Friday, June 21, 2013
The Triple Crown should be tough, changes would diminish it
Animal Kingdom went out on a down note but it was good to see a Derby winner still in action after his 3-year-old season. Another year without a Triple Crown winner has ignited the usual cries that the series is too demanding and too compact. But this is what makes it special. Any change in the race distances would diminish the feat, if and when it happens. Meanwhile, on the southern front, the head-to-head weekend conflict between Calder and Gulfstream moves ever closer to happening starting July 6.
But plaudits to Barry Irwin for keeping Animal Kingdom in training long past the time most Derby winners have been retired. Irwin can be abrasive and rubs many the wrong way. However, the guiding force behind Team Valor is an old fashioned horsemen, who buys thoroughbreds to race. Too bad there arenâ€™t more like him.
You have to go back to the gelding Funny Cide in 2004 to find another Derby champion who won a race after his 3-year-old campaign. Super Saver, Mine That Bird, Street Sense and Giacomo never won another race, period. Ill-fated Barbaro also falls into this category with an asterisk. So, half the Derby champions of the past decade never found the winnerâ€™s circle again.
The rush to breed isnâ€™t the only factor. Itâ€™s a matter of conjecture how much of their shortened careers can be traced to the wear and tear of the Triple Crown campaign? This and another year without a Triple Crown winner has brought out the annual cries that the series is too demanding and too compact, that changes need to be made or we will never have another winner of the Triple Crown.
Nonsense. Racing has gone 35 years without a Triple Crown winner. Baseball went 45 years before Miguel Cabrera swept the batting average, home run and RBI titles. Three races in five weeks is grueling but 162 games within 180 calendar days isnâ€™t summer camp.
The fact that the Triple Crown is so rare and difficult to achieve is what makes it special. If it happened every three or four years, it would become a ho-hum event.
A frequently suggested change would see the sequence altered to a mile-and-an-eighth Kentucky Derby, a mile-and-three-sixteenths Preakness and a mile-and-a-quarter Belmont. The way Palace Malice and his pursuers were going up and down the final quarter-mile of the Belmont, I understand how momentum could gather for this idea. But why would Churchill Downs entertain suggestions that it tinker with the nationâ€™s most glamorous race. Speculation about which 3-year-old will handle 10 furlongs generates as much conversation as the outcome of any prep. The Derby will remain a mile and a quarter as long as three feet is a yard.
In light of this, what would be proven by a Belmont rerun at the Derby distance?
Moreover, a horse whose sweep included an abbreviated Belmont would never be recognized alongside the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.
Itâ€™s not as if the Triple Crown under its current conditions has become impossible. Smarty Jones appeared to have the job done in 2004 until Birdstone unleashed a furious rally that saw him get up in the final strides. Victory Gallop needed every inch of the mile and a half to deny Real Quiet the Triple Crown in 1998. Who knows what would have happened if Charismatic hadnâ€™t suffered an injury while leading in the stretch of the 1999 Belmont.
The Triple Crown is doable. Itâ€™s just not easily doable. Nor should it be.
If there is one change worthy of discussion, it is the spacing between the races. Iâ€™m a purist, who prefers things the way they are. However, I would go along with adding an extra week between the Derby and Preakness and even a fourth week between the Preakness and Belmont, because of the pampered way thoroughbreds are now trained. If you twisted my arm, I might say OK to a July 4 Belmont. (Derby as is, Preakness on Memorial Day weekend, Belmont on Independence Day has some appeal.) But this is as far as I would go.
Spreading the series over three or four months, as some have suggested, is almost as bad an idea as the inane one suggested in the New York Daily News that the Belmont and Kentucky Derby alternate being the first jewel of the Triple Crown. This is what happens when you fire your racing specialists and assign the Belmont advance to whoever on the staff has nothing else to do.
Itâ€™s worth noting that if the old Triple Crown bonus points system of 5-3-1 were in effect this past spring, the one-two finishers would have been Oxbow and Orb, both of whom raced in all three events over five weeks.
Palace Malice is the latest example of a horse who ran in the Derby then skipped the Preakness to point for and win the Belmont. But half the 2013 Belmont field fit this pattern. Palace Malice got the money but the others finished well behind Oxbow and Orb.
Gulfstream has the more widely recognized name. Calder has the horses. This is where the stalemate between the two tracks stands two weeks before they are scheduled to begin racing head-to-head on weekends starting July 6.
If the scorched earth war comes to pass there will be no winners and three losers: Calder, Gulfstream and Florida racing.
Gulfstream claims to have about 300 horses stabled at the track or at satellite facilities. On numbers, this is enough to run 16-20 races a week. But these horses are spread over numerous age, gender, distance and surface preferences as well as racing conditions. To make its year-round agenda go, Gulfstream needs to attract a sizable contingent of horsemen from Calder, which has more than a thousand horses at its disposal.
Gulfstream is doing all the right things to make this happen in the face of Calder warning horsemen it wonâ€™t allow back any horse who leaves for a race at the rival track about eight miles away. Purses in Gulfstreamâ€™s first condition book are about a thousand dollars higher for comparable races at Calder. Any horseman, who makes the switch, has been promised year-round stabling in more modern facilities.
Purses have been jacked up $4,000 a race for June 25, when Gulfstream will race for one day (on a dark Tuesday at Calder) to qualify as a host simulcast track year round. (Tampa is doing something similar on June 30-July 1.) Every horse who runs that day at Gulfstream will earn at least $1,000.
But even someone with the seemingly bottomless pockets and strong will of Frank Stronach canâ€™t keep this up over an extended period. So itâ€™s still a roll of the dice for a Calder horseman to risk his stalls on the gamble that the unprecedented Gulfstream meeting will succeed.
The only sensible resolution is a financial settlement, which will give Gulfstream its weekends and Calder enough weekdays to keep its casino license.
For the past couple of months, this has been the expectation. As July 6 looms ever closer, it has become only a hope.