Monday, August 27, 2012
Safety for Three Year Olds: Several Suggestions
The inspiration for this piece was provided by fellow HRI commenter, Don Reed, whose commentary on racing spans multiple websites. Not only is he usually good for a chuckle or three, but also for cryptic remarks I enjoy trying to decipher.
In response to Bodemeister’s announced retirement at the “Paulick Report”, and the subsequent comments mourning the dearth of this year’s Triple Crown survivors, he wrote, “The ‘stars’ of 2012 look like the New York Mets.”
I ‘m not sure what he meant, but any mention of the Mets always reminds me of their much-maligned catcher, Clarence “Choo-Choo” Coleman, whose career was extended by MLB expansion. Those Mets filled the void created by the carpet bagging Dodgers and Giants and provided the necessary alternative to the enormously successful Yankees.
It now seems that racing’s 3-year-old stars are also disappearing into the sunset, but not to compete against other equine athletes in California. Rather they’re headed for the sidelines and early retirement; ostensibly due to injuries that appeared after their Triple Crown event appearances. The list includes the winners of all three legs and the second place finisher in the first two.
Paynter, who finished 2nd in the Belmont Stakes before winning the Haskell, was sidelined for the Travers, as was Hansen, the Breeders’ Cup juvenile champion who barely beat eventual Belmont winner, Union Rags, in the 2011 Juvenile.
Both horses subsequently were uncompetitive in the 20-horse cavalry charge on the first Saturday in May. Then so were 13 others. Derby survivors Alpha and Liaison started in this year’s Travers, as did Belmont third, fourth, and fifth place finishers; Atigun, Street Life, and Five Sixteen, respectively.
But there were no participants from the Preakness participants Optimizer, who started all Triple Crown races, returned to the turf on the Travers undercard while the Derby pacesetter, Trinniberg, sprinted in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop.
Gov. Cuomo appeared sufficiently concerned about injuries to $7,500 claimers to initiate an independent study on the issue. Shouldn’t he or his racing staff be scrutinizing what seems to be a career-cancelling circumstance surrounding our classiest competitors, and mandate a first safety step, in what is quickly becoming the Cripple Crown?
A few months ago, HRI executive editor John Pricci once again opined that Triple Crown races needed better spacing. I and a few other HRI regulars took a position against “fixing what isn’t broke.” Indeed, had this year’s Derby and Preakness winner been able to win the Belmont – or even compete in it – the situation might not seem as critical.
But now that so many Triple Crown horses are winding up on only three good legs of their own, people might be more ready to reconsider extending the time between TC events and preps. This is, after all, not a one-season phenomenon.
Despite creating a rivalry resembling that of Affirmed and Alydar, I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister both failed to show up for the Belmont after three races in six weeks for the former and three in weeks for the latter.
Changes to eligibility for next year’s Kentucky Derby may relate to this issue. Starters are expected to be more accomplished as a result of being forced to compete in fewer qualifying events -- in particular the major 9-furlong preps three to seven weeks prior to the Derby.
Will the “lucky” qualifiers be less likely to suffer loss of limb and/or life?
Churchill Downs could force a change just by moving the Derby back to give an extra week’s from the preps offering the most points. Hopefully, Pimlico and Belmont would widen their respective intervals to accommodate a schedule change.
Imagine if racetracks were willing to protect the careers of their athletes? However, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for Churchill Downs to lead the way while they are the biggest beneficiary of the status quo.
If there’s going to be any movement on spacing, it will have to start with the “New NYRA”. Are you listening, Gov. Cuomo?
Innovation that preserves tradition as needs arise is in order. When the same horse wins the Derby and Preakness, the Belmont would remain at 12 furlongs; even if the candidate scratches.
Otherwise, it could be shortened to 9.5 furlongs; the second leg of a bonus-incentivized New York Championship Series for three-year-olds (NYCS) that starts with the 9-furlong Wood Memorial.
When a less likely classic Triple Crown attempt is scheduled for a Saturday, then the Discovery would be run at 9.5 furlongs as Leg 2 of the NYCS on Sunday. If the Classic candidate does not start, the purse for the 12-furlong Belmont would revert to the Grade 1 minimum.
The 3rd leg of the proposed NYCS would be the Travers at 10 furlongs with spacing similar to that between the first two. The first three finishers in legs two and three would receive bonuses based on in-the-money finishes in prior legs. Once the series proves successful, the Jockey Club Gold Cup at 12 furlongs for 3YOs & Up could be added as a 4th incentivized leg in October.
Eventually, the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Whitney could also comprise a bonus-incentivized NYCS for 3YOs & Up, with in-the-money finishers in the Gold Cup being rewarded for all their “money” placings in any of the six preceding events. Such a progression of races would make 12 furlongs at Belmont the true test of champions and stamina.
The immediate advantage to NYRA would be that a berth in the Wood Memorial starting gate would become at least the second most sought-after in racing; likely requiring special eligibility conditions of its own.
Another would be the occasional opportunity to host a 3-day festival anchored by a Brooklyn-Belmont-Discovery sequence that could be expanded to a mini-Breeders’ Cup type series.
Still another is the potential for the Gold Cup to challenge both the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Kentucky Derby as the most important race in North America.
Owners of championship caliber 3-year-olds would immediately benefit from a potentially safer, realistically more lucrative, alternative path to a divisional championship. It would also lessen the control imposed by CDI through its new Kentucky Derby qualifying process.
Finally, it would keep their horses, and the organization, in the public limelight from April through August.
The much-needed benefit to the industry would be the opportunity to promote the positive steps being taken to offset the recent wave of charges against it of insensitivity to--if not lack of concern for--the welfare of thoroughbred horses.
At the very least, there would be more well-known older talent available to race in subsequent years; possibly fueling an NYCS for older horses. Consider the following scenario:
The Wood winner prevails in both the Derby and Preakness, and his connections start contemplating the appropriate course of action. Not since the Zenyatta–Rachel Alexandra controversy are fans so passionately divided.
Traditionalists square off against the progressives, dominating the media as they await the decision.