06/01/2012 12:58PM

Crist: Triple Crown gods play no favorites

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Tom Keyser
I'll Have Another will try to add his name to the Triple Crown pantheon on Saturday.

For all their battle-scarred cynicism about an often unpredictable game, horse-racing fans can also be romantically credulous about the justice of the racetrack when it comes to the Triple Crown. The very difficulty of achieving the sport’s greatest prize, which has now gone unclaimed for 34 years, is widely believed to reflect a harsh but fair verdict. We haven’t had a Triple Crown winner since Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1970’s, the thinking goes, because we have not seen their equal, and the racing gods will not allow pretenders to join the pantheon.

It is a charming notion, and one which I have been as guilty as anyone of embracing, especially when a horse who seems particularly unlike those legends is on the verge of joining them. The failures of some of the 11 horses who won the Derby and Preakness, only to fail in the Belmont, seemed to reinforce the idea that the universe of racing is a fair and orderly one.

This theory of the racing cosmos, however, does not stand up to much scrutiny. While the extraordinary challenge of winning three races at different tracks in five weeks sometimes exposes the limitations of horses who fail in the final leg, there have been more than a few who deserved to win it and whose defeats can most fairly be ascribed to poor racing luck rather than the equitable judgment of racing deities.

Profiles of Triple Crown winners

Sir Barton (1919) Gallant Fox (1930) Omaha (1935) War Admiral (1937)
Whirlaway (1941) Count Fleet (1943) Assault (1946) Citation (1948)
Secretariat (1973) Seattle Slew (1977) Affirmed (1978) ?

Take the first of the 11 most recent unsuccessful bidders, Spectacular Bid in 1979. Whether or not he was compromised by stepping on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont, he received an atrocious ride from Ron Franklin, moving too soon and coming up empty late to finish third behind Coastal and Golden Act, nice horses but ones he would have beaten any other day.

He won 12 of his 13 subsequent career starts, losing only to the older Affirmed in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup, His 9-for-9 campaign as a 4-year-old was one of the greatest in racing history, and more than qualified him to stand alongside the other Triple Crown winners in any pantheon. If there indeed are racing gods barring the unworthy from the Triple Crown, they were out on the golf course the day of the 1979 Belmont instead of welcoming Spectacular Bid to the club.

Others who lacked the greatness of the Triple Crown winners or Spectacular Bid lost the Belmont despite being the best horse in the field, for any of the dozens of reasons that can get a deserving favorite beaten by lesser rivals on any given Saturday. No one confuses Charismatic with Secretariat but he was on his way to victory when he broke down. Big Brown was virtually eased with a bad foot behind Da’ Tara and seven other horses he would have beaten under a hold had he been healthy. The horse who came closer than anyone, Real Quiet, was hardly the best horse since the 1970’s when he squandered a premature rush to a four-length lead and came up a nose short in 1998, in a photo that could have gone either way.

The history is instructive and should sound a cautionary note on two fronts. Any horse is eligible to throw in a clunker on his biggest day, and this does not disqualify him from greatness or immortality; Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, and Sunday Silence all were Hall of Fame shoo-ins despite their Belmont defeats. Conversely, one of these years a horse is going to win the Crown without measuring up to those greats or the Crown winners of the 1970’s. If I’ll Have Another loses next Saturday, he will not necessarily have been revealed as an unworthy pretender; if he wins, it will not make him the best American racehorse since Affirmed.

At the same time, the elusiveness of the Crown is what makes it so special. If most or all of the 11 most recent bidders had been successful, winning it would fail to capture the public imagination and it would be just another thing in the world of sports that happens every few years. The other thing that makes it so compelling and special is the sameness of the challenge.

Every year there are busybodies who call for a change in the conditions of the series, to change the distances of the races to a more logical progression or to extend the time between the races to reflect changes in training styles. To do so, however, would not only put a giant asterisk next to the name of the next Triple Crown winner, but also be raising an unwarranted white flag of surrender to the notion that we can no longer produce racehorses capable of the feat. That’s what people were saying 40 years ago, that we would never see the likes of Whirlaway and Citation again. Then along came Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

More: Hovdey on Triple Crown near-misses

Spectacular Bid (1979) Pleasant Colony (1981) Alysheba (1987) Sunday Silence (1989)
Silver Charm (1997) Real Quiet (1998) Charismatic (1999) War Emblem (2002)
Funny Cide (2003) Smarty Jones (2004) Big Brown (2008)  
Rick More than 1 year ago
The problem with horse racing is the great ones too often are put out to stud after their 3 year-old campaign. This doesn't allow the public a chance to become a fan of any particular horse long enough or allow enough time for rivalries to exist. The solution is make the Triple Crown for 4 year olds. Now the traditionalists will cry that you can't change but the truth is it is NOT working. Horse racing is dying and it needs to be fixed. Thye need to think outside the box and if tradition is preventing that from happening create a new one.
freecharm More than 1 year ago
Hello, Mr. Christ - thanks to DRF's generosity in providing the eleven TC winners' past performances, I 'discovered' two things, one of which might be of relevance to Saturday's race - All eleven TC champs had had at least two races over the Belmont strip, mostly when they were juveniles. Do you think that factoid has any relevance in the running and eventual outcome of the race, especially for the contenders which have only mile track experience? The other factoid - should IHA win, Mario will become the sixth jockey 25 yo and under to have won the TC. Thanks for all the info.
freecharm More than 1 year ago
That is to say, Mr. Crist (sorry about that). The races over the track were those the TC winners had .prior to the Belmont Stakes. Thank you
Albert More than 1 year ago
Any and every horse will benefit from a race over any track if you are thinking about this as an important factor with IAH and the Belmont Stakes in general. But I think it is an overblown observation in regard to Triple Crown history. It was not so long ago that ALL of the important races in the US were held in the East, so it was inevitable that the better 3yos were racing at Belmont (except when that track was closed.) Dig down a little: how many Derby winners had a race over Churchill prior to their Derby win; how many horses who have won the Preakness EVER raced at Pimlico before...or for that matter after the Preakness. Nobody would prep a horse at that dump. I believe that IAH will win the Belmont because the group assembled to oppose him are substantially slower than he is and/or because they are headed in the wrong direction. Union Rags may be training up a storm, but it's going to be all he has to do to get back to his first race of this season, which was his best. He has regressed since then...fairly substantially. Dullahan, like many other poly best number horses is likely not to repeat his first big number on the dirt, which he got in the Derby. The others are going to be running for their lives. IAH is likely to regress off his new top in the Preakness, but not enough for these to beat him.
freecharm More than 1 year ago
I don't want to beat this to death, nor is this meant as the last word - Santa Anita, Churchill Down, Pimlico, mile tracks thus shorter and sharper and less time spent on the left lead vs Belmont with its turns about 200 yards longer thus more time on a lead the mile track horses are just not used to. Please don't get me wrong, I'm rooting for IHA and I'm expecting him to win Swale style (but not with the subsequent events). If there's an upset, I can't see anyone but Street Life doing the deed. Good luck to both of you as well
Douglas Rutherford More than 1 year ago
Having a prior start over the Belmont track Prior to the Kentucky Derby has been known for years . This info has not been a secret what-so-ever . In fact , its been brought up every year . The most talked about race in awhile I believe was 2004 BIRDSTONE ! That was one of my Big Wins anyways . After winning the Champagne Stakes at Belmont the year before , that was one colt that I kept in mind when it came time for the Belmont Stakes . And wowwwwww what a Pay-Off . UNION RAGS fits that mold this year . There are afew colts that have had a start over the Belmont track - prior to the Kentucky Derby . Im just saying : I myself - like to have a colt picked out - for the Belmont Stakes - that has already had a start over the track . FREECHARM : Honestly though , this method has been known for many years reguarding the angle of ITS NICE TO HAVE HAD A START AT BELMONT PRIOR TO THE KENTUCKYDERBY . Good Luck with your Pick come Saturday Frrecharm - Best of Luck
Ed Felsen More than 1 year ago
Nicholas Carraway in a comment posted to an article a couple of days ago said, >>>There have been only 10 TC winners with the current race distances. That fact alone makes the "Win at Belmont Park" angle not very significant. Of those 10, Omaha did not previously win a race at Belmont, though he did have two 2nd-place finishes there. Also to be considered is that TC horses in the 1930s through the 1970s were mostly NY based. They also raced many more times than modern-day horses, which gave them greater opportunity to win a race at Belmont. So, not much of an angle really. But, of course, it's no reason to disqualify from consideration a contender that hasn't won at Belmont. :-)
Ed Felsen More than 1 year ago
I meant to add that I agree with Carraway. But a bad race over the track should send up warning flags, like Alpha in the Kentucky Derby (he ran poorly in the BC Juvenile at CD).
John Burton More than 1 year ago
When I'LL HAVE ANOTHER wins the Belmont Stakes on Saturday he will claim the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horse-racing. He will establish himself as one of the legends in horse-racing when he continues his campaign and wins more stakes races this year and next before he retires. This time next year we will know if he will join the ranks of the immortals!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Your point that nothing should change in the TC is not according to the history of the series. There were changes in the time between races in the past. I see it would be better on the horses if there were 3 weeks betweenj the Derby, and the Preakness. It is bad enough to ask a 3 year old to carry 126 lbs. at such longer distances in a 5 week period then most top older horses run. They race about once a month, and god forbid if they are asked to carry 124 lbs.like they cryed about in the Delaware Cap. a while back this gruling series ruins most horses who run all 3 racws. My hat off to Shaclford for holding up so well this year.
ron breton More than 1 year ago
I read all the comments and i have one thing ,,maybe 2 things to say ...you have guys like steve..beyer..mike hammerhead...brad ...the beer guy and the worse ...jim bannon in woodbine ...these guys get on the bandwagon always with trainers like bob whitehair and owners with lots of money...when someone else from a lesser barn comes along they have a problem that they can't understand....this fall i'm going to keep track of what these guys say up to 2013 big races....and i will show u ppl that these guys know nothing about the outcome of races any more than the rest of us ....the 1 1/2 mile race at belmont is yust anouther race to the horses that run ...they don't know any different.....the horses just want to go back to the barn and eat
Bob Jones More than 1 year ago
The Bid was Spectacular, he belongs with the best of the best ever to have run.
ART VANDALAY More than 1 year ago
fresh legs win the belmont.i.h.a. is good among an average crop.
Nick More than 1 year ago
Do you sell latex, Art Vandalay? It's Gore-Tex, Jerry. For IHA backers: Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
Douglas Rutherford More than 1 year ago
Isnt it AMAZING which Col gets mentioned FIRST after all these years when this issue is brought to peoples attention ! SPECTACULAR BID , and will always be this way . The Very Best - that failed to Win the Triple Crown ( BY FAR )
James B More than 1 year ago
The best in Human sports find ways to lose the World Series and Superbowls and Olympic gold metals. If I'll have another pulls off the Belmont Stakes he is simply a Triple Crown Winner who got it done. The horse has improved with every race while never being favored to win and is always bettering his speed numbers as he matures. He has gifted me financially for taking him in as a long shot and I hope he gets it done June 9th as a first time favorite. If he does win the Belmont Stakes he a true Triple Crown winner in my book, end of story.
John Nicoletti More than 1 year ago
Wonderful assessment, and completely logical Steve. Why change something as great as the Triple Crown, because it has not had a winner in all these years. That is exactly what makes this feat so special, and the horse that does succeed, will have most assuredly deserved it. If aint broke, don't fix it.