06/13/2014 3:13PM

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.”


Thomas More than 1 year ago
People like Jackson Jackson should be removed from posting their tirades here...if this person cannot engage in normal discussions or have an open mind then they should be blocked from this forum....when one cannot post his or hers rebuttal without insults that shows their low range of mental abilities,their lack of class and their true colors of knowing nothing....as for me,why I always take the high road
Rick Keenum More than 1 year ago
No reason to fix something that's not broke. Just because Coburn didn't win doesn't mean the Triple Crown is broke. If it were changed you could never compare new triple crown winners to the old triple crown winners. The standard is set all it needs is good horses to compete. We don't need a triple crown winner every year.
Ron Solberg More than 1 year ago
for horseman instead of hitting so many early races just run enough to get into the triple crown with the lack of experience say win a msw then a hi level alw. hit a grade 2 or 3 then a major prep in a grade 1.then to the triple crown with a very lightly raced horse, after all that give your horse a rest. there is no easy way and there will never be an easy way. sure Coburn wanted to win and I wish he would of but so did everyone else in the race. so if I was going to run a horse I would try to find the best spot to put my horse in.this is just like any other business.your in it for the money.myself im a player of 50 + years.
Patricia Doyle More than 1 year ago
Why not just make the Derby a prerequisite for the Belmont? When a triple crown is at stake that year the Derby is a prerequisite race for the Belmont. Levels the playing field. Unfortunately horses these days a bred for speed and mile or sprint distances. We ask these fast sprinters or milers to go a mile and a half. The horses best fit for that distance are steeplechase horses on the lawn lol
Patricia Doyle More than 1 year ago
I don't think California Chrome bombed in the Belmont. I think he made a good showing of himself. Given the circumstances I think CC did a fine job of coming 4th He did not give up he just could not win but he tried.
Dan Cronin More than 1 year ago
Everyone is forgetting this is SUPPOSED to be about the horse, and it is NOT healthy or correct to run a horse 2 weeks after running a distance none have run against the best they ever faced. It is not healthy period. BARBARO come to mind. There is a reason so few ever run back from the Derby card to the Preakness card, maybe 3 of the 60 horses run back, cause it is NOT in the best interest of the horse. SO if this is truly about the HORSE then the triple crown must be moved, period. Like evolves and change is part of life, for the health of those 60 horses that run on Derby day move the Preakness day back a week or two to 4 weeks and of the 60 maybe 25 run back and the entire Preakness card is a lot better. Then move the Belmont to 4 or 5 weeks . The fields for the entire day would be better and more horses would be safer. It would be harder to win the triple crown this way cause the Preakness and Belmont might have 20 horses also if they allowed it.
Steve More than 1 year ago
Exactly. If California Chrome hadn't won the Kentucky Derby, do you think Art Sherman would have run him back in two weeks? ZERO CHANCE. Do you think he would have run Chrome at 1 1/2 miles with no Triple Crown on the line? ZERO CHANCE
Steven Jekel More than 1 year ago
Why not just leave it alone. When someone does win it and they will someday. they will join an elite group. Triple Crown Champions!
David Smith More than 1 year ago
just have 3 weeks between all races..i think that's a simple compromise..this crop of 3 year old horses going into the derby ended up being kind of weak with a lot of good horse being injured and out of the race....
P Cerv More than 1 year ago
Hovdey did you write an article about Tonalist having a throat infection for the Derby? Well maybe you did, but it probably cost $5.00 to read it? People just are NOT going to pay $5.00 to see if your article is worth reading?
Brian Taylor More than 1 year ago
First time Hunter Thompson was ever quoted in DRF!?!