07 June, 2014

Of Horses and Men

For those who are still riding the emotional wave of the Belmont Stakes, I figure now is as good a time as any to go on a horse racing kick, especially in lieu of the strong comments made by Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome's owner directly after the race.

His remarks on trainers sending horses to race specifically at Belmont (and thus to spoil any Triple Crown attempt) really got me thinking about which side was the best, and I'm honestly not sure.  The more I've thought about it, I can see both halves of the argument.  So, to make sense of it, I'll try to tie it into motor racing.

Steve Coburn, one of the co-owners of California Chrome, has had quite the year.  His little horse, who was purchased for just $10,000, was told that his thoroughbred was not of high enough quality to compete for the Triple Crown.  Many said he had no chance given his lack of prestigious lineage, and several weeks later he leaves Belmont Park just under two lengths away from being the first winner of the three majors in over a third of a century.

California Chrome
But his defeat did not sit well with Coburn.  Beaten by a few horses which were trained specifically for this event, the spurned owner pulled no punches in saying that entering horses with the sole purpose of spoiling a Triple Crown bid was "the coward's way out."  He said that it was "unfair" to the quality horses and to the millions across the country who wanted to see the drought end.  For horses to be sat out of the three legs of the Crown then go against horses who are trying to win it the 'proper' way is not right.

His wife tried to poke him in the back on camera to tell him to calm down, but he turned around to tell her that he would have none of that.  His assault on the owners of horses like (Belmont winner) Tonalist continued, and as it did, I began to wonder if he was actually right.

The cynic's argument would be that if your horse was truly the best, it shouldn't matter who it faces; it should still be able to win the race against whichever horses are tired, fresh or are Belmont specialists.  It should be able to win like the other 11 horses in history who have won all three.  But even this statistic makes me wonder:  Was the trend of sitting horses out of certain legs a commonality even before the 1980s (when the Triple Crown drought began)?

Look at the stretches of winners over time.  In the '30s and '40s, Triple Crowns weren't very uncommon.  Heck, sometimes it was only a year or two between the feat was accomplished, and I imagine it was almost an oversaturation back then.  Even in the seventies, when we had our last winners in Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, they were four and one years apart, respectively.  Think about that, two Triple Crowns in two years.  Then something changed.  It wasn't anything in particular, mind you, it was more of an intangible.

Horse racing today is not horrendously different than it was back then.  Horses today are faster (although Secretariat's records from 1973 still stand at every Triple Crown track) but are far more fragile than days of old, partly due to specialized training methods, different nutrition and technology to assess the health of the equines.  But for 36 years, no horse has won the American version of the Triple Crown---capturing the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in the same year.

The previous longest drought between champions was broken by Secretariat (another record he currently holds until a horse breaks through some year), becoming the first horse to do the feat in 25 years (Citation, who won in 1948, had a wonderful pedigree that included two brilliant European horses, one of which was undefeated in its career).  We're now sitting at 36 years and counting since Affirmed, and I start to wonder how many more we'll see.

Since Affirmed, 13 horses have won the first two majors before coming to Belmont and seeing their dreams disappear.  Sadly, I remember watching half of these.  Most of those horses were beaten by entrants who skipped one or both of the prior Triple Crown races, but I don't know the exact number (since I wasn't old enough to keep track of some of those things).

If we look back at the last four to accomplish the feat, some wonderful stories emerge.

In 1978, Affirmed essentially won the Triple Crown over another horse who would have won all three races were it not for Affirmed.  Alydar finished second in every event, but the talent of Alydar unfortunately happened to coincide with the brilliance of Affirmed.  Separate them by a year (let's push one of them to '79 since Seattle Slew took care of '77), and we would have one more Triple Crown winner.

When Slew had done it a year earlier, he faced some challenges throughout the three legs.  He won the first over Run Dusty Run before meeting Cormorant at Pimlico.  Some had challenged back then that Cormorant would be a quicker horse and would stop Slew's bid, but down the stretch Cormorant faded, and the race turned into Seattle Slew beating Iron Constitution by a length and a half.  By the time the Belmont came around, the horse faced several new challengers, but he still won by four lengths.

Secretariat's dominant Belmont win - 31 lengths
Secretariat's year is a bit of an oddball given the sheer dominance of this horse.  He is, undoubtedly, the strongest Triple Crown winner in history.  In his three major races, Secretariat's biggest competitor was a dark bay thoroughbred named Sham.  An anatomical oddity, Sham's heart was twice the size of an average horse's, and he found success wherever he went.  A Santa Anita winner, Sham finished second to Secretariat in both of the first two legs of the Triple Crown.  In fact, he was even leading at times until the stretch.  Two and a half lengths was as close as he would get to the legend in those events, so his trainers were eager to take him to Belmont to challenge again.  Here, though, at the scene of Secretariat's most crushing victory, Sham led early before finishing last.  The distance, and perhaps the great rivalry with the Triple Crown winner, was too much to make all three races.  He just couldn't do it, but he was still an incredibly successful horse.

The big difference in the ages is highlighted best, in my opinion, by the 1948 Triple Crown winner, Citation.  An unbelievable force in horse racing, he was the first equine to win one million dollars, and he once won 16 straight races---most horses today don't even race that many times in their entire careers.  After his strong victories in the Derby and the Preakness, Citation actually won the Jersey Stakes before winning at Belmont.  Think about that.  He ran a whole other race between the second and third legs and still became the eighth horse to win all three majors, doing so in record-tying time at Belmont Park.

So where do Coburn's statements fall in all of this?  Is there a history of horses losing their bids to Belmont Specialists?  And if so, what does that mean?  The answer to the former is "Yes," but the answer to the latter is tricky.

Part of the structure of horse racing is that there isn't a cumulative points championship with the goal of a world title at the end.  Skipping out on one Grand Prix would lose millions of dollars and a chance at the World Drivers Championship in Formula 1.  In horse racing, though, you're letting a living creature rest and eliminating the chance for injury in another race.  On that front, I don't mind letting them sit out sometimes.

But a Triple Crown bid is different.  It's one of the few things in the Sport of Kings that spans more than one event.  It's a long-term goal in a sport that deals with things one race at a time in the limited span of a thoroughbred's third year.  But in a way, a Triple Crown bid can also be a one-race thing.

Funny Cide fell just short in his bid back in 2003.
Losing the Derby opens up a wide range of possibilities as a trainer, but if you leave Churchill Downs with a blanket of roses, you will have to head to Pimlico since you are expected to try for the Triple Crown.  As a result, you don't see horses win the Derby and then not try to make it two-for-two.  Even if you plan on coming back for the Belmont, no one skips out on the Preakness.

Also take into account that when a horse has lost the second leg, many choose not to enter it in the Belmont (which is why there has not been a single horse in 20 years that has won the Derby and the Belmont without winning the Preakness).  This is for preservation of the horses for obvious reasons.

But what about the first situation, where your horse doesn't win the Derby?  As an owner or trainer, who owns a horse to win and make money, you severely decrease your chances to win the Belmont (the longest race of the three) if you try to run the Preakness as well.  Especially if you think your horse tires easily, it doesn't make business sense to try to run all three when all you'll be left with is a tired horse and no wins.

This year's Belmont Stakes purse was $1.5 million, and that's a hell of a lot of money to be dangled in front of owners.  If you had a chance to win it, why wouldn't you do whatever you could to increase your chances?

But on the flip side to this, in Coburn's case, he's obliged to run all three because his horse could legitimately win all three.  The test schedule for California Chrome existed the moment he won at Churchill Downs, and while his owners could have sat him for the Preakness, the ridiculousness of doing so is extremely obvious.

What Tonalist did today was not with dishonor.  He ran a wonderful race and could not be challenged.  Commentators spoke beforehand that he loved this track and had won here before.  He was, in every sense, a Belmont specialist.  And does that decrease the feat of what he did?  To some, like Coburn, absolutely.

Let's say that there was a team in Formula 1 that wanted nothing more than to win the Monaco Grand Prix.  They sat out the entire year, not traveling to the other races and not challenging for any other Grands Prix.  Instead, they spent their time running laps at Monaco and focusing only on it (never mind that it's in a city and you can't do that...just go with me here).

So when the Monaco Grand Prix came around and the teams that had been dominating F1 racing all season came to the principality, that's when this particular team showed up.  While some were fighting for the World Championship and the Constructors Championship, this team took pole position and won the race, celebrating madly afterward.  Should their win be accepted the same as a regular team like Mercedes winning the Grand Prix because they were only focused on this race while others were looking at the long-term?

That's a question I can't answer, but I imagine many of you will have different opinions.

To a purist in the sport, their win is rather shallow.  Like a golfer who only played the same course over and over, then won when the professional circuit came to town, should we be surprised by such a win?  Not really.  But to a businessman or businesswoman, this is smart.  This is the best way to increase one's chances for victory.  And as a result, in a business sense, the payouts from the win taste just as sweet as those you could collect by winning an otherwise unwinnable major.

From a fan's standpoint, they may not think about this.  The casual fan may only tune in for the Belmont Stakes upon hearing that a horse may win the Triple Crown, and that's it.

Is this an issue that needs to be addressed in some way?  Perhaps.  Will anything come of it?  I doubt it.  Splitting the fields (horses running all three versus standalones) or holding a longer-term championship may do it, but racing is steeped in tradition, and those changes may face some opposition.

Was Coburn justified in what he said?  Absolutely.  But was he right?  That's a whole other debate.

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