The Troubled Triple

 By Art Parker

The talk about Triple Crown changes has yet to stop. I think I have read about everything possible on the subject since California Chrome finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes. Some people think the sport will die if changes are not made to the Triple Crown format. If our sport dies it will not be because of that. And no, there is not a real pressing issue to change. I’m not against change and certainly will not object if some things about the Triple Crown are changed.

For the Triple Crown to be as special as we want it to be, and to be one of the most elusive prizes, if not the most elusive in all of sports, then it must be difficult for a single athlete to earn the crown. Have they made the grand slam in golf or tennis any easier? No. Has Major League Baseball shortened the World Series games to seven innings instead of nine because these guys are tired of playing ball almost every day for seven months? No.

Here’s the bottom line. If the Triple Crown is to be a great, rare and an admirable achievement, if it is to be the top of the mountain in our game, then it cannot be easy. It must test a horse to such a degree that when the elusive Triple Crown is captured we will stand in awe and know deep within our hearts that the horse did it the old fashion way…he earned it. My dad always told me that a man’s goal should barely exceed his grasp. Then he told me that if I wanted to reach my goal bad enough I would work harder and find a way to grab it.

Currently, the Triple Crown exceeds the grasp of our three year olds, but it is not an unattainable goal. For all we know there could be a few winners before the year 2020. Don’t laugh. Remember Secretariat won it 1973 after a long drought and then Seattle Slew and Affirmed took us for a couple of rides in 1977 and 1978 respectively.

If you must change it then a couple of things need consideration that few are talking about. First, the individual races belong to the tracks and they are governed by racing commissions in their respective states. Secondly, we would be completely irresponsible not to consider television coverage and competition from other sports for airtime. Let’s look at these two items.

The Kentucky Derby is not going anywhere, and the first Saturday in May is entrenched and cannot be dislodged as the date of the Derby. It’s not going to happen. So forget a change in the Derby.

The Preakness is held at Pimlico when the track decides to run the race with the approval of the Maryland Racing Commission. Moving the Preakness back one week to the fourth Saturday in May would instantly provide a three week gap in all of the Triple Crown races, if Belmont moved the Belmont Stakes back a week. That’s fair, and if that is all that changes there shouldn’t be a big fuss, assuming Pimlico, Belmont and the racing commissions go along.

However, some are advocating the first Saturday in June to be the Preakness date which would put it within one week of the Belmont or even the same day, depending on the calendar. For that to happen and for the dates to be spread out evenly, then Belmont will need to move its race accordingly. Before Belmont even considers that move, Pimlico must be sure the Maryland Racing Commission will allow it to be open. For example, in 2014 Pimlico’s last day was the first Saturday in June, so that day is not a gimme. Then Belmont could go to the first Saturday in July and a nice precedent of the “first Saturdays” can be established. Of course the New York Racing Association (NYRA) will have something to say about it, but Belmont runs during that time anyway because Saratoga doesn’t open until late July. That is a very workable idea and certainly fair-basically there will be a month in between all three races if that idea is implemented.

As far as television is concerned it seems like the bullet will be dodged with any of the scenarios. Baseball starts in April and there is so much of it the competition between racing and baseball need not be considered. The Masters is in early April so that is not a problem. The U.S. Open could be a problem if the Belmont Stakes was contested over Father’s Day weekend. Should the Belmont be contested the first Saturday in July then there will probably be competition with Wimbledon; I really don’t know if that makes much difference or not; the marketing folks would have to decide that.

Other than dates, the only other suggestion that I have, and one that I would love to see, is that the Derby field be limited to fourteen (14) starters. The Derby is too dangerous with as many as 20 in the field and many true contenders are compromised too much because of the large field. And the field is too big because of pretenders…not real contenders.

A final note. If the “First Saturday” concept is adopted then it will bring Saratoga’s Travers Stakes to within six-seven weeks of the Belmont, plenty of time for the top three year olds to rest and come back to do battle at the Spa. Who knows, some sportswriter may declare the Derby-Preakness-Belmont-Travers series the “Grand Slam” of horse racing. That’s how the Triple Crown got started. A sportswriter labeled the three races as the Triple Crown.

Oops. I better shut up. This Grand Slam idea of mine may cause a lot of trouble and complaining. Forget I mentioned it.

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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is an 18-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 twice. Rich was also a winner of a $24,000 package into Kentucky Derby Betting Championship I. A former executive with Brisnet.com and a member of the NHC Players’ Committee, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of AGameofSkill.com, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.

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