Triple Crown: triple the trouble

Today's 3-year-olds racing fewer times

June 09, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. - When Whirlaway won the Triple Crown in 1941, he raced six times the six weeks between April 24 and June 7. When Citation won it sevenyears later, he raced seven times the nine weeks between April 12 and June 12.

How times have changed.

This year, the 132nd Belmont Stakes tomorrow at Belmont Park will feature neither the Kentucky Derby winner, Fusaichi Pegasus, nor the Preakness winner, Red Bullet. Fusaichi Pegasus will miss the Belmont because of a minor hoof injury, and the connections of Red Bullet decided to let their horse rest rather than contest the third leg of the Triple Crown.

What's more, only one horse from the current 3-year-old crop will compete in each of the Triple Crown races (Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont). The late-charging Impeachment finished third in each of the first two legs and will rank among the favorites in the Belmont.

"We've entered a whole new world," said Carl Nafzger, trainer of Unshaded, one of 11 3-year-olds in this year's Belmont.

That new world includes many facets, but their combined result is horses racing fewer times, depriving the sport of potentially classic matchups, such as Fusaichi Pegasus and Red Bullet in the Belmont.

Nafzger and other trainers on the Belmont Park backstretch offered numerous reasons for this reduced productivity. First and foremost, they mentioned other rich races on the calendar, such as the $1 million Haskell Invitational Handicap Aug. 6 at Monmouth Park, the $1 million Travers Stakes Aug. 26 at Saratoga and the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.

Bobby Frankel, trainer of Aptitude, the Belmont's morning-line favorite, said he skipped the Preakness after his horse finished second in the Kentucky Derby for one simple reason. He wanted a horse for later in the year.

"Why destroy a horse just to win two out of three Triple Crown races?" Frankel said. "The Breeders' Cup has changed a lot of things. There's a $4 million race at the end of the year. You don't want to bury your horse now."

John Kimmel, trainer of Wheelaway, offered a similar explanation for withholding his colt from the Preakness. Wheelaway finished fifthin the Kentucky Derby. (In the Triple Crown series, the Kentucky Derby occurs first, followed in two weeks by the Preakness, followed in three weeks by the Belmont.)

"He's a lightly raced horse," Kimmel said. "I didn't want to knock him for a loop by running him back in two weeks. I'm looking for bigger things down the road."

D. Wayne Lukas, the modern master of Triple Crown trainers, said even the races leading to the Kentucky Derby take their toll. Traditional Derby preps such as the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Blue Grass Stakes have become so valuable and prestigious that trainers begin pushing their young 3-year-olds earlier than ever.

Also, Lukas said, races for 2-year-olds have taken on added significance as purses have increased and opportunities expanded for the youngest of racing thoroughbreds. With that has come a shift in breeding toward speed rather than endurance and soundness.

"Like on the highway," Lukas said, "speed kills."

Trainer Scotty Schulhofer, two-time winner of the Belmont and handler of this year's entrant Postponed, said that even the racing surfaces are harder in this quest for speed.

"That breaks horses down," Schulhofer said. "I think we're putting more strain on our horses than ever before."

Although many observers of racing believe that the modern thoroughbred is more fragile than its earlier counterpart, the trainers said they didn't think so. They said the factors cited above as well as year-round racing, airplane travel and the value of horses at stud were more significant.`The airplane has changed everything," Nafzger said.

Jets allow horses to travel from coast-to-coast. In the past, Nafzger said, you would enter a horse in a major race in Florida and compete mainly against horses in the area. Now, he said, you run in Florida, and the better horses from California show up.

"You don't get a breather," Nafzger said. "You'd better have your horse in peak condition for that kind of competition."

And if you train your horses for repeated peak performances, he said, you have to figure out some time to give them vacations. Twenty or 30 years ago, so few tracks raced during winter that many trainers turned out their horses for several months.

"In this day and age," Nafzger said, "when do we ever give a horse a break unless they do like they did with Red Bullet?"

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