06/16/2014 9:38AM

Mary Simon: Random thoughts on Belmont aftermath

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Tom Keyser
California Chrome is led by assistant trainer Alan Sherman after the Belmont Stakes.

Soon after California Chrome finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes, my sister fired off a private Facebook message likening the Triple Crown to the Hunger Games – a hyperbolic tantrum I chalked up to frustration and disappointment.

Racing fans were mad, and they hit the social media with a vengeance. Among the many ideas they espoused after the Belmont: The Triple Crown should be for 4-year-olds. It should be abandoned altogether. It was cruel … it was “rigged.” One poster claimed the New York Racing Association, loathing the idea of a Cal-bred Triple Crown winner, had “staged the race like a Broadway play.”

The Belmont of 2014 did raise more questions than it answered, the most obvious being: Why did California Chrome lose?

But more deeply and profoundly: Is something intrinsically wrong with the modern Thoroughbred? Is the Triple Crown broken? If so, can either be fixed?

When that splendidly charismatic red colt crossed the line fourth, tired and bloody, a nation of racing fans let out a collective inner moan … again.Brutal reason had told us he was a longshot at best to become racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner – despite those 4-5 tote-board odds – yet we’d dared hope our hero would be good enough that glorious afternoon to outrun a poor man’s pedigree, fresh legs, and blue bloods, while navigating a heart-testing distance never tried before. But that didn’t happen.

As Chrome returned through the tunnel, dripping sweat, nostrils still flaring, fans greeted him with scattered applause, acknowledging even in defeat the tremendous show he had put on for them through the spring. Few likely noticed the cloud of blood forming along the coronet band of his right fore, but they would hear about it – and hear quite loudly from his irate owner, whose post-race tirade damning the system soon raised the sporting rafters.

Tinkering with the Crown

Everyone by now is aware of Coburn’s rant and subsequent apology.

Coburn is a good guy – fun, entertaining, great for racing throughout Chrome’s jaunt down the Triple Crown trail. Two brief comments on his ill-advised remarks.

First, that “coward’s way out.” Back in 1920 Man o’ War’s connections believed 1 1/4 miles in early May asked too much of a 3-year-old; they held their incomparable champion from the Derby, then brought him back to conquer the world. Cowards, they were not.

As for limiting the Belmont/Preakness only to Derby entrants, well … An 11th hour hoof injury prevented A.P. Indy from competing for the first two jewels in 1992, though he recovered to win the Belmont and a Horse of the Year title … and this year’s Belmont champ lacked sufficient Derby points due to an illness. Neither was in the hands of cowards, and simple bad luck prevented their appearance at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Should such supremely talented colts have been punished for their springtime misfortunes? August Belmont II wouldn’t have thought so. In fact, he’d likely have quivered with rage at the idea of his namesake race being so denigrated.

Among those, besides Coburn and my sister, who believe the Crown requires “fixing” is NYRA trustee Stuart Janney, who contemplates elongating the time frame of the series to go from five weeks to eight weeks.

Would this be the end of world? No. It’s not as though that 35-day span was set in stone from Day 1. In the past, it has ranged anywhere from 28 to 43 days from start to finish, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the current schedule was settled upon. Three additional weeks may – or may not – diminish it, though certainly they would strip the Triple Crown of its modern-day yardstick.

Stretching out the progression should, theoretically, make it easier. That is the point, some might say. I, however, believe it should be difficult, the hardest thing to achieve in all of racing. Understand this: To win the Triple Crown means to do wonderful things, to defy astronomical odds, to take on all challengers, including fresh legs. It means a horse must be very good and sometimes very lucky. It isn’t meant to be a stroll in the park. Its achievement should place one firmly in the pantheon of immortals. It should be well-nigh impossible.

If we alter the Crown to make it easier to win, will it be from a sense of defeatism? From the sad belief that we simply cannot breed, raise, or train a horse capable of doing what runners of yesteryear did? Are we essentially admitting, then, that we’ve ruined the American Thoroughbred, via generations of unwise breeding practices and/or long-term dependence upon medication?

While some truth may abide in such speculation, there’s also an element of hogwash. With a bit of racing luck, we could be looking at four or five Triple Crown winners since Affirmed. Spectacular Bid may well have won in 1979 but for a safety pin rammed into his foot on Belmont Stakes morning. Real Quiet lost by a mere head-bob in 1998, and Silver Charm was barely blind-sided the year before. In ’99 Charismatic went bad late; Smarty Jones was passed in the final 100 yards after a fiery pace; and Chrome … beaten less than two lengths on a bloodied foot.

Cruel and unfair

Then, there are those who believe the Crown has crossed over to “cruel.”

“They may not get dragged off in a van and euthanized,” my sister vented. “But to run those races so close together, and cap it off with a mile and a half – It’s like some Hunger Games ordeal.

Say, what?

“Difficult” is not a synonym for “cruel.”

Six minutes of hard racing over something less than four miles in a five-week span for a well-conditioned athlete hardly qualifies as “cruel.”Not much more than a century ago, we ran our Thoroughbreds in four-mile heats, sometimes two or more a day … traveled 100 miles on foot, and then raced them again.

“How many horses run in all three of these races and are ever the same?” my sister demanded to know.

Well … let’s see. There’s been Shackleford and Mucho Macho Man, Will Take Charge, Animal Kingdom, Curlin, Point Given, Funny Cide, Medaglia d’ Oro, Real Quiet, Victory Gallop, Silver Charm, Free House, Skip Away, Hard Spun … and the list goes on from there.

While the Triple Crown trail is, indeed, taxing on those bold enough to undertake it in its entirety, it does not leave equine graveyards scattered along the East Coast. California Chrome strode from the track on Belmont Day, beaten and with a bloodied foot, but he had not been sacrificed at some savage racing crucible; he had simply been asked to do what top racehorses have been asked for generations – and had come within two lengths of reaching the mountaintop.

What to do?

Baseball did not despair when 45 years elapsed between Carl Yastrzemski and Miguel Cabrera’s “triple crowns,” and professional golf surely won’t restructure itself because nobody has ever swept the modern grand slam. Yet horse racing seems ripe for a stripping to the core.

We could elongate the Triple Crown, water it down, make it so it will gather small, mediocre fields each year … and still have no guarantee we’ll ever see another Triple Crown winner.

So, how about taking a grassroots perspective? Think our horses can’t handle the trail? Why not flip the calendar back a few decades and see what we did then that we’re not doing now?

For one thing, 100 percent of American Thoroughbreds in the 1970s – the decade of three Triple Crown winners – were not racing every single day on Lasix. They ran farther and more often back then, and they rebounded more quickly.

It’s been a long time since American breeders have looked at true stamina with a loving eye. We have instead bred heavily for speed and precocity. We’ve bred without particular regard for soundness, crossing bleeders to horses who broke down early … lightly raced milers with speedball mares. And surprise! We’re dumbstruck when we get horses unfit for the Triple Crown.

Postscript

For me, California Chrome’s Belmont defeat was tough. As a California lass myself, I had ached to see a Cal-bred Triple Crown winner. This story line seemed almost too good to be true … and so it was.

As one who loves racing and who’s had the good fortune to witness three Triple Crown winners in her lifetime, I was greedy for at least one more before I shuffle off this mortal coil. But it would not be this year.

And, finally, as a girl at heart, I love a fairytale, and in horse racing they don’t serve them up much better than this, with the son of a $2,500 stallion and $8,000 mare taking star billing in racing’s grandest show. But he was upstaged by the son of a $150,000 stallion and $800,000 mare – the antithesis of my Cinderella story. And so it goes.