Updated on 09/16/2011 8:31AM

Throwing cold water on Triple Crown fever

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WASHINGTON - When War Emblem attempts to win the Triple Crown, newspapers, magazines, and television will devote more attention to the Belmont Stakes than to any other race of the year. More than 80,000 people will jam Belmont Park on Saturday - triple the attendance for the great championship races that will be run there later this season.

Although devotees of Thoroughbred racing will relish their sport's day in the limelight, many will regret that the attention of the media and the public is misplaced. While most people outside racing view the Triple Crown series as horse racing's ultimate event, it is not. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont do not necessarily showcase the nation's best horses, determine its champions, or generate its best drama.

Purists regret that these races receive such disproportionate attention when the sport's best events, particularly the Breeders' Cup, get relatively little notice from the mainstream media. Racing fans share the frustration of boxing aficionados who watch a washed-up, deranged heavyweight command worldwide acclaim while skilled fighters in other divisions remain anonymous.

The Triple Crown is contested by relatively immature 3-year-olds, and in many years, the 3-year-old colts are undistinguished compared to the horse population at large. But the sports world is obsessed by them regardless. In 2000 Fusaichi Pegasus was hyped as a potential superstar when he won the Kentucky Derby, but after he flopped in the Preakness, the air went out of the Triple Crown series. The real star of the 3-year-old generation turned out to be a late-blooming, rags-to-riches horse named Tiznow, whose win in the Breeders' Cup over the magnificent European champion Giant's Causeway was a stirring spectacle. But because it didn't happen in the Triple Crown, the public had ceased paying attention.

America's Triple Crown mania is a relatively recent phenomenon. The 3-year-old classics used to be viewed in perspective, as important components of the nation's racing scene, but not the only ones that counted. When Kauai King attempted to win the Triple Crown in 1966, Belmont attendance was 55,899. Six days earlier, 67,224 New Yorkers watched 4-year-old Bold Lad win the Metropolitan Handicap on Memorial Day.

The great races for older horses were at least as important as stakes for 3-year-olds. Readers of the bestseller "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" will remember the dramatic climax of the book was its protagonist's victory as a 7-year-old in the Santa Anita Handicap.

But by the 1970's, when great champions such as Secretariat and Affirmed brought their auras to the Triple Crown, the races grew in importance. With three races in five weeks, the series made an ideal package for television. Churchill Downs and Pimlico had successfully transformed their big races into extravaganzas that drew big crowds and added to the perception of their importance. In recent years, Visa's sponsorship of the Triple Crown and its classy advertising campaign have enhanced the series further.

At the same time, once-illustrious races such as the Metropolitan and Suburban handicaps were diminished, partly because the industry failed to create for television a compelling series of races for older horses. Even the Breeders' Cup - the best day of Thoroughbred racing on Earth, the day when the world's champions are crowned - has failed to grab the attention of the media and the public as the Triple Crown does.

In most respects this overhype of the Triple Crown is harmless. Curmudgeons like me might grumble that non-superstars such as Real Quiet and Charismatic didn't merit all the superlatives that accompanied their Triple Crown bids in 1998 and 1999. But at least horse racing got attention from a mass audience that it could not attract any other way.

But the overemphasis of the Triple Crown also affects the thinking of people within the sport, making the 3-year-old classics a potentially harmful obsession. Proprietors of great racing stables once preferred not to rush their young horses and aspired to win late-season races such as the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Nowadays, most owners enter the game with aspirations to win the Kentucky Derby and turn to trainers such as Bob Baffert, Wayne Lukas, and Nick Zito, who gear their operations to winning the classics.

Lukas went through more than $20 million of regally bred young horses before he came up with a classic contender in Proud Citizen. Zito didn't have a single colt who deserved to be considered a classic contender, but he persevered anyway, running two starters in the Preakness, where one suffered a career-ending injury. Baffert had been having a dismal year with his 3-year-olds until the sudden success of War Emblem.

But as the Triple Crown races have become the be-all and end-all of the sport, few people think about the fearsome casualty rates behind trainers' success. Instead, the members of the training profession who get second-guessed are outstanding horsemen such as Bobby Frankel and Bill Mott, who don't push their horses early and seek to develop runners with long, productive careers. Their prudence is viewed as a professional flaw because they haven't won the sport's most glittering prize.

If the racing industry were starting from scratch to create a definitive three-race championship, it might reasonably construct a series in the fall (when 3-year-olds could compete against older horses), with races at 1 mile, 1 1/8 miles, and 1 1/4 miles, eliminating the Belmont Stakes's 1 1/2-mile distance that is an anachronism in the modern game.

Yet a panel of savants probably could not devise a series that has stood the test of time as the Triple Crown has. In theory, less-than-great runners should be able to use a five-week hot streak to dominate a sub-par group of 3-year-olds and win the Crown. Yet in the postwar era this has never happened. The winners of the Triple Crown constitute a list of the sport's immortals, including Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat.

Purists may properly argue that three stakes for 3-year-olds in May and June is not the sport's definitive test, and a horse's bid to sweep the series hardly merits mass hysteria. But the roster of Triple Crown winners constitutes the best counterargument that this series is, indeed, worthy of nationwide excitement.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post