Choose Greatness - by Eric Mitchell

California Chrome’s co-owner Steve Coburn was obviously upset following his star’s loss in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Having soared so high with this colt he believed in heart and soul, the crash back to Earth was undoubtedly jarring.

Since Coburn has apologized, let’s forget his ugly words to his competitors immediately following the race. Let’s instead focus on his suggestion that the Triple Crown is stacked against horses that run in all three races. The 36-year drought since Affirmed took the Triple Crown title has people screaming for reform. The repeated treks to Belmont Park to see a horse break through has apparently worn down many fans. They want a Triple Crown winner almost at any cost. So much so that it has been suggested the entire future of the sport relies on a restructuring of the Triple Crown.

This is bunk.

The reason the Triple Crown is so compelling is that it is hard to achieve. Once upon a time it was considered a true feat of daring to reach the top of Mt. Everest. While certainly physically demanding and life-threatening, amateur climbers are reportedly shelling out up to $70,000 to be escorted up the mountain. The use of private guides, oxygen bottles, and other high-tech gear along with the assistance from teams of Sherpas risking their own lives to haul gear and set ropes in advance seems to have taken something away from the mountaineering prowess this accomplishment once suggested.

Let’s also realize the Triple Crown is not—and was not created to be—a series. The three races are America’s stand-alone classic races, the premier tests for 3-year-olds. The races were intertwined in the Triple Crown brand by a Turf writer looking for a way to describe the accomplishment of a horse talented enough to capture all three. They are like the Grand Slam series in professional tennis—four stand-alone tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon Championships, and the U.S. Open. These tournaments attract the toughest competitors but don’t feature all the same players in each tournament. The toughness of competition a player faces will always vary, depending on how the schedules are drawn. Next there are some players who excel on Wimbledon’s grass courts in England while others prefer the red clay of Paris’ Roland Garros. A player who sweeps the Grand Slam has shown the ability to compete in four different countries on three different types of surfaces in often challenging outdoor conditions.

Incidentally, it has been 45 years since Rod Laver swept the professional tennis Grand Slam in 1969. Laver, who also won the series in 1962, is the only player to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in the same year since the “Open Era” began in 1968. In those 45 years three players have won three of the four in the same year—Roger Federer (2004, 2006, and 2007), Rafael Nadal (2010), and Novak Djokovic (2011). On the women’s side, the Grand Slam drought is 26 years long since Steffi Graf accomplished it in 1988, making her only the second woman to capture a Grand Slam since 1968. Four women have won three of the four slams since Graf’s sweep.

No one in professional tennis is calling for an overhaul of these tournaments.

We’ll concede a minor adjustment in the scheduling could be considered to accommodate modern training regimens. Moving the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) back a week would seem like a positive change for participation in the second jewel. But limiting the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Preakness, and Belmont fields to only horses that start in the Derby seems counter-productive to Coburn’s claim that such a change would be fairer to the horses. Instead, it creates an incentive to run horses when they may not be 100%, and nothing good will come of that.

And, finally, a sweep of the Triple Crown as it is today is not impossible. It was accomplished three times in the 1970s, and those three most-recent Triple Crown winners all faced fresh horses in the Belmont, horses that did not run in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Facing fresh competitors is a key reason why winning all three is an extraordinary feat, with the emphasis on extraordinary.

If racing makes capturing the Triple Crown easier, it will not suddenly turn average sports fans into racing fans. It will remove the luster, the excitement, and the significance of the feat and become just one more thing in Thoroughbred racing that used to be great.

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