06/05/2014 11:21AM

Crist: Triple Crown should stay classic


There are reasons aplenty to root for California Chrome to win the 146th Belmont Stakes Saturday and become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 36 years. He’s a likeable horse with a nifty ability to spurt away from his rivals, a seemingly kind and generous temperament, and a mostly appealing crew of handlers.

Another reason to like him is that he may be the last of his kind, perhaps the final horse given a chance to win the Triple Crown as it is currently constituted.

A movement is afoot to alter the timing and spacing of the three races, perhaps as soon as next year. Similar misguided schemes have emerged and receded over the years, but this one is backed by prominent officials at two of the three host tracks and appears to have a chance of succeeding – despite its complete lack of necessity, its clear unpopularity with the sport’s fans, and the strong objections of the connections of the last horses to accomplish the feat.

::2014 BELMONT STAKES: Latest news, video, PPs, and more

This spring’s first proposal to meddle with racing’s most visible and popular events came from management at Pimlico, the site of the Preakness. Tom Chuckas, president of the host Maryland Jockey Club, said he was frustrated that the supporting races on the Preakness undercard were not attracting horses who had run two weeks earlier at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. He advocated extending the gap between the Derby and Preakness from two to four weeks, with the Belmont then four weeks later.

The proposal got a frosty reception from fans and gained little traction. Then last week, Stuart Janney, a horse owner and a trustee of the New York Racing Association, which currently operates Belmont, revived the issue. (Janney was the co-owner of Orb, who won the 2013 Kentucky Derby but then ran fourth in the Preakness and third in the Belmont.) He endorsed Chuckas’s proposal, claiming a “groundswell” of support for it that no one else seems to have noticed, and said it “could occur in the next couple of years.”

That was more than mere speculation, because the NYRA can unilaterally effect this change and radically alter the sport’s signature races without anyone else’s approval. Churchill Downs will always run the Derby the first Saturday in May. All NYRA’s trustees have to do is schedule the 2015 Belmont Stakes for June 27 instead of June 6 and a celebratory Chuckas would move the Preakness from May 16 to May 30. An eight-week instead of a five-week Triple Crown would be a done deal.

“I'm just against that," said Penny Chenery, Secretariat’s owner, on a media teleconference call last week. “I think it would invalidate all of the records and all of the times and make it an entirely different event.”

“It would just be awful,” added Patrice Wolfson, who raced Affirmed. “It’s a wonderful, unique set of races, and if you changed it, it wouldn’t work.”

Those who periodically endorse such changes argue that it would be okay to scrap tradition because the races were not always run at their current intervals. In 1919, for example, Sir Barton won a Preakness that was run just four days after the Derby, and in 1930 Gallant Fox won a Derby that was run eight days after the Preakness.

Citing these oddities from great-grandfather’s heyday misses the larger point: Two weeks from the Derby to the Preakness, then three to the Belmont, is the challenge that faced the only three horses to have won the series in the last 66 years – Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, and Affirmed in 1978 – as well as the 12 very good horses since then who won the first two legs but did not win the Belmont. Those constants are what provide context and comparison for each new bid.

What makes the idea of altering the series even more maddening is that there is no compelling reason to do so. If the Triple Crown races were declining in popularity, or Derby winners were being held out of the Preakness and Belmont because of objections to their timing, there might be some justification to be having the discussion. None of those things is happening, however: The Triple Crown seems to set attendance and wagering records every year, and on Saturday we have a healthy and eager California Chrome attempting his third classic victory in five weeks.

So perhaps a victory would quiet the powerful minority that wants the Triple Crown to change, by illustrating that it can still be won. (Don’t forget that a previous generation of revisionists argued it couldn’t, when the Crown went unclaimed from 1949 to 1973.) It might dampen any impulse to meddle with the series right after someone wins it for the first time in 36 years. It might reinforce that it is the Crown’s very difficulty and elusiveness, coupled with the consistency of the challenge, that make it so compelling a test and attraction.

The Triple Crown is not broken, but “fixing” it could break it.