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Triple Crown Hysteria

Before I keyboard another sentence, I want to say that I think that all this Triple Crown hysteria is pretty stupid. I say this for two reasons: first, I’m going to get a lot of clicks on this piece, because everyone who Googles “Gelfand stupid” will read this monograph. Second, I really do think that the Triple Crown is a horrible excuse for its intended purpose, which is to define the best three year olds in America and, with any luck, produce a Triple Crown winner who would, in turn, guarantee a publicity jackpot.

This is the point at which I remind you that no one has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 and then I talk about Seattle Slew and Secretariat and all that, but you know all this stuff. This isn’t The Huffington Post, for God’s sake; it’s a horse racing blog.

Now, I think all of us would agree that a Triple Crown champ would be wonderful, and that we could use some good news these days. If I’ll Have Another wins the Belmont, we’re not going to return to the glory days of 1938, when the nation stopped to listen through the radio static to the match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit. But we’d get some feel-good stories and maybe a few more people in the grandstand. (Please, dear racing Gods, don’t let some Middle East oil billionaire snatch up I’ll Have Another before the Belmont.)

Having said that, I have to add that by my criteria, Bodemeister is still the best three-year-old out there and that folks have been mighty kind to Mike Smith, who tried to win the Kentucky Derby by sprinting, quarterhorse style, from beginning to end. I think the world, or at least an entire hemisphere, of Mike Smith, and you could argue that he’s as good as anyone else out there except Rafael Bejarano. But please… Smith did everything but scream “Wahoooo!” as he raced around the Twin Spires.

A guy who has been riding horses for 35 years can probably tell if his charge is on a pace to run six furlongs in 1:09 and change. I know some folks say that the trainer told him to let the horse set his own pace, but it takes a mighty stupid (more clicks) jockey to stick with a mighty stupid strategy. I always thought the most worthless thing any trainer could say to a jockey was “Get the lead, but don’t go too fast,” but those words are like wisdom handed down from Zion compared to “Let him set his own pace.”

So, in my mind, the Triple Crown isn’t really going to prove much of anything, except that the day is long gone when a horse can run the Kentucky Derby as if it were a five furlong dash and then come back two weeks later and win the Preakness.

The problem with the Triple Crown in general is that it long ago ceased to be a valid test of greatness and, instead, turned into a battle for survival. Even though we don’t precisely know why, we know that horses can’t run as far or as often as they once did. In terms of fitness and endurance, the breed in general has regressed to the mean. The American classic distance is now a solid six furlongs.

In 1823 – going back just a hiccup in time, at least in anthropological terms – Eclipse and Sir Henry turned out 60,000 spectators in New York for the Match Race of the Century. Not only did they race four miles, but they did it three times in one day, pausing just long enough to cool down and allow rival fans to call each other names, exchange blows, and bet even more money against each other.

So, if your argument is that we can’t change anything about the Triple Crown because we have to stick to horse racing tradition… I got your tradition right there. The paradigm has already shifted.

Now that we all agree on that, a fellow could probably make an argument for running all three Triple Crown races at, say, a mile, but that might be going too far (irony intended) and it would never happen anyway.

Still, we can find a compromise that allows a more realistic test of greatness by providing horses with reasonable and ordinary recovery time between races. I say run the races five or six weeks apart. Just for starters, we’d have a lot better chance of producing a Triple Crown, and the horse that won said Triple Crown might even be the best of his generation. We’d also build up the anticipation to the races, which is mostly the idea anyway. And more time would allow other three-year-olds to pad their resume, simply get better, and make each race more meaningful and competitive than the last.

For those who cannot abandon tradition, I understand. But horse racing tradition these days means weak fields and, ultimately, no Triple Crown champion since Affirmed.

I still say Alydar was better.

This blog was written by Twin Cities Radio Personality Mike Gelfand. Gelfand can be seen at Canterbury on Today at the Races every Friday night with Paddock Analyst Angela Hermann.