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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Time For A Change?

- Dick Jerardi has had enough.

Smarty Jones never raced past the Belmont Stakes. Nor did Afleet Alex. Poor Barbaro is just trying to survive after the Preakness. This can't be a coincidence.
So Jerardi proposes a radical change to the Triple Crown:
The Derby stays right where it is - first Saturday in May. The Preakness goes to the first Saturday in June. The Belmont is run the first Saturday in July. With that, there would be at least 4 weeks between each race. Some years, depending on the calendar, there might be 5 weeks if a Saturday came in the first few days of a month.

While we are changing things, get rid of the mile-and-a-half Belmont. Like the 2 weeks, 3 weeks, that is another thing that is never done anymore - except in one race. It's just stupid. The sport has changed. Make the Belmont a mile and a quarter. [Philly Daily News]
Not so fast, buster. I’m not going along with this; I’m FAR too much of a traditionalist. Watching the Preakness on a June 5th would remind me of June 12, 1997, that eerie night when the Texas Rangers hosted the San Francisco Giants in the first interleague game. I’d hoped right up until the very end that somebody, somewhere would step in and stop this madness before it was too late. Because once that line was crossed, there was no going back.

The Triple Crown series hasn’t always been quite the same – Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, won the Preakness four days after the Derby, and the Belmont four weeks after that. Oh, yeah, he won the Withers in between. But that’s still three wins in five weeks (in this case, a bit less), and most of us have known it all our lives the way it is now. And there would be no going back if it’s ever changed.

Jerardi is one of many who are telling us that the breed has changed because of too much emphasis on speed. But not everyone believes that. Self-proclaimed Pedigree Goddess Anne Peters contends that "What has changed in recent years is everything but the horse."
She believes trainers from the 1970s -- the last golden era of thoroughbreds, which saw Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed win Triple Crowns in 1973, 1977 and 1978, respectively -- learned under the "old-timey trainers" who worked in the industry during the '30s, '40s and '50s.

"I don't think we have trainers learning the same techniques," Peters said. "If you weren't raised and schooled by an old-time horseman, you don't know those tricks." [AP]
Regardless of whether the breeders or trainers or anyone else is at fault, there appears to be a problem. That problem is not, however, the fact that nobody has won it since 1978. What would be a problem is if it was won with regularity; then it wouldn’t be special anymore. It’s supposed to be hard, and if it is, so be it. I don’t think that 120,000 people would pack Belmont if it was won every other year.

The perceived problem is that too many horses that compete in the series break down or retire. Jerardi picks out three in Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, and Barbaro. But before we destroy an established tradition, has anyone compared the number of breakdowns and injuries sustained by Triple Crown horses as compared to the rest of the horse population? Is it possible that it’s just been magnified because of all the attention? I’m just asking.

Looking back at horses that ran in both the Derby and Preakness last year, two prominent names, Afleet Alex and Closing Argument, never raced after the Triple Crown; High Fly is retired now. But other horses are still in action. Giacomo is one of them, though he hasn’t been very good. Buzzards Bay turned in one of the more impressive performances of the year in the Oaklawn Handicap. [EDIT - Sorry, he did not run in the Preakness; my error.] Sun King won that graded sprint stakes on Blue Grass day. High Limit won two Grade 2’s early in the year. Wilko was huge in the Dubai World Cup. Noble Causeway has recovered from his Saratoga fiasco and put in some nice efforts. Greeley’s Galaxy and Galloping Grocer are still racing. I don’t really know if Going Wild is still in training; but I still can’t believe that Lukas ran him back in the Preakness.

So, at least six out of the ten who ran in the races two weeks apart are still racing, some of them extremely well. I know this is just a one year sample, and I’m not being paid enough to go back through more years at this time. But my point is that in order to determine if there’s a problem, you have to examine the matter statistically and rationally before jumping to conclusions that are based on the emotion of the time. I don’t know that that’s being done in all the post-Preakness hand wringing.

But maybe Jerardi turns out to be right, and the series is just too grueling for the modern day horse? And that we’re going to have too many more Barbaros if the series isn’t spaced and the Belmont not shortened? Well, then, do it. Just don’t call it the Triple Crown anymore. While it would still be challenging, you just wouldn’t be able to give a horse who won it the same title of Triple Crown Champion as the ones who had the class and endurance to win it as it was meant to be.

- Ms. Peters chalks the injury up not to flaws in Barbaro's breeding, but to plain “bad luck.”
"Dynaformer," Peters said of Barbaro's sire, "has tremendous bone like you rarely see on a thoroughbred. He gets horses that can run across parking lots." [Albany Times-Union]

8 Comments:

Walter said...

...i agree with Jerardi, at lesat to some extent...the Triple Crown is causing trouble, and the madness needs to stop...but i'm a realist, and i know enough to realize that it WON'T stop, at lesat not as long as there are HUGE breeding dollars at stake for any horse who wins the Derby, or to a lesser extent one of the other races...so if there's still gonna be a mad rush to the Derby, we should at least make it less taxing on the animals involved...part of the biggest problem, i think, i the pre-Derby rush, which doesn't even encompass the Triple Crown series...just making it to the Derby in the first place is tough enough on a horse like Showing Up, who ran just two weeks beforehand and came out of that race with some kind of physical issue...it's probably a good thing he didn't win the Derby, because then he would've been rushed right back into the Preakness...and if he ran well there, then the Belmont...and these spring/summer 3yo's aren't even fully grown or mature yet...that's a problem also...as fdor the races themselves, keep in mind it's not just their proximity to one another, but also the fact that they're very long races (by American standards), and there's also shipping involved...it's not as if these horses are running six furlongs over the same racetrack 3 times in a 5 week period...if nothing else, spacing the races farther apart would give the animals a bit of a break...and what's wrong with that?...to me, the animals' collective well-being is a helluva lot more important than tradition...as for shortening the Belmont, i'd be opposed to that, as it's only redeeming quality (in my opinion) is it's uniqueness...we have enough 1 1/4 mile races in this country already...the Belmont is the only Grade 1 race on dirt at that distance, so leave it alone...but yeah, push it back some...that wouldn't hurt anybody...i think a month between each of the races makes a lot more sense than the way they're doing it now...and for God's Sake, cut down the size of that Derby field...20 horses are completely unnecessary, and the bulky field robs some legitimate contenders of their fair chance (take Brother Derek for example)...

...ps...i'm a pretty big baseball fan, and i enjoy interleague play...always have...i think it's cool to see the Yankees play the Mets, or the White Sox play the Cub, and so on and so forth...back in the day, when there was very little player movement, then it might've made sense to keep the leagues seperate, and set up the big NL/AL clash in the World Series...but nowadays, so many players are changing leagues each year via free-agency, the leagues just aren't that different anymore...might as well lets the teams play each other, and offer some nice regional rivalries...myself, i grew up a Houston Oiler fan, and the last pre-season game every year we'd play the Cowboys...never played them during the regular season though...it would've been cool if played them once a year, when the game really meant something...

thecalicocat said...

Tradition and $3.50 will get you a latte at Starbucks. (Maybe we should go back to the set shot in basketball and the single wing in football. If we went beyond the realm of sports I could really cheap shot you on what some people might consider "tradition" but I won't do that.)
Jerardi's job as a columnist is to promote discussion of timely issues. He does his job quite well -- and has the background and experience to be taken seriously.
I think he deserves a little more respect than "not so fast, buster."

Nick said...

The Triple Crown is difficult. Its supposed to be difficult. Horses that conquer it are truly special. Changing the dates isnt the answer. Mike Matz was on the right track. He trained a very talented horse to be fresh for all three races. Today's trainers want their cake and eat it too. Too many racing options. Tough opponent? Duck him and ship him to another track that is offering a stakes with less competition on the same day. There are no handicap races left. They refuse to carry weight. So we are left with 3 pound weight pulls in what are supposed to be handicap races. Top weight is usually 119 120. How fast would Dr Fager had gone with 14 to 18 pounds less to carry? The game has changed over the last 30 years or so. It will continue to change. Not always for the better or the bettor for that matter. Poly Track, jocks refusing to ride on sloppy tracks....space the TC races over 3 months, Hell why not?

Green Mtn Punter said...

Alan, amen on your Triple Crown comments! Ted Williams once famously said that hitting a baseball is the most difficult thing to do consistently in all of sports- except, I would add, for winning the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing. I am very much a traditionalist as are you and would not like to see the TC series changed. Were it deemed necessary to change, I would drop the Preakness, leave the Belmont as is, and make the Travers in August the 3rd Jewel(instead of the "4th Jewel" as it now is). Tradition is preserved as the Travers, being the nation's oldest stakes race (1863 inaugural running)is more than a worthy successor to the Preakness, and is run at Saratoga, the "Crown Jewel" of American racetracks.

Christina said...

Hey Alan...let me just say first the Going Wild IS still running. After the Preakness, Lukas had him take on Lost in the Fog in the Riva Ridge AND the King's Bishop. (Why?? I don't know.) After running 3rd in an allowance at Turfway in Oct. of 05, he made his first start of 06, last Thursday at Chruchill at 5f on turf in an AOC for an $80,000 tag. He ran 5th.
I'm a few $$ in on this horse, and I still can't get him at higher than 8-1.

Other than that...I agree with you on your triple crown comments. I say leave it as is. Every year something happens to contemplate the altering of the Triple Crown series. Last year it was cap the Derby gate at 14 so Afleet Alex wouldn't have burned up in traffic. The year before it was shorten the Belmont so Smarty Jones wouldn't have lost by a length. This year, its mandate Polytrack.

*Shrug* I'm with you. I say, leave it alone.

alan said...

>>Jerardi's job as a columnist is to promote discussion of timely issues. He does his job quite well -- and has the background and experience to be taken seriously.

I think he deserves a little more respect than "not so fast, buster.">>

I think Jerardi is great, and look, he's done his job of promoting discussion. In this particular case, I happen to disagree with him, and rather vehemently. If I didn't respect and like him, he'd get a lot worse than "not so fast, buster."

Anonymous said...

The Triple Crown is the last thing in the sport that actually grabs the attention of the general public, mostly because they understand how difficult it is to accomplish. Why would anyone want to change that?

Most of the horses that retire after the Belmont do so to enter stud duty, not because of the rigors of the campaign. They often use injury as an excuse, but the real reason is economics. The insurance premium on Smarty Jones would approximate $3 Million. Why would anyone pay that to continue racing?

Anonymous said...

If we cut the Belmont to 11/4 miles, horses like Real Quiet and Smarty Jones would win it, and the Triple Crown would become meaningless. Lets start doing everything we can to make racing safer- promoting slower, deeper, and more uniform track surfaces, researching those factors that lead to breakdowns and injuries, clamping down on illegal drugs for once and for all, promoting and rewarding those horses who are consistent and can run at a classic distance, ect. The solution is to have more stakes races at longer distances, not less. Make it more profitable to breed horses that are strong and consistent, not just fast.

And why should a sports writer get any more respect than anybody else, particularly a sports writer that proposes a dumb idea.