Horse racing and the impossible Triple Crown

California Chrome, like so many horses before him, did not win the Triple Crown. Unlike many owners before him, Steve Coburn griped that the horses that skipped other Triple Crown races had taken “the coward’s way out.”

Good point, says my former USA TODAY colleague and fellow myriad sports journalist Christine Brennan. Foot in mouth, says my fellow myriad sports journalist Will Graves.

Those of us who remember the 70s remember when Triple Crown winners were commonplace. Or so it seemed. You had Secretariat, a once-in-a-lifetime horse by any standard, in 1973. Then Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. Since then, we’ve been waiting for 36 years.

But before then, we were waiting for 25 years. We had plenty of Triple Crown winners in the 30s and 40s, though competition may have been dulled a bit by the Depression and World War II.

So the 70s were really an aberration. And it was close to four in five years — Spectacular Bid and Pleasant Colony fell just short.

For most of the public, a Triple Crown bid is the attention-getter. Last year, with no Triple Crown at stake, the Belmont Stakes drew an overnight rating of 4.6. This year? 12.9.

We’ve had Triple Crown attempts in 1987 (Alysheba), 1989 (Sunday Silence), 1997 (Silver Charm), 1998 (Real Quiet), 1999 (Charismatic), 2002 (War Emblem), 2003 (Funny Cide), 2004 (Smarty Jones), 2008 (Big Brown) and now 2014. (I’ll Have Another won the first two in 2012 but couldn’t run the Belmont.)

What’s that? Oh, you know all those horses? Right. How about Easy Goer, Touch Gold, Victory Gallop, Lemon Drop Kid, Sarava, Empire Maker, Birdstone or Da’Tara? No? They all won the Belmont Stakes. The best of those horses was either Easy Goer, who still has adherents thinking he was a better racer than Sunday Silence, or Victory Gallop, who was second in the Derby and Preakness to Real Quiet and went on to a strong year at age 4. The others aren’t really household names.

Perhaps Coburn has reason to complain. But betting it all on the Belmont usually means a horse may get the Belmont … and nothing else. Everyone roots for the Derby-Preakness winner at the Belmont. Few care about the actual winner.

So does horse racing need a Triple Crown winner? Or does it just need to keep having horses in the running after two races? Maybe horse racing benefits from the Susan Lucci effect — did anyone care about the Daytime Emmys except in the annual fretting over whether this would finally be the year? Quick — who won the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series last year?

One more valid question about the Triple Crown, from Brennan’s column:

(I)f there are too many concerns about the health of the horses in this current five-week schedule, space out the three legs of the Triple Crown over several more weeks, and again mandate 100 percent attendance for any horse to be in the Belmont field.

That hits home for anyone remembers seeing jockey Chris Antley pull up and save Charismatic’s life in the 1999 Belmont. Or anyone who watched Barbaro struggle with and eventually die from his injury in the 2006 Preakness.

Of course, this isn’t a monolithic sport. The Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont are all individual events with their own traditions. But as everyone keeps trying to breed the next Secretariat and the Triple Crown retains such allure, maybe the quest for the Crown shouldn’t be so risky.

In the meantime, someone should really name a horse after Susan Lucci. She did indeed get her Emmy. But only after a brilliant Saturday Night Live appearance.

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2 Responses to Horse racing and the impossible Triple Crown

  1. Andrea Weaver says:

    Cool column, Beau. I just keep waiting for California Chrome’s owner to offer me some Quaker Oats. Wilford Brimley should play him on a future Saturday Night Live appearance.

  2. Joshua (my cat's name, not mine) says:

    “Those of us who remember the 70s remember when Triple Crown winners were commonplace. Or so it seemed. You had Secretariat, a once-in-a-lifetime horse by any standard, in 1973. Then Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. Since then, we’ve been waiting for 36 years.”

    None for 25 years before 1973 and none for 36 years since 1978. Somebody must have been putting something in the oats in those few years. Interesting that Secretariat set racing records for each of the triple crown legs in 1973 that still stand. We are talking forty-one years now. Sort of like some track and field records that were set in the 1980’s and still stand…

    Baseball has it own triple crowns I seem to recall. For Hitting and Pitching. Interesting that for the Hitting Triple Crown in the 46 years from 1921 to 1967, 11 players won the triple crown in their respective leagues. In the 46 years since 1967, ONE player has won the triple hitting triple crown.

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