Some of history’s greatest Thoroughbreds have raced in the last 34 years. But since only a Triple Crown will put a horse on the cover of Time, newsstand celebrity eluded Cigar, Zenyatta, Goldikova, and Tiznow. The Triple Crown, as presently constituted and marketed as racing’s greatest achievement, is preventing the best horses from getting the public acclaim they deserve.
One solution would be to spread out the races. The Triple Crown could consist of the Kentucky Derby in May, the Belmont in June, and the Travers in August, kicking the Preakness to the minor leagues where it belongs. The Travers is the oldest horse race in America, and Saratoga—a country fair with a track attached—is a more worthy site for a Triple Crown race than Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, the shabbiest venue to host a major American sporting event. (This would be true even if the World Series came to Wrigley Field.)
Another solution would be to change the Triple Crown to a series of races that aren’t restricted to horses of a certain age. The world’s fastest racehorses aren’t 3-year-olds, and yet the current Triple Crown is only open to these younger Thoroughbreds. My suggestion: an all-ages Triple Crown of the Dubai World Cup in March, the Whitney Handicap in August, and the Breeders Cup Classic in November. And if we want to make it really challenging, we could substitute the Arlington Million for the Whitney, so a horse would have to win on dirt and turf, just as Rafael Nadal has to compete on the French Open’s red clay and Wimbledon’s manicured lawns.
This would not only extend interest in the Triple Crown throughout the year—it would extend it for multiple years. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont would still be significant, but as races preparing 3-year-olds for the big event. Since horses don’t mature until age 4, the competition would be deeper, and the pressure to win a Triple Crown wouldn’t ruin so many developing 2- and 3-year-olds.
The Triple Crown is now good for one thing only: creating great betting opportunities for unsentimental wiseguys at the Belmont Stakes. Those 11 failures? Every one was the Belmont favorite. They’ve been sent off at average odds of 4-5, pounded below even money by racing romanticists who wanted a souvenir ticket on a Triple Crown winner.
There is no better betting situation than a can’t-win horse sucking up half the pool. So don’t look at Saturday’s Belmont as a historic attempt to break a curse dating back to 1978. Look at it as an opportunity to make some dough. In Wall Street terms, you can short I’ll Have Another. (If you need another reason not to bet I'll Have Another, consider that New York bans the breathing strips he wore in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.)
Some of my greatest memories as a horseplayer have come when betting on Belmont favorites to lose. In 2004, I noticed that Smarty Jones, at 1-5, was taking far more money to win than to place—that is, to finish first or second. Because everyone and their mother was betting on Smarty to win, you could actually make more money betting on Smarty to finish either first or second—a much safer bet. Any investor would love that situation.
When I pointed this out to my friend The Stat Man, he bet $500 to place on Smarty Jones. I bet all the money in my pocket, which was less than $500.
For the result, here’s Belmont announcer Tom Durkin, with a call whose emotional arc still makes my forearms tingle, even though I’ve watched the race more than a dozen times.
Smarty Jones enters the stretch to the roar of 120,000, but Birdstone is gonna make him earn it today. The whip is out on Smarty Jones. It’s been 26 years! It’s just one furlong away! Birdstone is an upset threat. They’re coming down to the finish. Can Smarty Jones hold on? Here comes Birdstone. Birdstone surges past. Birdstone … wins … the … Belmont … Stakes.
Smarty Jones paid $3.30 to place. He would have paid $2.70 to win. The Stat Man and I joyfully cashed our winning tickets. It was one of the most satisfying experiences of my gambling life.
Meanwhile, in the press box at Belmont, a woman sitting beside Washington Post handicapper John Scheinman noticed he wasn’t all that deflated by Smarty Jones’ defeat.
“You didn’t,” she said.
Scheinman had. Birdstone paid off at 36-1. Sarava, the horse who spoiled War Emblem’s Triple Crown, went off at 70-1. Da’Tara, winner of the race that Big Brown couldn’t finish, was 38-1. The only thing predictable about the third leg of the Triple Crown is that the favorite never wins.
If you can’t make it to a race track or an off-track betting parlor to take advantage of this 12-times-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you can bet legally online at twinspires.com or xpressbet.com. If you want to bet, here’s my advice: Belmont is offering a Daily Double wager with the Belmont Stakes and the Brooklyn Handicap—a one-and-a-half mile race that’s being held on Friday. I recommend betting a few horses in the Brooklyn (Eye on Jacob and Redeemed look pretty good), along with every horse you think will survive all the way to the finish line of the Belmont. Although Andrew Beyer points out that you would have nearly doubled your money if you’d bet every Belmont horse in the last 15 years to win, the Daily Double offers a greater profit margin. (Should my Brooklyn horses bomb out, I’ll bet Dullahan at the Belmont.) If I’ll Have Another goes off at 4-5, as the morning line and history predict, you’ll take a lot of money from people betting on a Triple Crown.