Another One Bites The Dust

Today California Chrome had a chance to take home The Triple Crown, if he could just cross the wire first.  Instead he finished in a deadheat for fourth.  From where I was sitting, he just didn’t have the distance in him, but quickly after the race we had a desk jockey (sports commentator) blaming the jockey for a bad ride (I disagree – thought the jockey did a great job) and a really upset owner claiming it was ‘the coward’s way out’ referencing how fresh horses showed up for the race (having not raced in either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness or both) and then having the other jockeys gang-up on his horse in the race.  No matter what side you’re on, horse racing gets people emotional.

I have a real issue with how Thoroughbreds are generally trained and prepared for racing (in North America).   It confounds me how almost every year we sit and ask the same question:  Will so and so be able to make the distance of The Belmont Stakes?  Heck, sometimes we’re asking that question at The Kentucky Derby.  While there are clearly horses of sprinting bloodlines, none of those are ever being aimed at The Triple Crown, why are the horses aimed at mile+ races not being trained and conditioned for the longest distance possible?  That just makes sense to me.  Even if the horse only ever races once in its life at that distance, it only makes sense to prepare for it.  It doesn’t hurt the horse to have more stamina then is used in most races.  I never trained my Standardbreds just a mile; that would have been stupid.  And it never was good if a horse staggered across the mile marker in a training session, even if that training session was at race speed.  Nope, I’ll never understand the thinking of these TB trainers.

Steve Coburn thinks that only the twenty horses that start The Kentucky Derby should be eligible to race in the The Preakness, and only those that race in both the first two legs should be eligible to race in The Belmont Stakes.  On one hand, he’s got a point.  On the other hand, how about you tell your trainer to condition your horse better and train for the distance, then you won’t feel cheated when your horse loses – Mr. ‘I got the NY Racing Commission to change their rules and allow my horse to wear a breathing strip’.

I’m disappointed another year has gone by without a Triple Crown winner.  Rest assured the day it happens, that horse and his team of humans will have deserved it…at least until someone claims it was a bad crop of three-year olds.

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  •  The jersey number of Phil Esposito.
  • The atomic number of bromine.
  • The US Interstate highway that runs between Texas and Minnesota. 

And the number of years without a Triple Crown winner. Orb (tracing back to Ruffian’s full sister, Laughter, on his dam’s side) was soundly beaten in the Preakness this past Saturday. I don’t think he ran badly – he did pass two in the stretch – but he fell victim to his need for a decent pace (opening half mile was quite slow) and being uncomfortable trapped on the rail. It leaves a lot of questions specific to the situation, but also on a broader front.

There were four Triple Crown winners in the 40’s and then none until Secretariat’s win in ’73 (followed by Seattle Slew in ’77 and Affirmed in ’78). We’re in a multi-decade long funk like we were between the 40’s and 70’s. Why? Are we going through a phase of breeding where the horses aren’t good enough, or has the competition and talent increased such that it’s nigh impossible for one individual to standout?

The Kentucky Derby is always the most traffic laden of the three races. I consider it the second hardest of the three to win based on the large field that always goes to post. A lot of expected winners have run into bad racing luck, getting shuffled back, getting trapped in the pack, being interfered with, or having to go extremely wide covering extra distance. Orb managed to stay out of trouble by settling near the back of the pack and then circling wide, which was right in his racing style wheelhouse. Everyone was practically gushing over his performance on an off-track, I thought it was okay.  He benefitted from a super fast opening and was passing tired horses.

The Preakness is the shortest of the trio and least suited to come-from-behind horses like Orb. Front runners and those with tactical speed have an advantage.  Oxbow, this year’s winner, ran a pretty impressive Derby finishing sixth.  He was near the front for all those super fast fractions and was the only front runner not to crawl home.  Once he got the easy lead in The Preakness with a sedate pace, the race was over.

The final leg, The Belmont, is the grueling mile and a half. The field is usually short for this race, the distance not an American TB favorite. A lot of horses have won the first two races only to have their crown denied at Belmont Park. Five horses won the Derby and Preakness in the 60’s only to lose in the Belmont. An additional two (to the three Triple Crown winners) did the same in the 70’s – that was a big decade in racing; one we’ve arguably been unable to repeat, three in each the 80’s and 90’s conquered the first two legs and another five have managed the task since the turn of the century.

There’s always a lot of talk about the timing of the three races; just two weeks between The Derby and The Preakness, and The Belmont three weeks after that. Three races in five weeks done by horses that typically only race once every couple of months or so. Of course, if the Triple Crown was for four or five year olds, with better training bases on more mature bodies instead of for three year olds in the spring…

The racing industry is desperately hoping for another Triple Crown winner to increase interest and support to a sector that’s been harshly criticised over the years; a horse that the people can rally behind. It won’t be this year.