Horse racing’s Triple Crown is very hard to win. In 1948, Citation won it, but it did not happen again until 1973, whern the legendary Secretariat turned the trick. The 1970s, saw a mini run on the Triple Crown as Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978 also won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.
After Eight Belles was tragically put down after breaking both her front ankles, there are now calls for major changes to the sport of horse racing. For the most part, none of them make much sense, but there has been talk of extending the length between the Triple Crown races. Currently, there is a two week gap between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, then a three week gap between the Preakness and 1 1/2 mile Belmont Stakes. Some have suggested that given today’s horse, which is used to taking big gaps of time off between races, would not it make sense to run the Derby, then, three weeks later, the Preakness, then after a month, run the Belmont? Running three races in eight weeks has to be easier than three in five weeks, doesn’t it?
Of course, the purists—if there are any left—will oppose this because it would throw off over 125 years of tradition, but there was a time when the gap between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness was only one week. It would draw out the Triple Crown season perhaps too long, especially if the Kentucky Derby champ does not win the Preakness or gets injured and does not even run the Preakness. Ratings for the Belmont where there is no chance for a Triple Crown winner would be very low, and that is a genuine fear of the horse racing establishment.
Horse racing is the one sport where despite all the advances in training, the horses have not gotten faster. In 1975, John Walker of New Zealand set the world record for the one mile run at 3:49.4. Today, the world record stands at 3:43.13. Secretariat set the course record for the Kentucky Derby in 1973 at 1:59 2/5. Monarchos has the second fastest time from 2001 and for third, we have to go back to 1964 when Northern Dancer broke 2 minutes for the 1 1/4 mile race. Swimming times have come down drastically as well. Mark Spitz won four individual gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics. His times today wouldn’t even win a high school state meet.
Why aren’t horses running faster? One reason might be the changes in training. In the past, horses ran at least two times per month, now they go months without racing. In 1982, thinking his horse needed a race, trainer Woody Stephens entered Conquistador Cielo in the Memorial Day Met Mile at Belmont Park. After winning the Met Mile, six days later, Conquistador Cielo won the Belmont Stakes. Think that will ever happen again?
It does make sense to tailor the racing schedule to the training schedule. If horses are going to run every eight weeks, does it make sense to ask Big Brown to race three times in five weeks in an effort to win the Triple Crown? Increasing the gap between races may placate everybody who cares about the safety of the animal without ruining the integrity of the sport.
There have been seven Triple Crown races since 2006 and in two of them, Barbaro and Eight Belles suffered catastrophic injuries in front of large audiences both in person and on television. The horse racing industry does not want that rate to continue.
Perhaps making this concession can quell everybody’s feelings.