Series Shake Up
Photo:
Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief
Horse racing can't let go of tradition. We have races at six furlongs, even though it might be easier for newcomers to better understand distances measured by 1,200 meters or three-quarters of a mile. Odds boards indicate one horse is 3-1, another is 3-2, and another 3-5. Wouldn't it make more sense to put up $3.00-1, $1.50-1, or $0.60-1 for those same horses, or perhaps show the projected mutuel payoff for a $2 wager?

There's no harm in keeping some of these arcane institutions, unless the sport decides it wants to get serious about making horse racing an easier game for neophytes to understand.

Another tradition that makes no sense in its current form is the annual springtime celebration known as the Triple Crown. This is the series of races that every breeder, owner, trainer, and jockey dreams of winning. It is a daunting task, stressful to horses and people, and not without casualties.

Over five weeks, starting the first Saturday in May, the best 3-year-old Thoroughbreds in the world are driven to succeed in what many have called the sporting world's most formidable challenge. No one has won it since Affirmed swept the series in 1978.

Over the last nine years, there have been eight horses to compete in all three and win two of the Triple Crown races. The most recent pair, Afleet Alex in 2005 and Smarty Jones in 2004, never raced again after the series was completed. Neither did 1999 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) winner Charismatic. Real Quiet, the 1998 Derby-Preakness winner, didn't race again until his 4-year-old season after losing the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) by a nose. Silver Charm, the 1997 Derby-Preakness winner, didn't race again until December of that year. Point Given, the 2001 Preakness-Belmont winner, had two subsequent starts at three before retiring, and 2002 Derby-Preakness winner War Emblem started three more times after the Belmont. Funny Cide, the 2003 Derby-Preakness winner, raced twice that year after the Belmont but failed to win.

The Kentucky Derby represents the first time American-trained horses race at 1 1/4 miles, and for most of them it will be the toughest, most demanding test they will ever have.

So how does racing reward those horses who ran well on the first Saturday in May? It asks them to come back two weeks later (something horses rarely do, even after an easy race) for the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, where they often find fresh competition awaiting them.

Those who survive the first two Triple Crown races get just three weeks to prepare for the Belmont Stakes. There is little time to recuperate after the Preakness for the Belmont, at the once-in-a-lifetime (for most) distance of 1 1/2 miles, which demands ultimate fitness. And waiting for the Derby-Preakness survivors, once again, will be a fresh horse, one who may have run and lost in the Derby and skipped the Triple Crown's middle leg, or a late-developing 3-year-old who wasn't pushed to make the Derby or Preakness and isn't battle-weary going into the Belmont.

There is nothing magical about the timing of the series. The current five-week sequence--in place since 1969--happened by accident, not through a planned process. Dates for these races, particularly the final two legs, can be changed without the Triple Crown losing any of its allure.

Horses today--for whatever reason--are racing fewer times during their careers. Trainers are handling them more carefully than ever before. Running a young horse through the obligatory Triple Crown prep races and then through the demanding series itself can take a toll--not just on the brave animals who try it but on a sport that suffers through the injuries of its best performers.

Let's give our horses a break and forget about tradition for a change.

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