Hanson: England gets its Triple Crown right, why can't we?
Despite the recent trends, the public's apparent satisfaction with the current five-week Triple Crown window remains intact.
The drumbeats and clamoring for changes in spacing between the three Triple Crown events has gotten noticeably louder in recent weeks, the result of a disturbing trend this year in which there was little continuity in field composition for the Preakness (G1) and Belmont (G1) after the always-popular Kentucky Derby (G1).
Critics of the current format...
Critics of the current format — two weeks between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont — argue the current spacing is anachronistic in an era when horses are not as stoutly bred, and that the horsemen who just so happen to have a disproportionate number of the leading three-year-olds under their care prefer to give them more time in between starts.
Some of these critics also argue that the current spacing should not be considered sacrosanct anyway because it's never been uniform. Why, just look at the spacing back in the days when mass communication was restricted to radio, movie house newsreels, and newspapers! It's a time most of us clearly recall with fondness, I'm sure.
The basic counter-argument is that the five horses who accomplished the feat in the color television era did so in the spacing that exists today and are considered the yardstick by which all future Triple Crown winners are judged. Any deviation from the course those five took to attain the goal would make it impossible for a future Triple Crown winner to be looked at in the same vein.
The arguments regarding breeding and modern training methods actually raise a different question not many are asking:
Is the Triple Crown itself anachronistic?
The mother country of Thoroughbred racing, England, has its own Triple Crown consisting of the 2000 Guineas (G1), Derby (G1), and St Leger (G1). Routinely won in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the series has been swept only twice since the First World War and not at all since Nijinsky did so in 1970. Since then three horses have won the first two legs, but only one, Camelot (2012), even attempted to win the St Leger (he finished second).
The main reason why the English Triple Crown has not been won more frequently is that the breeding of Thoroughbreds long ago became specialized. Though there is occasional overlap, European-based Thoroughbreds with classic aspirations are generally divided into milers, middle-distance performers, and stayers.
The calendar placement and distances of the three English Triple Crown events have remained virtually unchanged for far longer than the U.S. classics.
The calendar placement and distances of the three English Triple Crown events have remained virtually unchanged for far longer than the U.S. classics. The only material difference is that they are now run on Saturdays rather than mid-week (and that seemingly innocuous change has greatly diminished the Derby in the public's consciousness vis-a-vis other sports held the same day). The series is still there, but for the occasional one-off every 40 years or so is no longer considered a goal worth pursuing by most horsemen.
American racing, centered for the longest time in the public's consciousness around the Triple Crown, is obviously different. It is the one event that attracts a mainstream audience to the sport, which is unfortunate if the modern three-year-old Thoroughbred is not physiologically equipped to and/or handcuffed by regimented training practices to run in three races over the span of five weeks. All of which, by the way, were and are choices made by humans.
Despite the recent trends, the public's apparent satisfaction with the current five-week Triple Crown window remains intact. The continued growth of the Kentucky Derby speaks for itself, while the Preakness and Belmont Day programs remain among the top four betting cards of the year with more than $100 million wagered on both. There is no guarantee field continuity would improve or that the general public would embrace any changes in dates that encroach on their own long-held summertime habits and traditions.
If that is indeed the case, rather than fiddle with the dates of the races, perhaps the Triple Crown — like handicaps and boutique race meets — should become a relic of a glorious but bygone era in American racing. Leave it as is for those inclined to try and win it, but don't change it beyond all recognition.
Messing with what works in the sport has been done to death during the last 50 to 60 years. How has all that turned out?
A version of this article appeared at Brisnet.com on June 10, 2014