Update, June 8, 2012: Today’s scratch and retirement of I’ll Have Another on account of a swollen left front tendon confirms my conviction that the Triple Crown has become a detriment to horse racing. The pursuit is too much, too soon for the modern 3-year-old. I’ll Have Another’s inflamed tendon makes him another Triple Crown casualty, along with Barbaro (who broke his leg in the Preakness two weeks after winning the Kentucky Derby) and Big Brown (who was found to have a crack in his hoof after the Preakness and finished ninth in the Belmont). If I’ll Have Another had been brought along more slowly, who knows how long his career might have lasted. He might have become an enduring champion, instead of ending his career as a one-month flash in the pan.
Instead, we have a 12th consecutive Triple Crown tease. It’s getting old. I no longer expect a Triple Crown winner. When will other sports fans lose interest? Now NBC has to air the most anti-climactic Belmont Stakes in history, and Belmont Park has to promote a race that just became a lot less interesting. I won’t be betting on the Belmont, without I’ll Have Another inflating the odds on the rest of the field. It still may be a great race, but without the Triple Crown hype, it loses meaning.
Triple Crown Productions—which lost Visa as the guarantor of its $5 million bonus after 2005—should find a new sponsor to fund a prize for a different series of races. For the sake of the sport—and of future 3-year-olds—I hope they do.
(Although, in fairness, if I'll Have Another had won the Triple Crown, he probably would have been retired to stud immediately -- another way the series discourages long careers.)
It’s time to stop running the Triple Crown. The three-race series confirmed the greatness of War Admiral, Omaha, Citation, Secretariat, and seven other horses whose colors are displayed beside the Belmont Park finish line. But it’s become an impossible feat, an anachronistic embarrassment to horse racing, a challenge that exposes the weaknesses of the modern Thoroughbred rather than celebrating its strengths. Since 1979, 11 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. All 11 have lost the Belmont Stakes. On Saturday, I’ll be betting that I’ll Have Another becomes the 12th.
As Bill Finley recently pointed out on ESPN.com, Preakness/Derby winners went 10-for-18 at the Belmont from 1930 to 1978. But that was when horses were bred to run longer distances and hardened with grueling race schedules. The last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, had 16 career starts before his victory in the 1978 Belmont; I’ll Have Another has raced only seven times. “Trainers have found a way to give horses lengthy breaks between races and then have them deliver top efforts when they actually do compete,” Finley explains. “But when it comes to the Triple Crown—three races in five weeks—the modern horse clearly has a tough time handling what becomes a very taxing situation.”
Today’s horses are bred for speed, not endurance. They’re designed to win the six-furlong and one-mile races that make up the majority of racetrack cards. They’re not bred and trained for the classic distances—a mile-and-a-quarter in the United States (the length of the Kentucky Derby), a mile-and-a-half in Europe. The reason for this, arch handicapping nerd Andrew Beyer explains in the Washington Post, is that breeding is no longer dominated by the aristocratic families—the Vanderbilts, Whitneys, and Phippses. These pillars of the equestrian class had the money and the patience to develop horses that could fill the Big House with prestigious trophies. Nine of the 11 Triple Crown horses were owned by their breeders. The Woodward family’s Belair Stud breeding farm produced Omaha and Gallant Fox. The Wright family’s Calumet Farm raised Whirlaway and Citation. Now, most horses are bred for sale at auction. I’ll Have Another was sired at Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky and purchased for $35,000 at Florida’s Ocala Breeder Sales.
Given the realities of today’s Thoroughbred world, it’s time to either revamp this relic of racing’s Gilded Age or stop contesting it. To the ESPN-watching mook, the Triple Crown is the equivalent of the golf or tennis Grand Slam, the pinnacle of achievement in the sport. Every year a horse wins the Derby and the Preakness, Jay Leno reserves a seat for the Triple Crown-winning trainer. As a result, the only time I’ve ever seen horse racing mentioned on The Tonight Show was when the soon-to-be-fired Conan O’Brien joked about blowing NBC’s money by buying Derby winner Mine That Bird.