Triple Crown isn't easy, and former winners like it that way
Even if you were only 18 the last time a thoroughbred won the Triple Crown, you've been old school for longer than you want to remember. That was Steve Cauthen's age in that glorious spring of 1978 when "The Kid" ran the table on Affirmed's back in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
That was the third sweep in six years, following Secretariat (1973) and Seattle Slew (1977), so the question surrounding the Triple Crown then wasn't "Will it ever happen again?" It was "Who's going to win it this year?"
In 1979, it was shocking that Spectacular Bid didn't when he ran third in the Belmont. No one could have imagined that 36 years after Affirmed's win, we still would be waiting for the 12th immortal to appear.
The racing world and millions of casual fans will be rooting hard for heavily favored California Chrome to become the next one in next Saturday's 146th Belmont. They also believed in Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004) and Big Brown (2008). All 11 failed, and two years ago, I'll Have Another was scratched the day before the race, making people conclude there never would be another.
Penny Chenery owned Secretariat, who ended a 25-year Triple Crown drought that began in 1949. On a recent conference call also featuring the connections of Affirmed and Seattle Slew, the 92-year-old first lady of racing speculated on why the trophy has been unclaimed for so long.
"Well, we don't breed horses for stamina so much these days, and we don't train horses to run so frequently," Chenery said. "Today's [stakes] horse will run maybe six times a year. We're asking these 3-year-olds to run three times in five weeks, at different distances and at different racetracks. There are unfamiliar settings for the jockeys, so you lose the home advantage."
Patrice Wolfson, Affirmed's co-owner, said: "I think the horses years ago were tougher, they campaigned harder, and they usually relished racing. They loved to run, particularly these Triple Crown winners of the '70s."
Chenery said she'll be coming from Boulder, Colorado, to root for "Chromie," who like Secretariat, is a flashy chestnut with white markings on his face and legs. Wolfson will have a much shorter trip from her summer home in Old Westbury, but her heart will be in the same place as Chenery's.
"I think California Chrome has that wonderful quality of versatility, and he's easy to rate and easy to ride," Wolfson said. "He has wonderful acceleration, and it's just going to be the question of whether he can handle the mile and a half. And handle the little traveling he's done, and I say little compared to our '70s horses."
Some have lobbied to change the Triple Crown to accommodate the more fragile modern thoroughbred. Although trainer D. Wayne Lukas is 78, he's not living in the past. He won his 14th classic last year with Oxbow in the Preakness. Lukas has said he would like to see the 1 1/4-mile Derby shortened to 11/8 miles and the 1 1/2-mile Belmont cut back to 11/4 miles.
Last month, Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas recommended changing the spacing of the 3-year-old classics.
"I respect tradition,' " Chuckas said, "but I also think tradition cannot impede the growth or betterment of the industry. The philosophy of the trainers has changed drastically over the years. It is hard for them to bring back a horse from the Derby in two weeks and run a horse three times in a five-week period. Most of them will not do it."
Only Ride On Curlin and General a Rod will challenge California Chrome for the third time.
Chuckas suggested keeping the Derby on the first Saturday in May but pushing back the Preakness and the Belmont to the first Saturdays of June and July, respectively.
"People might say you will have to put an asterisk by the horse who wins the Triple Crown under these conditions . . . But look at the NFL and all of its transformations. Do you really believe you should put an asterisk by the Seattle Seahawks because they won the Super Bowl under different conditions than the Green Bay Packers did in Super Bowl I? I don't think so."
None of the connections for the last three Triple Crown winners wants any changes. Chenery, Wolfson and Cauthen, along with riders Ron Turcotte (Secretariat) and Jean Cruguet (Seattle Slew) and Slew's co-owner, Dr. Jim Hill, and trainer, Billy Turner, consider such proposals horse heresy.
"I'm just against that," Chenery said. "I'm a traditionalist, and that's my only answer. I think it would invalidate all of the records and all of the times and make it an entirely different event.
"I guess the feeling is that since it hasn't been won for so long, people will lose interest in it, but that just makes it a more interesting challenge."
Wolfson believes that changing the format "would just be awful. It's a wonderful and unique set of races, and if they changed it, it would not work."
Cauthen agreed. "If you change it, it's not the same,'" he said. "It doesn't count."
Turner, 74, has been based at Belmont Park for 40 years and is the only living trainer to have earned racing's rarest trophy. Laz Barrera (Affirmed) died in 1991, nine years before Secretariat's Lucien Laurin. Turner doesn't want to cheapen the classics.
"The whole idea of the Triple Crown is to breed a horse with speed and stamina and the mind-set to stand the pressure of the campaign," Turner said. "If you change it, you give a lesser horse a chance to compete. Well, that's not what it's all about."