Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 9, 2019

No Triple Crown, Just Troubled Times

The headline over Joe Drape’s story in the New York Times the day before this year’s running of the Belmont Stakes read “For War of Will, the Belmont Is About What Might Have Been.” The piece by the veteran writer, whose reporting has graced the sports pages of the Times for two decades, focused on the winner of the Preakness who along with Tacitus was one of the favorites going into the mile and one-half race known as the Test of the Champion. Had War of Will been first under the wire on Saturday, he would have joined just twelve other horses to win the Preakness and Belmont after coming up short in the Kentucky Derby.

That list includes some legendary steeds, including Man ‘O War in 1920 and Native Dancer in 1953. The last colt to capture the Triple Crown’s final two jewels was Afleet Alex in 2005. But Drape’s story was not just about the elite company that War of Will stood to join. The horse’s saga was truly a case of potential both lost and regained multiple times. An early favorite for the Derby, War of Will appeared out of the race after straining a ligament in his right hind leg during a race in just six weeks before the Run for the Roses. But trainer Mark Casse rested his charge and then trained him lightly, and War of Will not only made the starting gate at the Derby but by Saturday was the only horse to run in all three Triple Crown races this year. Yet on that fateful day at Churchill Downs, it was War of Will and jockey Tyler Gaffalione who were very nearly upended when Maximum Security veered out on the final turn and interfered with multiple horses. The result was the first disqualification of a horse first across the finish line in Derby history, and the unanswerable question of where War of Will would have finished had he been allowed to continue his stretch run.

As fans already know, the swinging pendulum of potential went against War of Will at the Belmont. When Gaffalione called on his mount to run at the top of the stretch, the horse failed to fire and instead faded to ninth place in the ten-horse field. Meanwhile it was his stablemate, the lightly regarded Sir Winston, who took the inside lane and made the most of the shortest possible trip around the sprawling Long Island oval, winning by a length over the hard charging Tacitus.

Sir Winston’s upset win gave Casse a rare Triple Crown double for a trainer – wins in two of the races by two different horses – but between the thoroughly mixed results, the controversy at the Kentucky Derby and the persistent issue of safety in horse racing, the Times’ headline might well apply to the entirety of this year’s Triple Crown, and not just for one horse but for the struggling industry in general.

It’s worth noting that fans, especially those with only a casual interest in racing who tune in to these three races in the spring and then not again until the two days of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in the fall, have grown spoiled in recent years, and many possess the selective memory that comes with that experience. First, I’ll Have Another in 2012 then California Chrome two years later came to the Belmont with wins in the first two Triple Crown races on their resumes, only to come up short at their shot at history. Then American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify just last year swept to victory in all three, delighting fans and giving horse racing a badly needed boost.

What’s forgotten in that run of close calls and history made is that in every other recent year there have been three different winners of the three Triple Crown races, just like in 2019. The vagaries of thoroughbred racing are such that winning any single race is extremely difficult. Winning multiple starts over a span of just five weeks, a workload that no modern horse bears either before or after the Triple Crown, is surpassingly hard, all the more so when both of the races after the Kentucky Derby always feature a number of fresh shooters, horses that have avoided the scheduling grind and go to the post well rested. Despite his favorable odds, history suggests that as the only horse running all three races this year, War of Will’s poor finish at the Belmont was hardly surprising.

Still the image of racing won’t be helped by the sense that this year’s Triple Crown was anticlimactic and ultimately disappointing, after starting with the controversial Derby finish that horse players understood, but casual fans almost certainly did not.

The lack of a compelling Triple Crown story also means there has been nothing to take the spotlight off the mounting death toll of horses at Santa Anita, one of the country’s premier tracks. Three days before the Belmont a two-year-old named Derby River had to be euthanized after suffering an injury during a training workout. That brought to twenty-seven the number of fatalities at Santa Anita since its current meet started the day after Christmas.

That awful toll has led to one suspension of racing at the track, and growing calls for a referendum to ban the sport in California. Apart from the appalling numbers at Santa Anita, across the country the sport has a death toll that is far greater than in other countries – from two and a half to five times so in 2018.

The glaring difference is that medicating horses is a tightly controlled process around the rest of the globe, while in the United States what is allowed varies from state to state. But efforts to enact similar national standards in this country are going nowhere. While many in the industry are supportive, including the Stronach Group which owns both Santa Anita and Pimlico, home of the Preakness, Churchill Downs, Inc., the operator of the country’s best-known track and host of our most famous race, is steadfastly opposed. That means Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, also the Senate Majority Leader, is also against any regulatory legislation, which in turn means nothing will be coming to a vote anytime soon.

That opposition is breathtakingly short-sighted. It’s as if the management of Churchill Downs, along with others in the industry who think the current free for all model is just fine, are locked in a gauzy past when horse racing was the sport of kings, rather than an industry on the brink. They would do well to remember that since the ancient days of Ozymandias, the fate of most kingdoms has been decline, decay, and defeat.

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