Sunday, May 4, 2014

Can California Chrome Win the Triple Crown?

As expected, California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby yesterday.

I watched the race, as I always do. I enjoyed the spectacle of the thing. I reminded myself that someday I would really like to go to Churchill Downs to watch the Kentucky Derby in person.

It isn't a Bucket List kind of thing. I know that you've probably got to have connections with people who have connections to people who have connections to the Derby merely to be able to watch from the grandstand. During my days as a sports copy editor, I knew a handicapper rather well, and he might have been such a connection for me then. But that was many years ago, and my friend is now deceased. The odds against my ever going to the Kentucky Derby must be incredible.

So it will remain the sort of thing I would like to do, but it isn't the sort of thing I absolutely positively must do, before I die. And that's OK.

Anyway, as I say, I enjoyed the spectacle of the race. It's always exciting for me to watch those horses running around that track, but each year it seems I care less about who wins — and more about whether he can win the other two races in the Triple Crown, the Preakness in two weeks and the Belmont in early June.

It has been nearly 36 years since Affirmed became the most recent horse to win the Triple Crown. Since I'll probably never get to see a Kentucky Derby in person, I would like to witness a Triple Crown winner.

There are those who follow horse racing who will tell you that a Triple Crown can not be won — but they have been saying that for decades, whenever there is a gap between Triple Crown winners. Thirty–six years and counting is the longest such drought in Triple Crown history, which encourages the naysayers all the more.

The Kentucky Derby is the clean slate for the Triple Crown. Once it is over, there is only one horse that can win the Triple Crown that year. But before the Run for the Roses, the number of horses that could win the Triple Crown is however many horses are running at Churchill Downs.

The Preakness is always important in the quest for the Triple Crown, but it can be misleading. Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown, a dozen horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but none won the Belmont.

(In fact, it has been 10 years since a horse won the Derby and the Preakness and even finished the Belmont. Big Brown didn't finish in 2008, and I'll Have Another was scratched in 2012.)

Why is that so? Well, the Derby and the Preakness are shorter races. They're practically the same distance, and they favor speed. The Belmont is considerably longer, and it favors endurance.

Few horses combine both. The legendary Secretariat did, coming from behind to win the first two jewels but seizing control of the Belmont and winning it by 30 lengths. The video tape of that race is the most amazing thing you will ever see at a race track.

Judging from the somewhat pedestrian pace of yesterday's Kentucky Derby, which was run on a warm, sunny day and a dry track, this year's field may lean toward endurance. That could encourage owners of speed horses to challenge California Chrome at Pimlico on May 17, and he may wind up facing horses he hasn't seen before.

If you are mostly unfamiliar with horse racing and don't really follow it until this five–week period in May and June, you probably don't think of two weeks as being short rest, but for nearly all horsemen, it is probably the equivalent of sending your ace pitcher back out to the mound a couple of days after his last start.

It simply isn't done.

Well, except during the run for the Triple Crown — three races, three states, five–week period. That's like an Iron Man Triathlon for horses.

"I'm not real comfortable with running him back in two weeks, but I know that's what we're bound to do," California Chrome's trainer told Reuters. "I'm more the kind of guy who likes to wait seven or eight weeks between races. These horses run hard and they need time to recover."

No records were set in yesterday's race. Don't expect any two weeks from now.

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