Schedule Change Can Make Triple Crown Even Tougher
Jeff Lowe is a former staff writer for Thoroughbred Times who currently handles media for Team Valor International
If California Chrome succeeds in ending the 36-year Triple Crown drought with a victory in the Belmont Stakes, he might be viewed as silencing the notion that the series could be improved with more time in between the three classics. Tom Chuckas of the Maryland Jockey Club was smart to raise the topic when his voice was heard by the most people in the days leading up to the Preakness and before the focus shifted to the possibility that California Chrome can prevail where 12 other horses have famously failed since 1978, at Belmont with the Triple Crown on the line.
Yet the idea that the American classics would be better races with a month in between the Derby and Preakness and another month in between the Preakness and Belmont does not just hinge on when and if another name is finally added to the list of 11 Triple Crown winners. The depth of the competition in the second and third legs is just as important.
When I wrote a story on this subject in 2011 for Thoroughbred Times, I asked a lot of people in the industry whether adding time in between the Triple Crown races would diminish the series. Trainer Steve Asmussen's answer really stood out: “If you make it easier, you make it less.”
I agree wholeheartedly. But I am not so sure that the task would be easier for a horse in California Chrome's position if the Triple Crown was spread out over eight weeks instead of five. Actually, I suspect it would be just the opposite: a longer series would lead to more horses from the Kentucky Derby participating in both the Preakness and Belmont, making the final two jewels just as elusive, if not more. Why? The opposing horses would be better.
Retention of horses from the Kentucky Derby is the key ingredient for a stronger series. A review of the last 35 Triple Crowns confirms, as one would expect, that horses that ran in the Derby are more successful in the Preakness and Belmont than the “new shooters.”
Simply put, the best 3-year-olds usually turn up for the first classic, but not enough of them continue on through the entire series. Since the last sweep in 1978, horses from the Derby have made up 51% of Preakness fields but accounted for 71% of the top three finishes and 83% of the winners — and that includes recent years when the Preakness often was the only time those horses ever raced back in two weeks.
This year, just three Derby runners came back in the Preakness, and they finished first, second and fourth. Similarly, horses who ran in the Derby have also been key factors in the final leg — they only represent 47% of Belmont runners in the last 35 editions, but they have delivered 66% of the placings and 57% of the wins.
Lately, Derby runners have been even more “live” in the Belmont, accounting for 11 winners since 1998 (69 percent). The problem is that seven of them did it after skipping the Preakness. Since 2000 when Commendable became the first horse in history to run in the Derby and then win the Belmont with no race in between, that route has been well traveled, most notably producing Triple Crown spoilers Empire Maker and Birdstone. During that same period, only Point Given and Afleet Alex have won the Belmont after participating in both the Derby and Preakness. Twice since 2000, no horses raced in all three legs, and three times only one horse has gone through the entire series, while the biggest group to compete in all three legs was four runners in 2001.
The tradition of the current Triple Crown schedule can only mean so much, considering it dates back to 1969, not 1869, and encompasses just three of the 11 Triple Crown winners. Since 1969, major league baseball has added a designated hitter and three playoff rounds, the NFL has instituted wild cards and umpteen overtime formats, and the NBA not only absorbed the rival ABA, but also adopted its three-point line.
Who is to say horse racing should be uniquely bound to “tradition”?
Triple Crown Winners and Their Schedule
Only the three most recent Triple Crown winners completed the sweep under the series' current schedule of three races in five weeks:
Preakness two weeks after Kentucky Derby, Belmont three weeks after Preakness:
Affirmed, 1978; Seattle Slew, 1977; Secretariat, 1973.
Preakness two weeks after Kentucky Derby, Belmont four weeks after Preakness:
Preakness one week after Kentucky Derby, Belmont three weeks after Preakness:
Assault, 1946; War Admiral, 1937.
Preakness one week after Kentucky Derby, Belmont four weeks after Preakness:
Count Fleet, 1943; Whirlaway, 1941; Omaha, 1935.
Preakness on a Friday, eight days before Kentucky Derby, Belmont three weeks after Derby:
Gallant Fox, 1930.
Preakness on a Wednesday, four days after Kentucky Derby, Belmont four weeks after Preakness:
Sir Barton, 1919.