In this post, I want to explore California Chrome owner Steve Coburn’s idea about a dedicated Triple Crown series that eliminates the presence of horses just running 1 or 2 legs of the series. I also muse about the very idea of the ‘superhorse’, which is what we all want, anyway, right?
In light of the heated remarks on NBC, these in the immediate aftermath of the race one has to wonder about the context. Steve had probably never been in the limelight before, or to this level of prominence, and maybe his comments were well-meant toward his competition, but the mic remained in his face, and maybe he simply felt he was getting his money’s worth on national TV and certainly across the Internet, feeling he was never going to get this close to a mythical presence in racing history. Along those lines, I feel NBC did a disservice by not pulling away from his thoroughly emotional presence.
So what does Coburn want? And what do we want as fans?
We want a superhorse, one that will be talked about as a household word, much like Native Dancer, Seabiscuit and Secretariat were in the past; a horse who transcends imagination, more than a series of races. Younger fans will not remember the 3 Triple Crown winners of the 70s, and likely will not understand why the circumstances were in place for these wins to happen. The more serious fans, the handicappers, do understand why, and yet will not wager much on those heavy favorites, rather using the big favorites with Tonalist, or the horses who seem to have the stamina along with the speed and the right trip, and maybe the right amount of luck, knowing that 12 furlongs is such a guessing game in this modern age of racing. The industry, well, simply wants to rope the fans in, get them to wager, have fun while doing so, educate them fairly on the game, and hype the marquee horses. They care most about getting fans into the track, even if there is no classic race on the line. So there is polarity here, the supply and demand between the fans and industry, with the handicappers somewhere in between, all looking to the great places of power and might, and to those questionably bred equines.
Without having a sense of the strength of breeding, or lack of it, we are duped to believe that a Triple Crown win can be acheived in our generation of fans, let alone lifetimes. These 3 races were established in a time when racing in routes along the lines of 12 furlongs plus were much more commonplace, along with the fact that there weren’t always as many as 20 horses in the Derby, or even double digit fields in the other Crown races. It can be argued that, before the influential sire Native Dancer came along, there were so many more horses bred for stamina, on dirt, capable of winning these important races, and run more often, and win more often. I am not at all sure just when the thought process changed, but we are seeing too often horses that are retired before age 4 to the breeding shed after a relatively decent career. Or there are horses who are gelded, and we’ll never know to some degree whether Forego, Funny Cide, or John Henry would have passed on some amazing gene.
We hang on to these faded old calendars in horse racing in thinking the old ways will translate to an instant superhorse and not understand why the horse lost, except that he/she lost and, well, time to turn on the NBA playoff game. Hearing sports talk this week, I pick up a strong defeatist vibe from hosts among the very casual of equine fans. This is sad, and there has to be more education to have those people understand why it is so difficult to win a racing series like this. If we look at the current stakes calendar, as of this typing there are under 10 races left in 2014 contested on dirt that are even 10 furlongs in length. One is the Canadian Derby at Hastings, another is the Birdstone at Saratoga. The others take place at relatively minor tracks. During the year there are many other races of longer length, but they all take place in Europe or Japan, and often on turf.
Maybe what the Triple Crown needs is the presence of those horses running outside North America, to make these races equal the might and the pull of the Dubai World Cup, which does bring the best of the best worldwide. This is an undeniable fact. Our American races should certainly attract outsiders on the distance alone, yet few foreign horses have tried at all.
What the sport also should educate fans on is the importance of summer racing, inbetween the Derby Trail and the series of Breeders Cup preps. All of those baby races at all those minor tracks such as Pleasonton, Remington, Emerald Downs, Thistledown, Monmouth, and so forth. The love has to be cultivated and educated from these minor tracks and others to keep this sport even somewhat relevant compared to others.
We can only hope that stamina can be exploited more with each annual foal crop and not focus so much on speed. The number of foals may make it easier or harder for producing a superhorse, but I believe the prime focus is really about providing the best educated, informed guess as to what type of horse can handle running routes in an expedient timeframe like his or her pedigree. I stress this point to mean distance without regard to surface.
To sum up: Educate the fans and the handicappers better on breeding. Put more importance on the smaller, takeout-friendly tracks that care about the fans and encourage the running of longer distance races for 2YO and 3YO horses, along with opportunities there overall for older horses. I’d love to see a Triple Crown for older horses. I want the Triple Crown races to attract more horses that run on other continents. If we do not do this, the Triple Crown will remain a rusted relic. And if the pressures of delivering a better fan experience continue to mount, (as it has this year for Churchill Downs) and fans and handicappers withhold their virtual and physical wallets, it can irreparably damage the sanctivity of the big race there and maybe the Triple Crown itself.
The issue of changing the Triple Crown is rather thorny. I am wont to believe that breeding has the main impact on whether or not it will happen in any one year. Again, I’m not entirely sure when things changed for worse, but it seems we’re reaching at best to have a horse accomplish in the same manner than it was done in the 70’s or even in the 40s with smaller fields and fewer shooters. It’s been 36 years now. If we get to the 50-year mark and things do not change, then someone, probably some people who sit on the boards of NYRA, the Louisville Jockey Club, or the Maryland Jockey Club will stand up, and speak up and urge change. So what are the possible changes?
Distance: The distances are sacrosanct but they have changed in prior years nearly 100 years ago. Would it be sacreligious to move the Belmont to 10 furlongs, in line with the longest stakes races American racing offers? Yes, most likely. But, given the short time frame to make history, it’s impossible nowadays to get a horse to succeed in the Belmont.
Time: Does it make sense to space out the 3 races? Yes it does. It affects workout and travel plans, and certainly more time for rest and strategy. My ideal situation is to set up the First Saturdays in May, June, July. for the races.
The Coburn Idea: Limit the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to horses running in the Kentucky Derby. No new shooters.
I could only think of improving on this by involving all horses who were nominated and made the final list of 24 by the current point system (or, selfilshly, using my Enlightened Derby/Oaks Trail system) including also-eligibles. If I really had my druthers, I’d max the Derby at 14 runners, in line with the maximum number of runners in American racing. I’m honestly OK with Coburn’s idea, even if he says the grapes are sour. Fewer horses to challenge in the Belmont then. It would be like old times. Would it result in less nominations to the Derby, and therefore the series? Maybe so. Would that encourage better breeding, better for stamina? Undoubtedly. Or, should that read “Decidedly” (winner of the 1962 Derby)?
In the chart linked below I listed every shooter I could find that entered the Preakness and/or Belmont, and those who skipped 1 or 2 jewels. So there are 3 lists, and within, I list those who won and placed in the top 4 by name and by circumstance. I used data from www.kentuckyderby.com www.belmontstakes.com and www.drf.com to put these together. I used data going back to 1940 but did the math for all races going back to 1957. I could not locate data for several races (mainly the Preakness) prior to 1957. I’d welcome input on this to make this study more legitimate.
The critical stats: Of 273 horses who didn’t run in the Derby (nearly 5 per race), but ran the other two legs, 60 got into the top 4, and 15 won the Preakness. This includes 29 horses who would go on to run in the Belmont, where 14 placed in the top 4, and 3 won (Celtic Ash, Jaipur, Touch Gold). Of those who skipped just the Preakness, there were 111 of those horses (2 per race). 46 got into the top 4 in the Belmont, and 10 won out. The Belmont had 244 new shooters over the 58 races researched (4 per race), with 69 in the top 4, and 17 winners. Including the double entries (the 29), there were 928 new shooters in the Preakness and Belmont in the 116 races, a total of 8 per race. 187 earned a check (40%), and 39 won a race,(33% wins)
In 7 of those years, 2 new shooters won 2 jewels.
For a stat that would give Coburn ease, here’s this: in 2001, new shooters went 0-for-11 in placing in the top 4 in the Preakness or Belmont. In 1995 there were 15 new shooters, all failed to win out. The most new shooters in one year: 21, in 1983, with winners Caveat and Deputed Testimony. The most with a Triple Crown actually on the line: 19, as Da’Tara won in 2008 as a new shooter himself.
The fewest in any year: 3, in 1988. This might have been reactionary as the Triple Crown financial bonus was in its 2nd year of operation, and I do think it left its impact during its 19 year run. Coastal was one of just 4 new shooters in 1979, winning the Belmont that year, for a strike rate of 25%, best year of the study. Along those lines, 7 new shooters of a possible 8 filled the top 4 in the Preakness and Belmont in 1982.
With a Triple Crown on the line, Tonalist became the 8th new shooter since 1957 to win the Belmont and not race in the other 2 jewels. The other 7: Cavan, Stage Door Johnny, Coastal, Summing, Sarava, and Da’Tara. Among other Belmont upsets involving new shooters: Lemon Drop Kid, Empire Maker and Birdstone skipped the Preakness, and Touch Gold skipped the Derby
There’s more to study here but I’ll leave it for you to read and reminisce.