06/16/2009 11:00PM

Resist temptation to tinker with Triple Crown


NEW YORK - It is becoming a rite of the last days of spring. Another Derby, Preakness, and Belmont go by without a Triple Crown winner, and the critics who drop in on racing for five weeks a year issue a manifesto on their way out the door: The Triple Crown, they demand, must be changed.

It's too hard to win. The races are too long. It's not fair. Three races in five weeks is too many. The dates and distances have been changed before (albeit not for more than half a century), so why not do it again to make it easier to win?

Of all the bad ideas floating around racing, and there are plenty, this one may be the worst, simply because it would devalue, discredit, and ruin one of the very, very few things about the sport that works just about perfectly.

The Triple Crown is supposed to be difficult, and that's what makes it one of the greatest challenges in all of sports, one that draws the general public into Thoroughbred racing once a year. Insiders know that the Breeders' Cup offers better and ultimately more important racing, and encompasses the wonderful varieties of age, sex, distance, and surface that better reflect what racing is all about, but only the Triple Crown resonates with the general public.

Change it, and the next time someone wins a new and dumbed-down version, the achievement will be diminished and the asterisk of the new E-Z path will overshadow the accomplishment.

What possible good would it do to have three Triple Crown winners in the next six years? When that happened in the 1970s, talk started heading the other way - the same summer soldiers editorialized that the series had become too easy. Of course the 25-year gap between Citation and Secretariat, and the 31-year gap since Seattle Slew and Affirmed, say otherwise. It is what it is, and it's very difficult, and that's what makes it so intriguing.

The whole point of the series is to test greatness, to pose a truly demanding challenge. This one, flaws and all, has captured the public imagination for decades, and altering its fundamentals even slightly would explode all the goodwill and anticipation created by that history.

The thinking behind making changes may be well-meaning, but embraces a lot of fiction and nonsense. "We have to do it for the poor horses!" cry those trying to cast it as a humane issue, going on to cite Barbaro and Eight Belles as examples of the toll the series supposedly takes. This is ludicrous. Eight Belles suffered a freak accident while pulling up after the Derby, running in only one of the three races. Barbaro took a bad step shortly after coming out of the starting gate in the Preakness. Three races in five weeks had absolutely nothing to do with the injuries suffered by either horse.

What about the idea that the modern Thoroughbred is simply incapable of running that far that often? Citing the lack of a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed as proof of that shaky hypothesis ignores every fact except the 31-year gap. If the mere two-week break between the Derby and Preakness is so unreasonable and taxing, how have seven of the last 14 Derby winners repeated in the Preakness? How have four other horses in the last 20 years - Hansel, Tabasco Cat, Point Given, and Afleet Alex - all won the Preakness and Belmont after running in the Derby? Yes, it's hard to win all three races, but year after year, really good horses show up and compete in all three.

Has the game changed? Of course it has. Horses make fewer starts and have longer breaks between races than they used to, but this is not necessarily proof that the best of them can't be held to a historically proven challenge. A lot of the light campaigns of well-spaced starts are less a matter of what horses are capable of doing and more a matter of cautiously managing the campaigns of stallion prospects in what (until recently) has been a seller's market. You don't have as many horses running in all three races because there are now so many other routes to take with a horse who loses the Derby, most of which will do more for his stud fee than losing the Preakness.

One of these days, another really good horse will run well enough to win all three, and we will celebrate it as something truly special - unless we have given in to this attempt to disconnect ourselves from the sport's history and its great 3-year-olds and thrown up the white flag.

The Triple Crown is the one thing in racing that ain't broke. Let's stop trying to fix it.