Parlaying the Triple Crown: Time for a Change?
As usual the week after the Belmont Stakes, I'm suffering from Triple Crown Letdown.
I always enjoy the time of year when our sport is most in the mainstream spotlight. Friends and family tune in, ask questions on social media, maybe get a little racing fever. Some might even be on the verge of becoming regular fans.
But then in a flash, it's over, and most of them wipe the sport off their radar for another 11 months.
Sure, I can tell people they've got to catch Saratoga and Del Mar, the great racing in the fall, and the Breeders' Cup, but there's something simple and compelling about the Triple Crown races that's so entrenched in American sporting tradition, it requires no explanation or extra encouragement to get people to watch.
So why can't we make this moment last longer?
In other sports, the comparable feats to the Triple Crown are spread out over several months. Golf's elusive Grand Slam and its four major tournaments take place in April, June, July, and August. The demanding tennis Grand Slam stretches from January to August or September.
The same goes for other nations with horse racing Triple Crowns. The English Triple Crown races are run in late April/early May, early June, with the final leg in September. The popular Japanese Triple Crown stretches from April to October. Canada's Triple Crown spans at least a couple of months.
Purists will argue that what makes the the American Triple Crown unique and special is the relatively short time off between races. But would it really be any less of an accomplishment if, for example, the Derby was in May, the Preakness in June and the Belmont in July, and there were three 14-horse fields? Based on the Triple Crown frequency in other countries, it's hard to argue that format would be any less demanding.
While the American Triple Crown has seen 11 winners since 1919, only 15 horses have won the English Triple Crown since 1853, and no horse has completed it since 1970. In Japan, a mere seven horses have taken all three races since 1941. Stretching out the American series would not be about making it easier to win the Triple Crown. It would be about expanding the sport's time in the limelight, making it easier to market and grow.
It would be taking a cue from major sports in the U.S. that have adapted to changing times and made their big moments more marketable. Baseball and football have added playoff spots, divisions, and post-season games. The NBA and NHL have altered playoff formats, lengths, and seedings. They've done this in the name of including the fans of more teams, stretching out their time on TV, increasing popularity, and yes, making more money. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Horse racing is a business too, driven by the almighty dollar, and while tradition is important, growth is perhaps more so. Survival surely is.
Even the American Triple Crown hasn't always been exactly the same. In 1917 and 1922, before it was dubbed the Triple Crown, the Preakness and Derby were run on the same day (talk about an impossible feat!). Eleven times, the Belmont took place before the Preakness, and the same number of times, the Preakness preceded the Derby.
For myriad reasons, our sport has already changed. Horses don't run as often. They're bred for commercial profit. Connections point for specific legs of the Triple Crown, skipping this one and that one. We can pine endlessly for the days when horses were bred to race, not retired so early, and could withstand the heat of battle more often, but that's not the reality. NFL rules have changed dramatically to protect players from concussions and other debilitating injuries, in an effort to ensure the sport's long-term survival. There was a time when hockey goalies didn't wear masks. Our sport features animals that require an even greater level of protection because they can't make decisions about their participation.
So in addition to the marketing aspects of a different Triple Crown format, there are other compelling reasons to make changes, not the least of which is the safety of the horses and the breed. It doesn't diminish the history of the game to change with the times and reflect our growing base of knowledge. It doesn't mean the sport is going soft. People can argue such things, but the NFL isn't going to return to its gladiator days. NHL goalies aren't going to drop their masks. And airlines aren't suddenly going to allow smoking again. Because we know better.
A May, June, July Triple Crown is just one idea. There could be others. Maybe the Belmont could be run in September, when it would serve as a terrific bridge to the Breeders' Cup races. The Breeders' Cup can run all the TV promos it wants during the current Triple Crown season, but the event is still five months away.
Not only would a Triple Crown spread out over a longer time period keep people coming back to the sport throughout the year, it might also prove a fairer and purer test of the 3-year-old. As it stands now, we are gauging each crop through a five-week window. Why is that the best test? Could it possibly be better to see them grow and mature and develop rivalries with each other? A Belmont Stakes later in the year, pitting more seasoned sophomores at the same demanding distance could be a superior race to the one we see now, after which there's always a lot of complaining about the (insert year) “weak” crop, many of whom physically are just barely 3-year-olds. We've also seen a lot of horses never race again.
An even more radical concept: Perhaps the Travers could be added to the mix and make it a four-race series. Maybe you've thought of other ideas.
I realize this has been tossed around before and that the chance of any change occurring is about as good as Frankel or Zenyatta returning to the racetrack, but constantly living in the past doesn't appear to be working all that well for the sport. Blindly clinging to tradition while competing sports and entertainment entities grow and change and adapt doesn't seem to be giving racing a better “look.” After recent Triple Crowns, mostly I just hear a lot of griping.
This wouldn't be a cure-all solution. Issues involving medication, safety, and the breed still need to be addressed in a larger way, but racing should at least consider something new and bold for the Triple Crown. As a series of races, it has stood the test of time, but these days, its benefits to a year-round game sure don't seem to last very long, and the end result doesn't appear to be a healthier, happier sport.