Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Triple Crown Change? Time for Horsemen to Walk The Talk

Horses are not machines! Write that on the blackboard 500 times—and write it across, not down. This assignment should be at least as hard as, say, winning the Triple Crown. I jest, of course, but it’s kidding on the square.

With 2017 Kentucky Derby horses ducking this year’s Preakness and Belmont Stakes left and right for various reasons, and with the only horse that raced in all three legs finishing progressively worse over the series, cries for lengthening the sequence have resurfaced.

Let’s get this out of the way now: Yes, American Pharoah was special enough to end the most recent draught and, yes, it takes a special horse to do it, and continuing the Triple Crown’s five-week span honors the legacy of those dozen Triple Crown winners.

The problem is that most of horse racing’s prime demographic does not have another 37 years to wait for the next one. And for those who lament the lack of interest in horse racing in the modern mainstream, it’s an opportunity lost to possibly creating new fans.

I am as old-school and as traditional as the next septuagenarian but the idea that lengthening the series weakens it is simply untrue.

By attracting more Derby runners back for the Preakness and Belmont, how does that make the Triple Crown easier to win? By getting those horses back for a rematch with a better chance to be close to the top of their game, how does that cheapen the prize?

Most of those who would lengthen the Triple Crown would be satisfied to simply bring the Preakness back in three weeks while leaving the Belmont in its current place on the Classics calendar.

Moving the Preakness back one week would make a great deal of difference. In all likelihood, it would prop up a race in need of a boost. The Belmont will always remain popular at the entry box because 1-1/2 miles is the great unknown, worthy of shot-taking.

As for tradition --and with the surging popularity of international racing--a look at the British Triple Crown is useful. Its third leg, the Gr.1 St. Leger Stakes at 14 furlongs, is run in September and they’ve been doing it longer, since 1776. How’s that for convention?

Like the American Triple Crown, the British Triple Crown has had its dates and distances altered over the course of time. There is plenty of precedent for change that would be good for the horses and the sport--maybe not now but another 37 years from now.

The five-to-six weeks spacing so prevalent today is because the majority of horsemen at the highest levels now concede that the modern thoroughbred on raceday medication, primarily Lasix, needs time to rehydrate, recharge, and get his mind and body right.

Time always has been in a horse’s best interest.

There’s nothing wrong or less-than about this concession to reality. If all Triple Crown horses have a chance to show up on the day at tops, how does this make the task easier? Blind adherence to the past has put racing in many of the straits it finds itself today.

I had an idea that was roundly booed when first proposed three years ago: Spacing the series over a longer duration around traditional American holidays. It was pooh-poohed because the feeling was that excitement and interest could not be sustained over time.

My proposal was to card the Derby on the first Saturday in May as always, a branding of America’s race that should never be altered.

But the Preakness should be run on or in very close proximity to the Memorial Day weekend. With all due respect to the ideals for which the day was created—is the summertime lid-lifter.

How can associating horse racing with American heroes be a bad thing? It can be a teachable moment for youngsters should learn about the role horses played in making America great.

Staging a Memorial Day weekend horse-racing event should be a marketer’s dream. Of course, it would also provide at least one more week’s freshening, longer when the calendar dictates.

Finally, the conclusion of the Triple Crown should provide added fireworks and added promotion of horse racing on the country’s July 4th holiday festivities. A July 4th Belmont still leaves enough time for a Haskell or Travers run.

Back in the day, the word was that Pimlico would never move the Preakness out another week because all of those collegiate infield revelers would have returned home for the summer.

But modern entertainment marketing accentuates events and their exclusivity which comes at a cost; pricing many out of today’s leisure market. So that timeworn excuse no longer flies.

Another obstacle to Triple Crown change comes from the fact that the new NYRA has taken great pains to create an international weekend of racing surrounding the July 4th holiday with their Stars and Stripes festival, an idea worth applauding.

No reason why the Belmont couldn’t be part of that, perhaps even drawing greater international interest from those already coming for a world-class grass and distance-racing festival?

“Doing what’s best for the horse” has become a popular mantra when today’s horsemen discuss future scheduling. Maybe those groups could apply subtle pressure on The Stronach Group and NYRA to consider altering their Triple Crown events for that very reason.

Written by John Pricci

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