Sunday, June 08, 2014

No Crown Again

Tonalist was the winner of the 146th Belmont Stakes on Sunday, getting past the game Commissioner in the final strides to win a photo in the "Test Of Champions". Medal Count ran third and there was dead-heat for fourth between Wicked Strong and Triple Crown hopeful, California Chrome. Tonalist, who won the Peter Pan Stakes over the same Belmont oval, ran the mile and a half in a time of 2:28.52. Jockey Joel Rosario won his first Belmont Stakes in the process, as did trainer Christophe Clement.

In the aftermath of the defeat, the co-owner of California Chrome, Steve Coburn, went off on a nationally-televised rant about how Tonalist and his connections took "the coward's way out" in skipping the first two legs of the Triple Crown and spoiling the party everyone had planned. While I believe that most of this was a bit of shock in losing and a bit of sour grapes, Coburn also missed the point that one of the horses that beat California Chrome, Medal Count, ran eighth in the Kentucky Derby and the horse that finished in a dead-heat with California Chrome, Wicked Strong, finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby. So, in essence, Coburn managed to go from good ol' country boy that charmed the nation while coming from nowhere to a sore loser whose basic argument was flawed from the beginning. I could only think of the comparison between this and the charm and class someone like Marylou Whitney displayed when Birdstone defeated Smarty Jones and spoiled his Triple Crown bid in 2004. Whitney actually APOLOGIZED in the Winner's Circle for winning the Belmont Stakes and taking away from the history of the day.

Tonalist was actually supposed to be on the Triple Crown trail with everyone else before an illness forced him out of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. What we saw yesterday was actually a testament to how good a trainer Christophe Clement is to get this horse back in the game so quickly and to get him back in the form that made him a winner. Commissioner, the runner-up, actually ran in some of the prep races for the Kentucky Derby (Fountain Of Youth, Sunland Derby, Arkansas Derby), so do those races not count? Yes, he was unable to earn the points to get a spot in the gate in Louisville, but the horse still put forth the effort to get to the Derby and couldn't do it. Under the way the Triple Crown is currently constituted, both of these horses had every right to be in the starting gate on Saturday and play spoiler to California Chrome.

Now, if you want to change the way the Triple Crown is currently constituted, that's a different story. For some reason, everyone in the racing industry seems to think that the races cannot be moved. Steven Crist of the Daily Racing Form (it's good to have him back, by the way) wrote last week that an argument that I like to put forth is irrelevant. In 1919, Sir Barton won the Preakness just four days after the Kentucky Derby and Gallant Fox won the Preakness FIRST eight days before the Derby in 1930. Let's also include the fact that Sir Barton ran in the Withers five days after the Preakness and before the Belmont. Crist referred to these as "oddities". I will disagree with him on this point because this is just how those races were scheduled in those days of yore. They weren't oddities in 1919 and 1930. I also will offer that the travel in the bygone era was a whole lot more difficult than it is 2014.

In the same piece, Crist quoted Penny Chenery, owner of Secretariat, saying "I'm just against that", and Patrice Wolfson, who raced Affirmed, saying "It would just be awful". I can see where these grand ladies of racing are coming from. They are connected with the horses that accomplished the feat in the five week span that the Triple Crown is currently run in. They are (and should be) protecting the memories of their super horses of the 1970s. The name of Affirmed always surfaces when someone wins the Kentucky Derby and Preakness like California Chrome did. If someone wins the Triple Crown now, it won't dim the memories of these great champions. What it will do is just further emphasize the greatness of those horses when we examine the gap of time between Triple Crown champions.

We are now almost in a similar time frame between the time of Gallant Fox to Secretariat and Secretariat to California Chrome. In the same way that what Secretariat did in the five week Triple Crown schedule of 1973 took nothing away from what Gallant Fox did over four weeks in 1930, it should take nothing away from a horse that won the Triple Crown today if the schedule were altered. What tends to be forgotten in these incessant arguments is that the breeding  and racing of the Thoroughbred has changed quite a bit in the intervening forty year periods. In Gallant Fox's day, stamina was paramount. In Secretariat's day, stamina was important, but so was speed. Now, speed has become the all-important factor in breeding, far more so than stamina.

It might be unrealistic to expect any horse to run 1 1/4 miles, 1 3/16 miles, and 1 1/2 miles and do it successfully over the space of five weeks. It might also be unrealistic to expect a horse to win these three races when you constantly have "new shooters" dropping into these races after they pass earlier races in the series. There are tremendous obstacles to any horse trying to win the Triple Crown. One of those appears to be that the horse is not allowed to be at his best or properly rested for all the races. I, personally, don't think it takes away from any horse that would accomplish the Triple Crown if the timetable was changed. You are talking about three distances that are rarely, if ever, seen in North American dirt racing anymore. They are three remarkably testing distances for any three-year-old to run, never mind do it all over the space of five weeks.

In the final analysis, I don't see the Triple Crown series changing much, if at all, in the future. The traditionalists in the industry either wouldn't stand for it or discredit any horse that would manage to win all three races if they were more spread out. I think that to discredit any horse that would win all three races, regardless of when they were run, is to do a disservice to that horse. No one discredited Secretariat and Affirmed when they polished off the Triple Crown on a different schedule than Sir Barton and Gallant Fox. We are in a different era now and the sport (and its traditionalists) need to adapt to the changing times. Otherwise, in the other final analysis, I don't see anyone winning the Triple Crown anytime soon.

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