06/05/2014 12:21PM

Crist: Triple Crown should stay classic

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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.

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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.

Dom DiNatale 11 months ago
Also, the Triple Crown was noy invented to have a Triple Crown....the derby preakness and belmont stakes were all around for many years before the term triple crown was used....the three races were all in the spring and as a matter of fact they occurred in a different order than they do now...not until after Sir Barton won all thyree that the term Triple Crown was even used...its three separate races and horses like tonalist are allowed to run in any of them or all of them.....ironically the owner of tonalist also owned pleasant colony who was denied triple crown by a new shooter....you don't hear too much about it because there was no crying over it back then like there is now...just a sign of the times like giving trophies to everyone in little league...
Chad mc rory 11 months ago
Steve, I am sure you remember a time when Owners had enough class to withhold an unworthy horse from a race with the prestige of the Belmont. That time appears to have passed. When a horse with a Maiden win only gets in it cheapens the race. When that horse compromises the chances of the odds on Favorite, it ruins the race. If the Owners won't treat a Grade 1 such as the Belmont with respect, then it is time to change the race conditions.
LrlLarry 11 months ago
Save the sport and the horses! Horse racing is the only sport with a 6 week hero, make it for 4 year olds , so we can follow the horses for a year prior to the Triple Crown.
Rick Harrington 11 months ago
I think spacing the races apart and making it eight weeks would lose a lot of casual interest. People would move onto other projects and forget. By the time you get to the Belmont, there would be a lot of "who cares". The short space between races allows the magic to exist. P.S., it's good to see an article by Steven Crist. Hope he continues getting better so that he can come back up to Saratoga this year.
Daniel 11 months ago
Agree. Keep it classic. Therefore get rid of the auxiliary gate at Churchill!
Chad mc rory 11 months ago
There are 14 stalls in The Puett Starting Gate. There is good reason for that.
DilipS 11 months ago
Changing the dates is possibly the only reasonable suggestion. Partly because in the past, the duration encompassing the 3 events has indeed varied - from 28 days to 42 days. Currently, it is 35 days. So moving Belmont down by a couple of weeks will give the horses a 5-week rest after Preakness. And the total duration will move to 49 days. If Preakness moves it by 2 weeks, it will change to 63 days. The "Coburn Rule" makes no sense. If that were applied, there would be no Belmont Stakes race at all in 2006 and 2010! And in 2012, Optimizer would be the only horse. So that year, the "race" would also have served as his victory lap :-) (I am sure he would have loved it because in the actual race, he finished last!)
Dom DiNatale 11 months ago
OMAHA TRIPLE CROWN SCHEDULE: 4-22, 4-27, 5-4 derby, 5-11 only one week later preakness, 5-25 the Withers, 6-8 belmont COUNT FLEET: 4-13 ALW, 4-17 WOOD MEM, G-1 KY DBY, 5-8 ONLY ONE WEEK LATER PREAKNESS, 5-22 WITHERS STAKES, 6-5 BELMONT WHIRLAWAY: 4-11,L 4-24, 4-29, 5-3 KY DBY, 5-10 only one week later the Preakness, 5-20 ALW RACE, 6-7 BELMONT SECRATARIAT: 4-9, 4-21 THEN TRIPLE CROWN OBVIOUSLY THE SPACING OF THE RACES IS NOT THE PROBLEM...turns out CC was NOT worthy of being one of the chosen eleven who have won the TC...good horse but not great....the eleven immortals who pulled it off are very deserving and didn't cry about time between races or bad rides or anything else....you either win the triple crown or not and CC did not
Jamie Nicholson 11 months ago
Don't forget about the undercards. Additional spacing might also allow top older horses to run on Derby, Preakness and Belmont days.
Dom DiNatale 11 months ago
CITATION RAN AS FOLLOWS: Apr 12, Apr 17, Apr 27, May 1 ( Derby ), May 15, May 29 and Jun 12 ..thats 7 races in 8 weeks
Al Courtney 11 months ago
Legends like Secretariat don't pick and choose their opponents!A legends motto is, i will compete against anyone,anywhere,anytime,any place and WIN.