06/13/2014 2:13PM

Hovdey: A fix for the Triple Crown, with a twist


Now that Steve Coburn has been raked over the coals by everyone from David Letterman to Colin Cowherd to Stephanie Miller – Stephanie Miller, for Pete’s sake – it’s probably time to go back to the most important issue raised by California Chrome’s failed attempt to win the Triple Crown.

How do we fix the Triple Crown?

Coburn’s post-Belmont brain cramp was not simply the result of a long day spent basking in the Triple Crown media heat without proper hydration. Nor was it intended as a crude insult aimed at the people who chose to point their horses for the Belmont rather than the other two jewels in the Crown.

Coburn’s outburst was an assault on the Triple Crown itself – an assault based on the distorted belief that Thoroughbred racing requires a Triple Crown winner for validation. A belief that after 36 years in the wilderness, Thoroughbred racing deserves a Triple Crown, that loyal fans are going unfulfilled without a Triple Crown, that the Triple Crown is the birthright of every living soul who was ever touched by the sight of Secretariat “moving like a tremendous machine” (thanks again, Chic) and winning the Triple Crown.

For the life of me, I cannot fathom the desperation, the impatience. The mantra, updated after last Saturday, drones on like a stale campaign slogan: Thirteen failures now since 1978. Thirteen trips to the altar without a honeymoon.

In fact, 13 in 36 years sounds like a pretty good number, given the reality that only 11 horses have won all three races, beginning with Sir Barton 95 years ago.

By comparison, in the 24 seasons between the Triple Crowns of Citation (1948) and Secretariat (1973) there were seven Derby-Preakness winners who bombed in the Belmont. For those who prefer percentages, even when the samples are ridiculously small, that’s 29 percent then to 36 percent now, making the case that the 3-year-olds of the more recent drought should be getting more credit for brushing close to a Triple Crown than those who labored in the earlier era.

So, let’s stop denigrating the 13 horses who won the Derby and the Preakness since 1978 (like I did in paragraphs 1, 5, and 7) and be grateful for the ride they provided. Save a special nod as well for those five horses who lost the Kentucky Derby but then held their form to win the Preakness and the Belmont since Affirmed won the Crown, because there are far more ways to lose the Derby than either of the other two events. The only thing is, those five didn’t get parades.

Of all the challenges confronting the Thoroughbred industry, tinkering with the Triple Crown ranks right up there with rearranging deck chairs on some big boat hit by an iceberg. But because the Triple Crown is considered the highest achievement of the game, when 25 years or 36 years pass without a winner, folks begin to think that maybe Thoroughbreds are just no damn good anymore.

No one wants to make it easier to win. Some would like to see changes that could make winning it more likely. The problem with the Triple Crown, however, is not the distance of the races, or the variety of surfaces, or the amount of time between each race. The problem of the Triple Crown is balance. The Kentucky Derby is the hardest to win for all the wrong reasons. The Preakness can be too easy for all the obvious ones. The series is all out of whack.

There is no question the Derby is the nation’s most famous horse race. It transcends the sport. People want to win the Kentucky Derby not because it is the first leg of the Triple Crown but because it is the Kentucky Derby. Nothing could ever dilute its impact, which is why the Kentucky Derby should be the middle jewel in the Crown, not the opening act.

Let the Preakness set the stage in mid-April, with a field of the 14 best available 3-year-olds. Let the Kentucky Derby follow two weeks later on the first Saturday in May, with its large field and its carnival atmosphere. Then, on the first Saturday in June, let the Belmont Stakes stand tall at the center of the spring’s most important racing festival — with or without the prospect of a Triple Crown.

I know, I know. There are already shouts from the back of the room. Wouldn’t an earlier Preakness disrupt the schedule of Triple Crown preps? (You mean that endless cycle of early races that chew up the generation each year?) What about the popular Derby point system? (No real change, except to account for the Preakness) How can you expect a horse to come back in two weeks between the Preakness and the Derby? (Be serious).

As for Coburn, his spasm of misdirected rage railed against the fundamental reality that the Triple Crown makes no sense, asking horses to do something they’ve never done before and never will do again. He’s right, even though he came off, in Cowherd’s words, “an ungrateful, loudmouth hillbilly.” But nobody ever said it was fair. As Dr. Thompson reminded us, time after time:

“Buy the ticket, take the ride ... and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well ... maybe chalk it off to forced conscious expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.”