But here we are again, stuck on the corner of Disheartened and Disenchanted, because when racing reaches a crossroads it blinks and wrings its hands. In the name of tradition the sport does nothing but lament its fate then refuses to do anything about it.
The Triple Crown can be changed for the better, just like other sports that changed with the times. I, too, mourn the loss of superb execution that can result in a dynasty: Bradshaw’s Steelers. The Canadiens of Richard and Beliveau and Geoffrion and Plante. The Yankees, from DiMaggio to Mantle. Michael’s Bulls. The Celtics of Russell and Cousy and Havlicek. I only rooted for one, but loved watching them all.
However, I can’t argue that parity through expansion and salary caps and free agency and extended playoff seasons has kept fans of the major sports engaged. The problem is that mediocrity is marketable and everyone worships at the altar of the bottom line.
But racing can change its showcase event and make it better, not weaken quality the way the other sports have. Racing need only embrace a new philosophy and not be afraid to gamble that lengthening the series would at once do the best thing for the modern horse and place a greater emphasis on horsemanship.
I would argue that it is easier for a superior three-year-old to dominate his rivals over five weeks than it would be for the same horse to extend that dominance over a greater number of stronger rivals for a longer period of time.
Today’s thoroughbred is sleek, not stout, and often inherently unsound because that’s the price paid for decades of medication-infused bloodlines. Gone are the days when old-school horsemen can routinely get to the bottom of their stock to attain total fitness. They still can reach bottom, of course, but the recovery time takes longer.
Speed in the stallion and his offspring is the element horsemen covet most. Speed cannot be taught, like height on a basketball court. Without equivocation the measure of speed defines class and is the game’s only absolute truth. But it comes at the expense of stamina, the price paid for growing sales ring receipts.
Degrees of unsoundness, permissive medication, speedy pedigree, lack of stoutness and today’s harder, faster surfaces compel modern horsemen with an understanding of form-cycle analysis to race today’s thoroughbred far less frequently. This is a fact of racing life at every racetrack every racing day, not just the demanding Triple Crown.
The classics as presently constructed is nothing if not anachronistic. It follows that for the health of the horse, the silencing of critics who argue for racing’s abolition, and to promote the game in a more meaningful fashion, the Triple Crown needs to be tweaked. And it needs to happen now.
Without question, a Triple Crown of longer duration makes sense. First and foremost, it would better serve today’s thoroughbred. And makes promotional sense by keeping the series alive into early summer. To wit:
The distances and venues should remain the same--if that’s possible given the current state of Maryland racing. And the Derby has secured its traditional place on the first Saturday in May. Because of its distance, place on the calendar, and field size, the Kentucky Derby remains the most difficult of the three to win. “America’s Race” needs to stay right where it is.
Run the Preakness on the first Saturday in June, lending it added identity and giving the Derby horses an extra two weeks to recover. By adding two weeks, the race likely would attract more Derby runners while providing extra time for late developers and non-Derby qualifiers to join the chase. This does right by still maturing 3-year-olds and makes the challenge for horsemen more daunting.
And what could be a more appropriate date to conclude this unique American series than the 4th of July? This would make the Belmont an instant classic for the general sports fan, a national TV holiday event run sometime between the barbecue and the fireworks. Further, it makes the race less dependent on a Triple Crown quest.
This schedule would give promoters nine weeks to bang the drum instead of five. And wouldn’t the accomplishment be even greater if the Derby and/or Preakness winner had to defeat a larger number of series rivals?
Find a sponsor to bring back the participation and winner’s bonus and increase the purses of the final two legs. All this would upset none of the traditional Derby prep schedules and allow horsemen more time to develop their maturing stock. The lesser Derbies would still have their place and there would be no need for Monmouth Park and Saratoga to alter the dates of their Haskell and Travers.
A longer Triple Crown season simultaneously increases and decreases the degree of difficulty, brightens the spotlight, creates and sustains added interest, produces bigger and better wagering events, all while doing what’s best for the animal. When will the time come for enlightened self interest?