Never mind that if I’ll Have Another competed and won the Triple Crown here Saturday he would have beaten almost three times the number of rivals Citation did in 1948. Citation? The original “Big Red,” until the “Big Red” of Meadow Stable” came along, was considered the greatest American horse of the modern era.
Never mind that in 1978, Affirmed, notwithstanding his nemesis, Alydar, beat only 17 other rivals to become the last Triple Crown winner of 34 years. Hell, I’ll Have Another beat 19 rivals in this year’s Kentucky Derby alone.
Finally, never mind that all 11 Triple Crown winners ever had to beat more than seven rivals in the Test of the Champion. Had I’ll Have Another run and won, he would have beaten 11 rivals, 40 Triple Crown opponents in all.
All of the above can be construed as logical reasons why today’s Triple Crown series is harder to win than ever; numbers dictate. But there are many more reasons; some subtle, some not, and all worth considering:
Speed-laden commercial pedigrees; inherent unsoundness of popular sire lines; modern training philosophy; the hot-housing of yearlings, increased popularity of speed-crazy breeze-up sales; lack of juvenile foundation for the classics season, etc., ad nauseum.
When concerned individuals suggest that the duration of the series needs lengthening, two arguments heard most often is “five weeks” is what makes the accomplishment so difficult--so special; and that a lengthened series would cheapen the achievement of the predecessors.
A question, then, for all those making the degree of difficulty/historical context argument: Given the above factors, would a victory by I’ll Have Another on Saturday somehow have tarnished the accomplishments of the 11immortals?
Said the apple to the orange, of course not. The time for debating is over. Acknowledging reality and self-serving sanity is what’s needed now.
The tradeoff of stamina for speed has proven to be a mistake for the breed, not for the people who bred and sold them. Consider:
According to recently released Jockey Club statistics, field size in 1980 was approximately nine starters per race; halcyon 1950 levels. This likely reflected the surge in racing’s popularity coming off the Triple Crown binge of the ‘70s. That number dropped to eight last year.
In 1972, the average race horse had a career spanning over 10 lifetime starts. Last year, that number was a bit over six, meaning that despite all the medical and technological breakthroughs, lifetime career expectancy was lower by 40 percent lower, over the past 40 years ago. Coincidence? I think not.
The breed is far less durable; consider Citation’s Triple Crown season: Big Red raced four times in February and thrice in April. He won the Derby Trial on April 27 and the Derby four days later. He won the Preakness on May 15 and the Jersey Stakes two weeks later.
Between the Jersey Stakes on May 29 and the June 12 Belmont, Citation breezed a half-mile, worked a mile three days later and, three days after that six furlongs, one day before the Belmont. He went wire to wire and won by eight.
Citation obviously was a great race horse but also nothing more than flesh, blood and bone, strong bone. Name one American horse that could withstand that kind of training schedule in this era. Can’t think of one? Of course not; that Thoroughbred no longer exists.
Before the ink on the 2012 Belmont Stakes chart was dry, two respected members of the mainstream media used words like change, outlaw, inhumane. Like it or not, his is how the majority of the 85,000 people at Belmont Park Saturday, and the millions viewing on TV, still get their news.
Wrote Bob Ford in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "We see it every year in the Triple Crown chase. Horses break down, or they develop physical issues that lead to their retirement.
“It is too much to ask a 3-year-old, who are "little more than teenagers" in their development to run three hard races in just five weeks… At some point, the sport of horse racing has to make a change. Not because there will never be another Triple Crown winner. Some horse will beat the odds and get it done eventually…
“Enduring the three races in the span of five weeks is one thing. Preparing to do it and trying to recover between the races is just as sapping. As constituted for modern horses, the Triple Crown series is inhumane. It doesn't work."
Sally Jenkins, Washington Post: “It’s a good thing I’ll Have Another is such a celebrity. Otherwise that horse would be working right now. The most scrutinized trainer in thoroughbred racing was forced to withdraw the most famous horse in America from the Belmont.
"This is hardly proof that thoroughbred racing has cured its creeping moral sickness. It only proves that [trainer Doug O’Neill] knows he can’t take another major public scandal at the moment, and neither can his sport…
“We should be grateful that I’ll Have Another won’t be on the track at risk of a public breakdown... But somewhere, on another track, in a less publicized race, a sore-legged horse will run. About 800 horses die racing each year… That rate is intolerably high…
"Thoroughbred racing is at a moral junction, and it's time to decide whether it has any real worth, or needs to be outlawed."
Andrew Cohen Atlantic Monthly /60 Minutes: “In horse racing, everyone has an excuse. Everyone has an explanation. No one accepts responsibility. Regulators don't enforce the rules aggressively enough. And when they do the targets of their investigation whine about how unfair the rules are.
“A few weeks ago, for example, New York regulators suspended a harness racing trainer for nearly 1,700 pre-race medication violations. How did the industry react? Leading trainers were outraged-- at regulators…
“The question now is whether this fire will roar long enough, and generate enough financial and political and regulatory heat, to do any good for the sport. If not, it will be yet another wasted opportunity for the industry, another tragedy for its many purists…”
The industry should defend itself the best way it can, by all means. Believe it or not, this is a bigger issue than who’s right or who’s wrong. It’s not what we think that matters. Racing will live with its problems; has for the four decades I’ve covered the sport.
The ones who can’t live with it, right or wrong, are the public that only get interested a couple of days a year. Why should the industry care? Because it won’t be regulators who will shut the game down. It will be the public, with an assist from mainstream media, that will end it.
The time has come for the practitioners so fond of saying how the top priority is to “do what’s best for the horse,” make a concerted effort to show the general public and its loyal fans and bettors that it will practice what it preaches.
This isn’t like the Raceday Lasix issue replete with serious economic complications. This is an easy fix that will make headlines, the application of pen to calendar. Please, space the series out in a fashion that reflects today’s reality.
Racing is losing favor with Americans while also needing to compete with NBA and NHL championships? Then give the public what it wants and the horses what they need.
Link the Triple Crown series to the holidays and make it part of America’s fabric. Forever, the Kentucky Derby is the first Saturday of May. A little more than four weeks later, a Memorial Day weekend Preakness. Five weeks after that, the Belmont Stakes on the Fourth of July weekend, an event even without a Triple Crown on the line.
The value of good will and added favorable publicity attendant to an elongated schedule is priceless. Racing needs to show people that it truly cares in a big, headline grabbing way. It must show, in terms the public can understand, that it's willing to alter tradition by doing what's best for young, present day Thoroughbreds.
Half measures won't work; it's far too late for that.