The drought lives on, as California Chrome came up short in his bid to win the Triple Crown on Saturday in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes. Co-owner Steve Coburn was less than gracious in defeat, letting a national television audience know exactly what he thinks is wrong with the Triple Crown.
Coburn was not happy that the winner, Tonalist, skipped the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and came into the Belmont Stakes much fresher than his horse, who was making his third start in just five weeks.
"It's all or nothing. It's not fair to these horses that are running their guts out. This is a cowards' way out," Coburn said on NBC. "If you've got a horse that earns points, that runs in the Kentucky Derby, those horses should be the only ones who should run in all three races."
The Kentucky Derby field is determined by the results of 34 prep races in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series, but any three-year-old that is Triple Crown-nominated can enter the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
In the case of Tonalist, the colt earned no Derby points, as he did not make his stakes debut until a week after the Kentucky Derby, when he won the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes. The plan was to run in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial on April 5 to earn Derby points after his dazzling win at Gulfstream Park against allowance company on Feb. 22, but the colt developed a lung infection, which knocked him off the Derby trail.
While Coburn is off base with his "cowards' way out" comment, he is right that there is something wrong with the Triple Crown—it's outdated.
There is something wrong with a three-race series where California Chrome is asked to run three times in five weeks, while the competition can bypass running in the Preakness and wait in the weeds for the Belmont Stakes with a five-week break.
Generations ago, it was not out of the ordinary for top horses to run back quickly. In fact, the first Triple Crown winner was Sir Barton in 1919, who won the Withers Stakes in between his Preakness and Belmont victories.
Omaha did the same in 1935, although he actually finished second in the Withers. In 1941, Whirlaway won an allowance race in between the Preakness and Belmont wins. Count Fleet, the 1943 Triple Crown winner, sneaked in a victory in the Withers Stakes between his Preakness and Belmont. The 1948 Triple Crown winner, Citation, won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness; he won the Jersey Stakes two weeks later and then won the Belmont Stakes.
If a trainer attempted to run a Derby and Preakness winner in a "prep race" for the Belmont Park now, he probably would be placed in a straitjacket.
The way the Triple Crown is now set up encourages trainers to skip the Preakness—except, of course, for the Derby winner. Trainers do not want to run horses back in two weeks, and this year’s Preakness proved that. Other than California Chrome, only two of the 19 Derby runners (General a Rod and Ride On Curlin) came back to run in the Preakness.
The second- through sixth-place finishers bypassed the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Granted, that makes it easier for the Derby winner to win in the Preakness, but it means he is going to be facing plenty of fresh faces in New York.
In only 11 of the last 36 years has the Belmont Stakes winner participated in the first two jewels. Tonalist became the 15th to win the Belmont Stakes who did not participate in either the Derby or Preakness.
Between horses skipping the Preakness and late-developing runners that are new to the scene and show up in New York, it makes it really tough to sweep the three races, as we have seen.
Coburn's idea of only allowing the 20 top horses in Derby points to run in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes probably would not work. With injuries and defections, we could see a small field for the Belmont in some years.
However, putting an extra week or two between the Derby and Preakness would mean more runners would come back for the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Perhaps cutting the Belmont Stakes distance back from 1 1/2 miles is in order as well. There is no other Grade 1 race run at that distance.
Many traditionalists say do not make any changes, including Steve Crist of the Daily Racing Form, who wrote, "The Triple Crown is not broken, but 'fixing' it could break it."
Tom Chuckas, the president of Pimlico, caused a stir Preakness week when he said he would talk to Churchill Downs and Belmont officials about changing the schedule of the Triple Crown.
Coburn's vent will be seen as poor sportsmanship, but it will open the discussion on how the Triple Crown could be improved, and by that, I do not mean easier to win.
Follow Michael Dempsey on Twitter @turfnsport.
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