Can California Chrome break the Triple Crown drought?

Posted: June 05, 2014

A WISE MAN told me years ago that it was not necessarily going to take a great horse to win the Triple Crown for the first time since 1978. He told me it would be won in a year when there was a solid, consistent colt running against a group that was neither solid nor consistent. This may be that year.

As a charter member of the California Chrome fan club, I will say nothing to denigrate the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. I love this horse. Still, only time will tell us where the colt belongs in relation to the legendary horses.

By definition, a Triple Crown winner has a special historical place. And there is no question horses like Triple Crown winners War Admiral, Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed are among the best in the sport's history.

If California Chrome wins Saturday's Belmont Stakes, he gets into that conversation. But CC has to win.

Since Affirmed in 1978, wonderful horses like Spectacular Bid and Smarty Jones have won the Derby and Preakness without winning the Belmont Stakes. If those two could not win the third leg, there are no givens.

There is no one specific reason for the drought, but the most obvious are field size, spacing and the fact that only the Derby winner is obligated to run in all three races.

In 1948, Citation was in against just 15 other horses in the three races. Secretariat faced 21. If 12 are entered today in the Belmont Stakes, California Chrome will have had to beat 38 horses. Smarty faced 37. Big Brown had to deal with 40 in 2008.

Citation actually ran four times in 8 weeks during the 1948 Triple Crown, stopping at Garden State Park to win the Jersey Derby between the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Horses simply do not try a schedule like that anymore.

Races are more spaced out. Horses are given more time to recover. The Triple Crown is the exception.

I think the five races in 3 weeks is an anachronism from another era. I would spread them out over 8 weeks. However, many others believe nothing should change even if the sport itself has changed so radically. And I definitely respect the opinion that if the three great champions from the 1970s had to do it, so should their successors trying to emulate them.

"It's not fine with me," Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery, said of any change in the timing. "I think it would invalidate all the records and all of the times. It would make it just an entirely different event."

The Kentucky Derby is obviously not moving from the first Saturday in May. Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas is now on record saying he would like to move the Preakness from the third Saturday in May to the first Saturday in June with the Belmont Stakes moving to the first Saturday in July.

And it's not really about making it easier for a horse to win the Triple Crown. It's more about having the best fields for all three races which, in theory, might make it harder for a horse to win the Triple Crown.

"The philosophy of the trainers has drastically changed over the years," Chuckas said. "It is hard for them to bring a horse back from the Derby in 2 weeks and run a horse three times in a 5-week period. Most of them will not do it. But this idea is not just for the Triple Crown races. We have an obligation to the public to put our best racing on the table when the world is watching and we are not doing that. We could promote a Woodford-Dixie-Manhattan series for older turf stars and Triple Crown filly series with the Kentucky Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan and Acorn. All those things are possible but it is going to demand a collaborative effort between the parties to make this happen."

It's not a coincidence that eight of the last 14 Belmont winners were coming off a 5-week layoff from the Derby or, in the case of the filly Rags to Riches, the Kentucky Oaks. It is how horses are trained in the 21st Century. In fact, only two horses in this century have run in the Derby and Preakness and then won the Belmont - Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005).

"I think they should change that rule and make it to where it's a 9-week program," California Chrome's trainer Art Sherman said. "You'd have a lot more Derby horses that would try it. To me, if you're going for the Triple Crown, go for the Triple Crown. Don't pick your spots. Let everybody be in the same situation."

CC's co-owner Steve Coburn has an interesting take on just about everything, including the Triple Crown.

"I honestly believe that they need to change this sport to where those 20 horses that start in the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races," he said. "If you bow out in the Preakness, you don't come back for the Belmont. I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my lifetime because there are people out there trying to upset the apple cart. They don't want a Triple Crown winner. They want a paycheck. So that's my honest opinion. If they don't like it, I don't care."

Only California Chrome, Ride On Curlin and General a Rod are going to run in all three this year.

"It's hard on the horse," said Sherman, who believes he has a horse that is the exception to the 21st century rule.

"It's not easy," said Chrome's rider, Victor Espinoza. "If it was easy, a lot of horses would have won the Triple Crown, [36] years, it's just crazy. It has to be a super horse to win that. The races are so close. They lose so much energy."

They do lose energy, especially when they race three times in 5 weeks. This will be California Chrome's 13th race in a career that started very early by modern standards, April 26, 2013 at Hollywood Park. He has raced at Del Mar, Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, Pimlico and now, for the first time, at America's largest track in circumference, mile-and-a-half Belmont Park, an ode to an era of American racing where horses were actually trained to run that long.

The Belmont Stakes is one lap around the massive oval with its sweeping turns and backstretch straightaway that seems like it will never end. One of these years, the horse that won the Derby and Preakness is going to be the fastest around that oval in June, perhaps even California Chrome this year.

"I'd love to see the horse win," said Ron Turcotte, Secretariat's jockey. "I really love the horse. I love the way he's training and I really think he's going to win the Triple Crown."


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