06/16/2009 11:00PM

Series is tough, but at least we try


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The long knives are out again, slashing at the throat of the Triple Crown before the poor thing even has a chance to catch its breath.

Pat Forde of ESPN.com says, "We have to accept the reality that modern 3-year-old horses, trained for speed and built for brief windows of brilliance, cannot withstand the rigors of three long races in five weeks at an early stage of their development."

When asked, Wayne Lukas of Wayne Lukas Has Won 13 Triple Crown Races is renewing his call for more time between the events and a shorter Belmont Stakes.

For that matter, my editor says that processing all my travel expense reports over a five-week span is getting more and more difficult and that he'd prefer the entire Triple Crown was run on a Sunday afternoon in late July at Del Mar.

Moan, moan, moan. Count your blessings. We could be English.

This year, for the first time since 1989, a horse has won the first two jewels in the English Triple Crown. When Sea the Stars made mincemeat of a six-horse Aidan O'Brien entry in the 230th running of the Epsom Derby - contested the same day Summer Bird was winning Belmont Stakes - he joined Nimbus, Crepello, Royal Palace, Nijinsky, and Nashwan as the only colts since the end of World War II good enough to win both the 2000 Guineas at one mile and the Derby's (rhymes with Arby's) 1 1/2 miles.

Were this happening in the Colonies, there would be yet another rousing chorus of media uproar, with fans happily along for the ride. The horse in question - whether he be named Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, War Emblem, or Charismatic - would plummet headlong toward the Belmont with predestined speed. He would also lose, but that wouldn't really matter. When it comes to the American Triple Crown, it's the journey, not the destination. Or at least it has been that way since Affirmed took the Crown in 1978.

The English Triple Crown, on the other hand, appears to exist in name only. What other conclusion can be drawn by the announcement from John Oxx, the trainer of Sea the Stars, that his colt would not even bother to contest the third jewel, the St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster, on Sept. 12? The reason, said Oxx, was that he thought Sea the Stars could not get the St. Leger distance of one mile, six furlongs, and 132 yards.

No doubt, that last 132 yards must be a killer. But unless Oxx feels his Derby winner will die trying, getting the distance is hardly a sporting excuse for not having a go at something no horse has accomplished since Nijinsky, in 1970. But then, sportsmanship has very little to do with such decisions anymore, notes Julian Muscat, chief racing correspondent of The Times of London.

"The saying used to be that 'the fittest horse won the 2000 Guineas, the luckiest horse won the Derby, and the best horse won the St. Leger,' " Muscat said. "That shows you the luster the St. Leger once had, but no more.

"We've had this debate, over whether or not we should redefine our Triple Crown," Muscat went on. "People have said we need the 2000 Guineas, then a 10-furlong race, and then the Derby, and more on your time scale. But today, it's all about commercial value, and the St. Leger isn't part of that equation. Our Derby winners are usually being brought back to 10 furlongs for their next start, because a couple of wins over 10 furlongs will increase a Derby winner's worth. Something about stigma of stamina."

After winning the 2000 Guineas and the Derby in 1989, Nashwan was held out of the St. Leger in favor of a prep for the Arc de Triomphe. He lost the prep and never raced again, but it is more than a stretch to think that if Nashwan had tried the St. Leger, and perhaps failed, he would not have sired Swain and dozens of other stakes winners.

Besides Nijinsky and Nashwan, the only other recent runner to win two-thirds of the English Triple Crown was Reference Point in 1987. He had a sinus operation that winter and therefore had a late start on his preparation for the classics for Henry Cecil. As a result, the colt did not run in the 2000 Guineas but did go on to win the Derby and the St. Leger. According to his jockey, an American expatriate named Steve Cauthen, Reference Point was a case of might have been.

"He easily could have won the Guineas," Cauthen said. "But to be honest, I never really gave it a lot of thought, that he could have been a Triple Crown winner. Once you've made that decision not to run in the first one, it kind of leaves your mind. Still, you'd love to see a horse with a chance give it a try."

If Oxx holds firm, and Sea of Stars passes the St. Leger in favor of shorter events, it will be 39 years and counting since an English Triple Crown winner, and 31 years since Cauthen and Affirmed won the American version.

"It's supposed to be tough, though, isn't it," Muscat added. "If you had one win it every three or four years it would lose its meaning. That's the beauty of your Triple Crown. At least you have one come close every two or three years to keep interest high."