Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for ESPN.com, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, April 25, 2011


For Keeping the Triple Crown Easy


(NEW YORK, NY – April 25, 2011) Like a jockey on a pace-setter who gets the jump on a closer by making the first move at the top of the stretch, writing now about why the Triple Crown should stay as it is might dissuade wrong-minded people from recommending that changes are needed.

Trainers, by the way they condition their horses, have unintentionally made sweeping the Triple Crown so easy that some convoluted thinkers are certain to suggest a tweak of the requirements that will make the feat more difficult. Three races in five days is no longer possible for even the best conditioned runners, causing the competition to become so watered down that almost any Kentucky Derby winner, which hasn’t been ground up like hash while attempting to secure his triumph at Churchill Downs, has a decent opportunity at succeeding.

Left-brained logicians believe spreading the trio of Classics out and lengthening the time between each is more likely to create a Triple Crown champion than the rules as they’re written. But these changes would only increase the competition, invite good horses that are now dropping out after running out in Louisville and give more horses a chance who have none. That the Triple Crown hasn’t been worn by a three-year-old in 32 years is no reason to alter its hat size.

There are Triple Crowns in other sports and their winners don’t emerge often, either. The most famous is Major League Baseball’s. A player wears MLB’s Triple Crown when he leads a league in home runs, batting average and runs batted in. Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox was the most recent to complete the task in 1967. Affirmed was horse racing’s last Triple Crown winner in 1978.

Baseball has had only two more Triple Crown champions than horse racing. But winning baseball’s Triple Crown has occurred 15 times – Rogers Hornsby of the St. Louis Cardinals and Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox each accomplished the rare feat twice. If baseball named only Triple Crown winners as a result of their performance across both leagues, there’d be only five players to qualify – the most recent was the New York Yankees’ Mickey Mantle in 1956. Regardless, unlike horse racing, there has been no movement for and little discussion of changing the requirements.

In any case, who in horse racing really cares if there’s ever another Triple Crown champion? Because three champions created excitement for horse racing back in the 1970s doesn’t mean that one could today, given the shift in the culture. Granted, Big Brown had crowds abuzz in 2009 – so did Smarty Jones and Funny Cide in prior years. But these times are different.

Winning a Triple Crown has value only in residual terms. If a horse would win the Triple Crown and then never race again or retire prematurely, there’d be little benefit derived from the development. In addition, the sport offers other means to make heroes. For a stretch of 18 months, Zenyatta captured as much of the public’s imagination as possible. Before her, Rachel Alexandra, in beating the boys in the Preakness, captured hearts. Before her, there was Barbaro.

Never crowning a Triple Crown champion again wouldn’t be a disaster. As a stand-alone event, the Kentucky Derby would be unaffected. As long as there’s beer served, the Preakness will continue to draw crowds, regardless of the Derby winner’s presence. True, the allure of the Belmont Stakes would be dimmed; a swing of 50,000 fans is determined on if the Triple Crown’s on the line. But is de-valuing a 1-1/2 mile stakes that is run at a distance which very few American-trained horses can handle such a bad thing?

Dialed In appears the most likely of this year’s crop to become a Triple Crown champion. His breeding suggests that he has the stamina to stay on in the Belmont when others wilt. Because Nick Zito has raced him lightly, he should have what it takes for the crunch of the schedule. More significantly, the Kentucky Derby Trail has taken its toll already on most horses that were considered atop this generation.

As for those left in the running, Uncle Mo, for example, appears iffy. After winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and entering the Wood Memorial unbeaten, he was viewed as a super horse. Now, there’s talk that he’s sick, he has marks on his leather that indicate surgeries, and he won’t even see the roses, let alone wear them. Should Uncle Mo triumph in Louisville, however, he’d probably triumph in Baltimore, given the competition he’ll run against. Zito will save his horse for New York.

Americans prefer to win and when they can’t, they figure out ways that enable them. Doctors invented gastric bypass surgery to assist people who can’t stop themselves from eating. That’s the crux of the argument for messing with the Triple Crown. On the other hand, imagine Kirstie Alley panting her way through the last refrains of the song that she’s dancing to as you conjure up reasons to bet on any horse with a Triple Crown shot. If the former Weight Watchers spokesperson could run, she could run away with the mirror ball trophy.

The industry has bred hickory out of thoroughbreds the same way baseball has bred the seventh through ninth innings out of pitchers. Ferguson Jenkins, Harvey Haddix and Warren Spahn would be anomalies today, as would $2000 claiming horses that ran every week to provide trainers with per diem income and owners with thrills on a steady basis.

A week ago, horse owner Cot Campbell announced he’d stop honoring unsung heroes with a Dominion Award. “There’s no complicated reason,” the graceful scion of Dogwood Stable said about ending the program. “We think it’s all right to quit doing it,” he said, with refreshing transparency.

Ending the Triple Crown on the low note of never seeing another horse earn one is an okay idea, also – preferred, in every sense, to seeing the standard made harder.

Vic Zast invites yo to read his blogs about driving to the Arctic at http://www.ourlongestdrive.com, and to join him on Facebook and read his tweets at Twitter.


Written by Vic Zast

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