Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 26, 2011

For Today’s Horses The Triple Crown May Just Be Too Tough

When Animal Kingdom’s stretch drive fell half a length short of catching the front-running Shackleford at the 136th Preakness Stakes Saturday afternoon, it meant yet another year without a Triple Crown champion. It’s now been a third of a century since Steve Cauthen, then an 18-year old phenom of a jockey, rode Affirmed into the history books. That 1978 trifecta of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont will forever be remembered for the three thrilling duels between Affirmed and Alydar, with the latter becoming the first horse to finish second in all three Triple Crown races. Affirmed’s total margin of victory for the three races was less than two lengths.

But that was another time. Sadly for horse racing fans, with each passing year it looks increasingly like a time permanently relegated to the history books, thanks to fundamental changes in the sport. Diehard fans will be quick to point out that there have been other periods of Triple Crown futility since Sir Barton first turned the trick in 1919, most notably the quarter century between Citation’s three victories in 1948 and Secretariat’s championship year in 1973. In that interregnum as in the current one plenty of horses came close by winning the Derby and Preakness before failing in the Belmont. Between Citation and Secretariat seven horses came to the Belmont with a chance to make history, only to fall short. Since Affirmed eleven horses have won the first two legs, meaning that on average every three years a jockey has led his mount into the gate at the giant oval on Long Island just 2 ½ minutes from becoming a legend. Yet the inescapable reality is that all have failed.

Once upon a time horse racing, remarkably enough, was all about actually racing. Seabiscuit became a more widely admired sports figure than most of the two-legged variety while racing 89 times. Citation’s racing career spanned 45 starts. Even Secretariat, who was syndicated after winning the Triple Crown under terms that barred him from racing after the age of three, had a 21-race career.

But at the elite level of racing horses’ careers are now a fraction of what they typically used to be. Consider the pattern of declining starts among the list of those who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness since the last Triple Crown. Spectacular Bid, who came so close in 1979, raced 30 times. Alydar’s son Alysheba won the first two legs in 1987 in the midst of a 26 race career. By 1999 when Charismatic took the Derby and Preakness, he did so as two out of a total of 17 career starts. Five years later the three Triple Crown starts made by Smarty Jones comprised one-third of his entire racing career.

The steady shortening of the racing careers of top thoroughbreds isn’t just a reflection of a desire to get a proven winner off the track and into the highly lucrative breeding shed. Horses are more lightly raced at the front end of their careers as well. Just three years ago, much was made of the fact that Big Brown came to the Kentucky Derby having raced just once as a 2-year old and only three times in all. But this year, when Animal Kingdom won the roses after racing just twice as a 2-year old and only two more times in 2011, it was scarcely considered out of the ordinary.

Three year old horses are effectively adolescents. Most of these teenagers now enter the biggest races of their lives woefully lacking in experience. After Animal Kingdom’s slow start in the Preakness, in which he fell much further back than he had in the Kentucky Derby, jockey John Velazquez said that the colt had reacted badly to having dirt kicked in its face by the horses in front of it, noting that this was not something that the Derby winner had experienced before. While Animal Kingdom’s running style is to come from behind, the fact that he had raced so little overall, and was in only his second race on a dirt track, meant that a common occurrence for horses preferring to run at the rear in the early going was instead a major distraction.

Between limited appearances in actual competition and the unfortunate over reliance of too many American trainers on heavy drug regimens, American thoroughbred racing stock is becoming fragile and unproven. Indeed, about the only sure thing every year is that whatever horse is the 2-year old champion won’t even make it to the starting gate at Churchill Downs. As was the case with Uncle Mo this year, somewhere in the run-up to the Derby the most promising horse always seems to go off the Derby trail, sidelined by injury.

Meanwhile the Triple Crown races form a gauntlet that demands the very opposite of “fragile and unproven.” Three races run over a brief five-week span. For every horse that runs in them at least two, the Derby and the Belmont, are longer than the horse will ever have raced; for some entrants all three are so. The first of the three always features a capacity field of twenty horses, insuring a bruising and dangerous cavalry charge out of the gate and down to the first turn. The last of the three is the longest and most grueling of all, with any entrant who has run in the first two being asked to somehow come back on short notice from a pair of demanding challenges and somehow run the race of his or her life. Even a super horse requires a fair share of racing luck to win American horse racing’s greatest prize. Nowadays, there don’t seem to be any super horses in each spring’s post parades.

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Responses

  1. This article adds to my thought that horse racing’s best recent hope for a Triple Crown winner may not have been the very promising Barbaro in 2006, but rather the flashy Afleet Alex in 2005. As you know, this stallion won the Preakness (after stumbling and almost falling), and then the Belmont Stakes by a wider margin, but unfortunately, narrowly lost the Kentucky Derby in a race that the jockey may well have mismanaged.


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