trained for speed, not durability. Today, trainers train their top horses to race five or six or seven times a year, not 15 or 20 or more.
For the traditionalists, the analysis should be that was then and this is now. Imagine today if a major-league manager handed his starting pitchers the ball and said, “you’re going nine today.” Obviously, he wouldn’t be a manager for long.
SO, WHO DO YOU LIKE?
Always trying to beat the favorite, I will go with Tonalist, a fresh horse who won the Peter Pan at Belmont on May 10. Tonalist was on the Derby trail but contracted a lung infection, missed the Wood Memorial and was pointed to the Peter Pan. His trainer, highly-regarded Christophe Clement, added blinkers for the Peter Pan and saw his lightly-raced three-year-old run off by four lengths in the slop at Belmont.
In addition, Joel Rosario — a top jockey who won the Derby last year aboard Orb — chose to ride Tonalist over his Preakness mount, Ride on Curlin, who finished a good second to California Chrome in the Preakness. Tonalist will be on or near the lead at the top of the stretch, someplace you generally have to be to win the Belmont.
For an interesting discussion on the race itself and the timing issue of the Triple Crown between myself and WFAN’s Jody McDonald, see below.
While it would be a wonderful story if California Chrome and his connections were to win the Triple Crown — and he certainly is the best horse and the heavy favorite on paper — I’m simply not sure that it would be the best thing for the industry.
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