Should We Change the Triple Crown?

May 16th, 2014

by Andrew Champagne








“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

History buffs will recognize that long sentence from President John F. Kennedy’s speech that declared the United States would put a man on the moon in the 1960’s. It’s a captivating speech, one with lasting morals: Challenge yourself, and ultimately, you’ll be rewarded.

How does this apply to horse racing? Well, I found myself answering the cries of activists lobbying to change the setup of the Triple Crown with that exact passage.

Louder than ever, it seems, are the protests from horse racing’s upper crust that the timing of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes is impractical. Running three times in five weeks is unreasonable, they say, and winning all three? Why, that hasn’t been done since Affirmed in 1978, so surely something needs to be done, right?


The Triple Crown isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be the greatest challenge in this game – maybe all of sports – a series of roadblocks that separate the good horses from the legends.

Sure, nobody has won all three in 36 years, but look how close several Thoroughbreds have come: Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Smarty Jones were denied in the final strides of the Belmont. Big Brown got stepped on by a maiden who had no business running that day and lost interest in what was the only loss of his brilliant career. Charismatic ran a game third despite a career-ending injury, one that could have been much worse if not for the actions of jockey Chris Antle. And, of course, I’ll Have Another never got a chance to attempt the sweep after suffering a career-ending injury of his own.

The Triple Crown is by no means unattainable. Some would argue that Real Quiet was actually on the winning end of the photo finish that showed him losing the Triple Crown by the smallest of whisker-level margins. Others argue that the only true freak in the half-dozen previously mentioned was Big Brown.

The other issue I have, of course, has to do with tradition. The Preakness is run two weeks after the Derby, and the Belmont three weeks after that. Changing the schedule of races to make them easier to win isn’t sporting, nor is it fair to one of the few athletic spectacles left unchanged for decades. It would purely be a cash grab designed to ensure fuller fields of horses that, right now, can’t compete in all three legs for whatever reason.

Furthermore, changing this series would merely be appeasement, a policy that has never worked in any setting. If the changes proposed by Ogden Mills Phipps and others do go through, how long will it be until the powers-that-be decide the newer, more forgiving schedule isn’t forgiving enough? 10 years? More? Less?

All of a sudden, you’re looking at a situation where the Derby is run in May, the Preakness is run on the Fourth of July, and the Belmont, which at this point would probably be the Travers (thus completely wrecking that race), is held at some point around Labor Day weekend.

Does anyone ANYWHERE want that? I hope not. That isn’t the Triple Crown we all grew up savoring, the series of races that separated icons of this sport from the really good horses we see every year.

If these changes somehow go through, I urge the powers-that-be to make one final change: Call this new series of races something else. The Triple Crown is accomplished by winning three trying races over a five-week span, not by taking breathers and running when it’s convenient to do so. In fact, that’s what we should call this new series: The Triple Breather, sponsored by Breathe-Right nasal strips (sorry, Yum! Brands).

The proposed changes are lazy solutions to a sport that deserves better and rarely gets it. Any changes would be insults to fans who know better than to accept this sort of thing sitting down, and it’s my hope those who are as offended as I am by this possibility stand up and make their voices heard.