Monday, June 16, 2014

Doing What’s Best for the Triple Crown Horses

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 15, 2014—I’ve been taking on the issue of a Triple Crown schedule change for five years now and I must be doing a terrible job.

That observation has little to do with whether any recommendations are being considered or not: My failure is getting fans and practitioners conversant with the idea that a longer duration of the series could make the task more difficult, not less.

More so, this is about doing the right thing for the latter day Thoroughbred, about improving the overall quality of the series.

What’s it’s not about is making the feat easier, less worthy of wonderment, nor should it be seen as denigrating the accomplishments of the original Elite Eleven.

Progressive ideas in this game are never adopted without kicking, screaming and the collective gnashing of teeth.

It’s often been stated here that this industry can wear one down, but that’s probably the purpose of such a drill; living with the status quo.

But since when does the status quo improve anything? And there are more good reasons to alter the Triple Crown schedule rather than maintain it to provide some imagined perfect contextual link to the past.

More than any other sport, this is game is built on opinion and, since most horseplayers and owners are unsuccessful, it follows that much of that opinion isn’t very good.

All humans, especially racetrackers, tend to make issues more difficult than need be, thinking that all objections must be overcome before adopting progressive change, even when change includes acknowledgement of present-day and future realities.

Let’s consider change through the prism of fair, rational thought. Fair is not some dirty four-letter word.

Race horses notwithstanding, acknowledging that today’s athletes are better than their predecessors because of improved training techniques, better nutrition, equipment and facilities, gives reality its due.

If that premise is acknowledged to be true, comparisons among different generations are by their nature patently unfair. Is it fair to compare Michael Jordan to LeBron James, Jim Brown to O.J. Simpson (infamy notwithstanding), or Pete Rose to Ty Cobb?

All that remains then is opinion, based on perception or well-intended prejudice. Do we really know whether Secretariat would have dominated Citation the way he completely outclassed his peer group in 1973? Again, there is no context for comparing generations.

The all-time great athletes above played in different environments, under a variation of the rules, or with schedule changes. Just like a race horse can only beat what’s lined up next to him, domination needs no definition; greatness is unmistakably in the eye of all beholders, a reward unto itself requiring no further qualification.

Today’s thoroughbred, awash in a gene pool of raceday medication, is not comparable to any of the elite eleven, nor is it fair to them to do so. The modern American horse is bred for the sales ring, not the racetrack; mated to be at his best from eight to nine furlongs, rarely at 10, and certainly never at 12.

If you lined up a gate full of sprinters to compete in the 2015 Belmont Stakes, one will have his name engraved on the Belmont trophy; it will just have taken him a lot longer to get there.

The Kentucky Derby has grown to such an extent that it has become one of the most coveted prizes, if not the most in thoroughbred racing, knowing no geographic boundary. In the grand scheme of American racing, this will never change.

The Belmont Stakes--whether it’s calendar placement, a blend of track configuration and pilot error, or the shot-taking mindset that no American Thoroughbred is predisposed to running a mile and a half--will continue to attract a diverse field, especially “equine teenagers” that have undergone a late spring growth spurt.

But no one seems to value the Preakness as a classic unto itself. It has been reduced to a mere stepping stone for the chosen few and not the majority of the generation’s best that have earned their way to the top rung by successfully running a Derby gauntlet.

Resultantly, Preakness new shooters are more a collection of the second-tier variety and, given a long and storied thoroughbred history, the centerpiece of Maryland Jockey Club calendar deserves a lot more respect.

The main reason that the Preakness has become the Triple Crown’s red-headed stepchild is scheduling. Modern thoroughbreds are not predisposed to frequent competition, another argument against same-scheduling lending context to achievement.

Most horsemen don’t choose to run in the Belmont Stakes because their horses are just dying to run a mile and a half. Horsemen choose to run the Belmont because it’s five weeks from the Derby and because the modern Derby winner will be more vulnerable after his Preakness run.

Excluding the debilitating effects of raceday medication, what other unqualified explanation can be offered for the fact that 45 was the average number of starts in a thoroughbred’s career in the 1950s but is only 13 today?

Of course, racing has more pressing issues than fixing its most popular series, but does that mean it cannot be better?

What is particularly galling is that no one, practitioner, public and media alike, is willing to concede the possibility that extending the series could make it more difficult--as if even winning three consecutive claiming races at the same track is an everyday thing.

The HRI faithful know that I favor a first Saturday in May, Memorial Day weekend, and July 4th weekend Triple Crown schedule. To me, it’s Americana and an acknowledgement of the modern-day thoroughbred reality rolled into one.

Must the industry ask its equine athletes to do the impossible every year just to keep the dream storyline alive? And what about the animal’s remaining sophomore season and older horse campaigns for the majority of top-tiered three-year-olds?

Extending the Triple Crown season makes it possible for the winner of the first two legs to be at his best for the third—if, that is, his trainer can keep him at tops over a longer, sustained period.

Extending the season would increase participation in the entire series, not just the Preakness, and this extension would help insure that the Triple Crown aspirant’s competition also would also have a better chance to bring it’s 'A' game to Long Island. How does this make winning the Triple Crown easier?

If there’s a classics trophy with a horseman’s name on it, wouldn’t those owners and trainers be more inclined to test the Derby winner at a more reasonable distance rather than taking a 12-furlong crapshoot?

And doesn’t a bigger, better, and more experienced Preakness field make the task more difficult, not less? A fairer, more level playing field for all does not mean easier, it means better, and better is always harder.

During trophy ceremonies on Stephen Foster night Saturday at Churchill Downs, a contrite and humbled Steve Coburn spoke of a thousand text messages he received after giving his phone number out on national TV, and how 97 percent of agreed with him [about the Triple Crown’s inherent unfairness].

While his solution is not remotely based in reality, even if his estimates were hyperbolic, it was assuredly a lot of concern to the public. Coburn is brash and unfiltered in word and deed but none of it, however unfortunate it was at times, ever seemed untrue.

Indeed, if lots of the public agreed with him then there is no casual sports audience capable of understanding the nuances of thoroughbred racing. They only know what they see and hear on television.

During their post-race press conference, both Robert Evans and Christophe Clement indicated that the duration of the series should be changed for the better. To a large degree they benefitted from the current schedule but were sportsmen enough to admit that lengthening the series is the right thing to do.

It’s a bit sad that the connections of two previous Triple Crown winners thought more about their horse’s place in history than acknowledging that in all probability the modern thoroughbred has changed and no longer can be reasonably expected to replicate top form in a three-race five-week series.

Must the future mimic the past for tradition’s sake if the modern horse is unsuited to running its best without four-to-six weeks of recovery time, not to mention a series run at disparate distances in three different states in five weeks?

Things change. “Doing what’s best for the horse,” is a phrase that comes trippingly off the tongue in track press releases and when the cameras are rolling. As always, saying the right thing is a lot easier than its execution.

Written by John Pricci

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