Thursday, January 18, 2018
Sports

Examining why a horse hasn't won Triple Crown in 34 years

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The fervor of the question increases with every passing year. And as the years turn into decades — three and counting — the subject gets dissected so exhaustively that even those deemed experts abandon trying to come up with one concrete answer.

I'll Have Another's victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes have gathered the racing world to its latest roundtable discussion over why it has been 34 years since a horse has proven capable of capturing the three-race, five-week gauntlet that is the Triple Crown.

Though 11 horses have accomplished the feat, the current drought has long since passed the previous record, the 25-year gap between Citation's sweep in 1948 and Secretariat's in 1973.

The one thought most agree upon is that if I'll Have Another wins the Triple Crown by taking the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, he'll have done so in an era unlike that of any of his predecessors.

For the majority of the 11 horses that have failed to finish the job since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, their attempts have come at a time when the racing landscape has changed drastically. As the thoroughbred breed has changed, so, too, have training styles and the attitude within the sport.

"I think it has (become harder to win) because of the reasons for which we breed horses," said Penny Chenery, owner of Secretariat. "Back in the '70s we were still breeding horses to race them, and so much of the industry now is concentrated on sales. So you breed a good-looking, early speed horse who isn't equipped to go a mile and a half, or to run three hard races in five weeks."

Money talks

The monetary action brought on by the auction arena has been arguably the biggest factor in the Triple Crown drought. Where once homebreds ruled the classics, the rise of the commercial marketplace and deep-pocketed buyers in the past 30 years has prompted breeders to produce a different type of horse than previously demanded.

Since buyers need to get as much return as possible on such lofty investments, horses that could inspire a strong following in the breeding shed went to the top of buyers' wish lists, regardless if they had classic ability.

"You have to understand that commercial breeders are breeding what they think they can sell," said bloodstock adviser Ric Waldman, who managed the career of leading sire Storm Cat. "And I think the end user has wanted a speedy horse.

"It's not like we don't want to breed Derby winners; everybody wants a Derby winner. But it goes back to the type of horse we think will make a good stud horse. And the kind of horse we think will make a good stud horse has typically been one that has shown speed and precocity."

Numbers game

With the Kentucky Derby, the Triple Crown's first leg, now the most famous race in the sport and long-shot winners showing a Derby victor can come from anywhere, 19- and 20-horse fields have become the norm in the past decade, increasing the odds that even the most talented horse of a generation could be derailed by a troubled trip.

Citation had to beat 15 total horses en route to his coronation. Secretariat defeated 21. Seattle Slew and Affirmed faced 29 and 20 total rivals, respectively.

I'll Have Another took on 19 in the Derby and 10 in the Preakness, and faces 11 in the Belmont.

"It's not too tough to win the Triple Crown. It's just these fields are always full fields, and it's all about getting a good trip," said Graham Motion, trainer of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. "There is always going to be a horse in the Derby that's not going to get a good trip, and that's what's going to make it so hard to have a Triple Crown winner."

Training trends

How one even gets a horse ready for the Triple Crown races is a different animal than it was in the '70s.

First, there is the trend of trainers wanting to allow more time between starts in hopes of avoiding the dreaded "bounce" factor off big efforts. However, with the 20-horse Derby field being determined in part by graded stakes earnings since 1986, some say they now have to ask more of their prospects earlier in order to secure the crucial money needed.

"It is not a three-race series anymore, it's more like a five-race series," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, winner of 13 Triple Crown races.

In trying to breed fast, pretty horses, some argue the durability of the modern thoroughbred has been sacrificed along with stamina. Today's runners might not be the iron horses of the past, but part of the issue behind their perceived fragility may be just that — perception.

Given the way the sport has changed, some like Lukas have said the Triple Crown should change with it, both in terms of the races' distances and spacing.

But Waldman, the bloodstock adviser, said winning the Triple Crown shouldn't be easy.

"While everyone is hoping we have a Triple Crown winner, the fact there hasn't been one in such a long period of time underscores how difficult it is," he said. "You add in the component that maybe we're changing the breed over this period of time and that compounds the difficulty in trying to achieve it."

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