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.


Leave a Comment:


Thank you for a well-written article. I agree that only running horses that ran in the first two is not the best for the horse. Some may do better at shorter distances others may be too tired to compete. Also I believe a horse isn't totally proven to be a true champion until he faces new company.

18 Jun 2014 10:04 AM

Mr. Mitchell, I see the voice of reason in your words. Things got to the point of hysteria with regard to this year's Triple Crown. Coburn came to believe Chrome, the "people's horse," was invincible. He uttered some unsporting words that, despite his apology, will likely never be forgotten. Extending the time gap between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to three weeks is not a bad idea. However, I don't think any radical changes should be made. May the truly best horse win!

18 Jun 2014 11:10 AM

Just a second!  You go on about how the Triple Crown is supposed to be hard and that it should stay that way, then you do a 180 by advocating an easier schedule by spacing the Preakness another week later.  That is lowering the bar.  The bar should remain where it is.  Racing doesn't need phony champions.

18 Jun 2014 12:28 PM
Arts and Letters

Plus, what everyone seem to forget, is that sometimes the best three year old of the year doesn't run in (or win) the Kentucky Derby.  If the rules had previously been set so that only allow horses that ran in the previous race could then run in the next one (as so many people seem to want)- this would have eliminated AP Indy, Rags to Riches, Rachel Alexandra, Conquistador Cielo, and Man O'War, among others.

I for one would not trade these fabulous winners (or future fabulous winners) of the Preakness and Belmonts for a new, watered down triple crown

18 Jun 2014 12:50 PM
Arts and Letters

A further thought on soundness - I just read a report that the winner of this year’s King’s Stand stakes, Sole Power, will not come back four days later to contest the Diamond Jubilee at Royal Ascot.  The fact that a horse wouldn’t be racing again at the top level in just four days was reported as being slightly unusual – meaning it’s quite common for horses to do this feat and no one even bats an eye at it over there.

How is it that British and European horses (even if the races are just sprints) can come back and race successfully after a few days when ours need weeks or even months to recover?  Could it be different training methods, racing surfaces, and drug rules?  Or a combination of several factors?  Whatever it is, they’ve got it and we don’t.

18 Jun 2014 1:01 PM

I'm in favor of changing the interval for the TC races.  It just makes sense and is better for the horses.  Regarding the difficulty or impossibility of the achievement, we should not forget how close a number of horses have come to winning the TC.  There is a list of horses who SHOULD HAVE WON - Real Quiet, Spectacular Bid (injured), I'll Have Another (injured), California Chrome (injured), Big Brown (take your choice on that one, but he had the talent), and some others.  

As for limiting horses in the three races, I would be more in favor of requiring valid competitors and/or experienced horses before adding them to the field.  Matterhorn comes to mind, but that's just my opinion in 20-20 hindsight.

18 Jun 2014 1:46 PM

Brunoaltimino, I don't know that it is a complete 180 but your point is valid. I would first prefer the Triple Crown remain as it is. You are right. It is lowering the bar. If in the event there is discussion about change, I would hope it isn't toward moving all the races a month apart.

18 Jun 2014 1:52 PM

I see a something of a parallel between the current Triple Crown debates and those that occurred in MLB when the designated hitter rule was first proposed. The argument in baseball was that since pitchers weren't training to hit and did it poorly, they should be dropped from the batting rotation. The argument in thoroughbred racing is that since horses are no longer bred to endure 3 races in 5 weeks the TC format should be altered to account for that. Essentially both arguments proposed taking the easy (and not necessarily best) course of action.

18 Jun 2014 2:07 PM
David G.

I have a proposal for a subtle change. Using the point system that is used for the Derby, give the horses credit for their body of work and allow them to choose their post positions starting with the highest points earner and working one's way down. Continue the same for the Preakness and Belmont with additional points being earned for the Preakness and lesser amounts for interim lower graded races in between. That is analogous to the seedings in tennis and home field advantage that other sports allow for based on records.

18 Jun 2014 3:46 PM

Well done piece, Mr. Mitchell.

I do have a few quibbles:

1. Let's dispense with the analogies to other sports; none fit too well.

2. Yes, these three are America's classic races, the premiere tests for 3 -year-olds. But, this is precisely the point, and the problem. Deemed as such, owners, and some trainers, are driven to compete in them, often at the expense of the horse. As it's presently formulated/spaced, the Derby winner and next, those who finish close behind, are those most likely (their owners are most driven) to proceed to The Preakness. So, regarding this series of three races, the above runners find themselves at greatest risk of harm (then, or later). Should the Derby winner again prevail or finish closely, he (or she) as well as others who fared well in The Preakness will tend to be "directed" to The Belmont. This sets up yet another and, in some cases, an elevated greater risk situation for the horse. So, it's easy for you to say that these races are separate and distinct, but the reality is that the owners/trainers often treat them as a unity (see examples above). If you grant that this is indeed the reality, you should be in favor of minimizing the risk to the horse by, at least, adjusting the schedule. Yes, I grant that such a change may somewhat diminish the luster of the Crown, but it's the morally correct course to take. Racing's past was not governed by the rules of a lauded Constitution, or by esteemed founders whose wisdom has been held in high regard. Rather, what transpired before was fashioned by peolpe less informed (likely also less "moral") than are (or should be) we. We shouldn't be slaves to wrong minded traditions, and should rid ourselves of this psychological dependence.

18 Jun 2014 8:03 PM
Thoroughbreds are the best

I am opposed to changing the time between races as other than training methods and race day medications the thoroughbred has changed little in the past 50 years.  If anything, racing surfaces have improved.  However, the Derby should be limited to no more than 14 horses. No Triple Crown winner has had to deal with a 20 horse field on a track (Churchill Downs)that was designed for fourteen or less. The track that could possibly handle 20 is Belmont with its wide long sweeping turnsyet the Belmont Stakes is often the smallest field.

18 Jun 2014 9:24 PM

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!!   I cannot understand why there is a "time limit" to having the next triple crown winner!  It will happen when it happens, but to change it to make it happen will ruin it.  I do not even agree with moving the Preakness.  Instead let the tracks find a sponsor to offer a bonus for winning the Triple Crown to give an incentive to TRAIN the horses from the BEGINNING of their careers to try to win it.  That is how the previous winners accomplished it - by being properly conditioned for such a campaign.  

18 Jun 2014 10:58 PM

Here is what I would change; 1) eliminate the auxiliary gate and limit the Derby field to 14 horses 2) bring back the Triple Crown bonus awarded to the horse with the best placings in all 3 races; this would encourage owners/trainers of horses, other than the winner, to run in the Preakness.  

Finally, I don't agree that only horses that compete in the Derby should be able to compete in the Preakness and Belmont, but I would endorse a rule that horses that don't run in the Derby would have to qualify into the Preakness and Belmont in some manner.  Ideas?

18 Jun 2014 11:48 PM

B4 I ever wrote I double checked old magazine, selected middle horse, Slew, & middle race (Preakness), 9 horses, 6 fresh, 3 not. No need to look any further, confirmed what I'd write to be fair, wish tho, I was as talented, my fb statements basically said what you wrote, just not as pleasant ;)  I think what set me bac on his comment was, it over all had been just a victorious journey, then for him to self inflict such a SAD, SAD, SAD, self induced dark cloud on what became all of our journey, I was happy that karma seemed to have won out.  Yes we lost another yr., but in the end, it all worked out.  While I like many wanted a Cinderella story, & to see the big names wonder what hit them, & while I do get tired of seeing the same BIG NAME players, & would have loved to see them too watch a cheap $ horse run by them again, in the end, I'm guessing they were as shocked as I was with the closing words of the 2014 journey.  Have to wonder how many times in private they (When being polite) just shook their heads & called him an amateur? All that research they did, did they not read the competition of the previous derby winners?  Like you said, they too had to overcome the challenges of "Fresh horses."  Here's a thought I had, in the '70's, there (Like ppl population), were less numbers of better blood horses, but through the yr's, multiples of breeding, more horses, more competition, more opportunity for superiority to be broken down, what if there were a way to make the Derby, Preakness & Belmont have stronger horses, would that not uppen the shot of a horse strong enough to overcome all the challenges?  That's not going to come from training, but from actually being older.  Before everyone get's ticked, think of the other positive, especially in QH racing, "What if?" it was illegal to race a horse in the US under age 3?  Would that NOT help to reduce the number of horses being pushed when they're ONLY 18mo's old (Knees not closed)?  YES, I realize there are MANY  that would NEVER do that, sadly tho, there are those doing it, then there are those stacking meds, & I think we all know a rider/horse or two that have had a leg snap! & Maybe to lessen the blow a little, let the riders carry an extra 5#'s (Horses will be older & stronger, & the extra wt really wouldn't affect them.).  Just a thought...

19 Jun 2014 2:45 AM


19 Jun 2014 7:40 AM

Thoroughbredsarethebest - actually triple crown winner War Admiral won the Derby in a 20 horse field...triple crown winner Omaha had 18 in his Derby and triple crown winner Assault had 17 in his...  Everyone seems to think that large fields are a recent development but they are not. I looked back to the very first Derby and it appears there was never a limit to the field.  The first large one I found was 21 runners in 1923, then 20 in 1925, 22 in 1928 and so on....with 23 in 1974 being the largest.  The size of the fields were often in the past determined by the respect for, or fear of, the favorite.  Now days I believe the purse is determining the field size as even 2nd or 3rd is a great payday....

19 Jun 2014 12:49 PM

Lots of good suggestions here, but I think Anncat got it exactly right. The only change that needs to be made is the restriction of unqualified and/or inexperienced horses in such marquee races. In the same way the Derby has minimum requirements, so should the Preakness and Belmont. Matterhorn was a rush-rush last minute purchase/entry by Todd Pletcher who already had a very good horse entered with Commissioner. I’m at a loss why such an obvious nuisance entry was made (w/in 10 days of the race) except that Pletcher wanted to clutter the race and interfere (legally) with California Chrome. (And, I suppose, Belmont wanted the extra entry fees.) The fact Matterhorn was the horse that injured Chrome and ruined any chance for a truly great Belmont only makes it worse.  A requirement of at least a Grade II win and minimum 100K earnings should be put in place for both Preakness and Belmont.

19 Jun 2014 7:07 PM

Being the Liberal, progressive Democrat that I am; I say...."Leave it alone"!

19 Jun 2014 8:59 PM
Bret Stossel

A terrific, well-written story...except for that part about moving the Preakness back a week.

19 Jun 2014 10:23 PM

I must wholeheartedly agree with all of those who propose the limiting of the KDerby field to 14. The 20 horse field is an insane cavalry charge. How many great horses did not win it, but carried the day at Pimlico and Belmont...makes me cry!

20 Jun 2014 12:01 AM

I support the retention of existing structure of the TC in every respect. I consider Mr. Coburn's proposal to exclude from the Preakness and Belmont, horses that do not qualify for the Derby a non-starter.

Using his model, the 2014 Preakness field would have been comprised of only 4 horses. Three from the Derby and Ring Weekend that qualified for the Derby but did not start. It is unimaginable that in the modern era, racing fans would be interested in witnessing a $1.5M classic that is being contested by 4 horses because of an exclusion rule detrimental to racing.

In the case of the 2014 Belmont only 7 horses would have comprised the final field. Even if Mr. Coburn’s system was in place, Medal Count had the best finish of any Derby starter and would have denied California Chrome the TC.  Alysheba, Sunday Silence and Real Quite were defeated by horses that finished 2nd to them in the two previous legs of the TC. Fresh horses are from one of three categories from which horse that have foiled TC bids have emerged.

Regarding the span between the three races, I see no need for adjustments. What needs to be changed is America’s race day medication policy. The great Native Dancer was an unfortunate looser of the KD. He won the Withers 14 days later and that left him with a window of 7 days to recover for the 9.5F Preakness. He won the Preakness and went on to win the Belmont.

He contested four races in 42 days. His loss in the Derby was excusable. It was the first of the TC races and he had no problems winning his subsequent 3 races covering 29.5F in 28 days. Native Dancer was loaded  with Lasix that required a systematic rehydration program to replace the enormous amount of fluid horses loose due to the powerful diuretic.  

Modern day horses need more time between races to recover their competitiveness. Multiple Eclipse award winning trainer Todd Pletcher is on record citing 4 weeks between races as his acceptable minimum. Of The 3 TC races his record in the Preakness in the worst with no wins and little if any top 3 finishes.

Get the drugs out of racing and the TC will become more achievable.

20 Jun 2014 11:16 AM
david stevenson

well stated.  if we continue to realize the intent of the founders,the triple crown collection of events are BREEDERS' RACES, intent on perfecting pedigree and stamina on the dirt for thoroughbred horses. no more, no less!  failure to recognize this is failure to understand the sport!

21 Jun 2014 8:00 AM
Old Timer

Well said, Eric. As a fan who goes back to the 60's, I would hate to see the prestige of the Triple Crown "watered down". Anyone who is familiar with math, probability and statistics can tell you that having a winner of the Triple Crown will not occur regularly, but that there will be droughts like the current one of 36 years and then there will be clusters of great horses like there was in the 70's (and the 40's before that).

In my opinion, adding one week in between the KD and Preakness would not compromise the feat. However the ideas being floated by that Chuckas and Janney would put the Belmont all the way into July. Then what happens to the Haskell, the Jim Dandy, Travers, etc.?

Leave the Crown alone!

22 Jun 2014 8:46 AM
Soldier Course

Choose greatness, yes. But remember that Affirmed is not the last great Thoroughbred. Tiznow's back-to-back wins in the Breeders' Cup Classic and Zenyatta's career were just as thrilling as any Triple Crown season. The change that needs to take place regarding the Triple Crown is a change in the public's perception of what it means. Put it into perspective.

22 Jun 2014 2:43 PM
Old Old Cat

Well written Eric.  I think there is one item which has not been included in any of the discussions about the Triple Crown:  "WHAT IS MOST HEALTHY FOR THE HORSES COMPETING IN THIS SERIES".

I agree that moving the Preakness one week later, (along with the Belmont one week later), makes all the sense in the world to give proper recovery time to the contestants.

Spacing out the Derby preps (for which points are given) to allow trainers to plan sensible training regimens for their horses also makes sense.

However, it seems that the only driver for any of this madcap extravaganza is MONEY.

22 Jun 2014 3:06 PM

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