Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 9, 2013

Palace Malice Wins; Triple Crown Loses

They ran the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, and I suppose there was no harm in doing so. It was on the calendar after all, and I’m sure the New York Racing Association would have been loath to sacrifice the revenue generated by their premier event. The connections of Palace Malice were certainly happy the race went off as scheduled. The son of two-time horse of the year Curlin had always looked good in training, but more often than not seemed to find trouble in competition.

Never was that more true than on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. At the Bluegrass Stakes, Palace Malice had become distracted by the other horses as the field turned for home. He gawked down the stretch rather than remaining focused on racing for the wire. To correct that, 85-year old owner Cot Campbell agreed with trainer Todd Pletcher’s recommendation to put blinkers on the horse for the Kentucky Derby. In addition, because Palace Malice had twice broken poorly, Pletcher told jockey Mike Smith to ride the horse firmly out of the gate. Those two decisions resulted in unmitigated disaster.

At Smith’s strong urging Palace Malice stormed out of the starting gate. But under the unusually firm ride, with his peripheral vision blocked and hearing the sound of 18 other horses charging through the slop behind him, Palace Malice panicked. He ran away from Smith, sprinting to the lead and setting blistering fractions for the first quarter and half mile, despite the difficult racing surface. The rapid pace set the race up perfectly for late closers like Orb, while an exhausted Palace Malice faded to 12th place.

Hall of famer Smith knew he had ridden a poor race, and admitted to reporters before the Belmont that he was surprised he didn’t lose the mount. Given another chance, he repaid trainer Fletcher and owner Campbell in full late Saturday afternoon. Breaking from the twelve hole Smith allowed Freedom Child and long shot Frac Daddy to lead the field into the first turn, while he settled Palace Malice four wide and into 5th place. This time Smith watched from within striking distance as the two leaders did exactly what he had done in the Derby, namely set a blazing pace over the first half mile.

As the field raced along Belmont’s back stretch, Smith moved Palace Malice up toward the tiring leaders. On the far turn he took an outside position next to Preakness winner Oxbow who had moved into the lead. Those two opened daylight between themselves and the pursuers, and early in the long stretch run Palace Malice in turn opened clear space between himself and Oxbow. Derby winner Orb, far off the pace in the early going, made a late run down the middle of the lane, but the Belmont’s marathon distance of a mile and a half proved his undoing. Palace Malice was first under the wire at 14 to 1, with the winners of the Triple Crown’s first two races finishing place and show.

For Campbell’s Dogwood Stable, continued faith in jockey Smith and trainer Pletcher produced a $600,000 winner’s share from the Belmont’s $1 million purse. But for the larger sport of horse racing and its dwindling number of fans, this year’s Triple Crown series produced a familiar, predictable, and disheartening result. With a different winner in each of the three races, for the 35th consecutive year there is no winner of American horse racing’s Triple Crown. If one takes a longer view the results are even more dismal. Between Sir Barton in 1919 and Citation in 1948, there were eight Triple Crown winners in thirty years, better than one every four racing seasons. In the sixty-five years since, there have been but three Triple Crown champions, or less than one per generation. And of course, by chance those three were packed into the short period from Secretariat in 1973 to Seattle Slew four years later followed immediately by Affirmed in 1978; making the gaping intervals between Citation and Secretariat, and from Affirmed until now even more glaring.

Horsemen and racing fans alike understand the reasons for the annual disappointment. Changes in the breed and changes in training regimens make modern thoroughbreds poorly suited for the Triple Crown challenge as it is currently structured. Only a tiny fraction of horses run in the handful of races that register with all but the most ardent racing fans, and most of the racing is done at distances well short of the classic lengths. On Saturday afternoon while 47,000 plus were on hand for the Belmont, a fraction of that number were at Suffolk Downs in East Boston for a nine-race card. Eight of the nine races were at distances of less than a mile, most at 5½ or 6 furlongs (3/4 of a mile, or just less than). That is the norm at most small tracks and typical as well for many races even at the better known racing venues on days when television cameras are not present. Accordingly, horses are bred for speed rather than stamina; but the Derby is still a mile and a quarter, the Preakness just 1/16 of a mile shorter, and the Belmont an unheard of mile and a half.

The Triple Crown distances, especially the Belmont’s, have always presented a challenge. That is appropriate, because any sport’s greatest accomplishment should be extraordinarily difficult to achieve. But modern training methods now serve as an additional impediment. When Secretariat entered the gate at the 1973 Belmont, two minutes and twenty-four seconds from the greatest race ever run, he did so for the 15th time in his career. He raced nine times just as a 2-year old. In contrast Orb’s ninth start was the Derby, Oxbow’s his final prep before the Derby, and Palace Malice’s was, well actually the Belmont winner’s entire career so far is only eight races. What is more significant is that by today’s standards these three horses have had busy careers. These days the Triple Crown fields are heavy with horses that have started but a handful of races, or who didn’t race at all as a 2-year old. Yet these same animals are asked to run and win three races at classic distances in just five weeks.

Breeding and training isn’t going to change, so if Triple Crown winners are going to be anything more than a memory then the races will have to. Writing in The Rail, the New York Times racing blog last week, horse racing writer Daniel Sullivan proposed a radical makeover of the Triple Crown. Sullivan’s plan would jettison the Preakness, run both the Derby and the Belmont two weeks later than the current schedule and move the Travers at Saratoga up a bit to complete a ten-week Triple Crown.

It’s almost impossible to imagine fitting 150,000 or more into lovely little Saratoga with a Triple Crown on the line, and it’s unknown whether Sullivan doesn’t have a taste for crab cakes or just has never cashed a winning ticket at Pimlico. Still he’s to be commended for raising an issue that is overdue for discussion. Purists will argue that the schedule is inviolate, except of course that it isn’t. When Sir Barton first turned the trick, he won the Preakness just four days after his five length victory in the Derby and then waited four weeks for the Belmont, which was then raced clockwise around the track in the European fashion. Gallant Fox began his successful 1930 Triple Crown quest in Baltimore, because that year the Preakness was the first of the three races.

Given the existing meet calendars at the three tracks, one could easily have a longer Triple Crown schedule that would give modern thoroughbreds the time they need to recover between races. Let Churchill Downs keep the history of the first Saturday in May, but run the Preakness four weeks after rather than two. Then wait five weeks for the Belmont, which would place the final jewel on the first Saturday in July. Every few years the race would be run on Independence Day, giving it an extra measure of pomp and excitement. They wouldn’t like that schedule at Monmouth Park, home of late July’s Haskell Invitational, and Saratoga’s Jim Dandy Stakes might lose a horse or two, but those would be small sacrifices for the betterment of the sport.

In a sport as old as horse racing, the idea of change is especially difficult. Actual change is even more so because there is no central governing authority. But owners, trainers, jockeys, tracks, and state racing commissions all need to realize that if the handful of premier races that touch the national consciousness lose their appeal, the sport is all but finished. Change is necessary because once the larger public realizes that the Triple Crown challenge has become the Triple Crown myth, nobody is going to bother to watch.

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