Monday, June 9, 2014

No Triple Crown. Again.

Once again, horse racing enthusiasts were disappointed by the Belmont.

It's frustrating, this 36–year drought — the longest dry spell ever since the last Triple Crown winner. If you're 40 years old, you weren't even in grade school yet when Affirmed claimed the last Triple Crown — you probably had not even been born when Secretariat ended a then–record 25–year drought in the Triple Crown.

It's so frustrating that Steve Coburn, owner of California Chrome, the latest Triple Crown hopeful to falter in the Belmont, called the owner and trainer of the winner (Tonalist) "cowards" for not running their horse in all three Triple Crown races, as he had done.

That's been an issue with the Triple Crown for a long time. To win the Triple Crown, a horse must win three races in three different states within five weeks' time. The winner of the Kentucky Derby is not compelled to run in the Preakness two weeks later. And, if a horse wins both of those races, he is not compelled to run in the Belmont, either.

But the lure of the Triple Crown almost always brings 'em.

I wouldn't call myself an expert on horse racing, but there are a few things I know, mostly from trying to fall back on my training as a journalist and listening to what others (most of whom are experts) have to say — and most trainers say they prefer to give a horse five weeks (at least) between races. Usually, they will lean more toward six or seven weeks.

Three races in five weeks is an unbelievably grueling pace in horse racing. If that is still hard for you to understand, look at it this way.

We live in an age of sports specialization. In my father's day, there were lots of guys who played both offense and defense in football; I don't know if I can recall such a two–way player in my lifetime. Maybe there has been one, possibly two, probably born more of necessity than of skill.

When I was a boy, it wasn't unusual for pitchers to go the distance in baseball. There were a couple of relievers on most staffs in case the starter really got into trouble. Now, teams have staffs of relievers who have been trained to come in and give an inning or two before giving the ball to the closer. If a starter goes longer than six innings, he's probably pitching a no–hitter — and most likely will be yanked the minute a player from the other team gets on base.

Asking a horse to run in — and win — three races in 35 days is like asking a pitcher to throw three complete games in the space of a week.

That's why winning a Triple Crown is such an impressive accomplishment. Well, it is part of the reason.

The other part is what we saw on Saturday.

The Belmont is longer than either the Kentucky Derby (1¼ miles) or the Preakness (1 3/16 miles). The first two races are much shorter than the Belmont (1½ miles), which is justifiably called the "Test of the Champion." To win the first two races, a horse must possess speed. To win the Belmont, a horse must possess endurance.

Few horses possess both. It takes a special horse to win a Triple Crown. Only 11 horses have done it since 1875, the first year that all three races were run.

Secretariat was the greatest horse I ever saw, but there were those who questioned whether he could win a long race like the Belmont. His answer was a 31–length victory. Now that is a horse that combines speed and endurance.

Some people say a Triple Crown can't be won again. I say it can. I just can't say when.

Coburn has apologized for his outburst.

And he was right — to an extent. It isn't fair that a rested horse like Tonalist (or Commissioner, the second–place finisher) can run against a horse that has run in the Derby and the Preakness — but it happens nearly every year.

For that matter, Coburn didn't have to enter California Chrome in the Preakness and the Belmont, but he did. That was his choice.

That was his gamble — and it didn't pay off.

If you've ever placed a bet at a race track that didn't pay off, you might know how he felt — except that he didn't lose a mere $2 wager. He lost what may be his only chance to win a Triple Crown.

I understand that he felt it was unfair that Tonalist was able to get the rest Coburn's trainer believes is essential for a horse to give his best performance — while California Chrome was running not one but two races.

But that is the special challenge of the Triple Crown, isn't it? Most horses can't do it.

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