Triple Crown in need of polish?

Injury to Barbaro, drought of winners might spark change

June 04, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

Before Secretariat in 1973, it had been 25 years between Triple Crown winners. The thoroughbred racing industry and its fans were worried they would never see another horse like Citation, who won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1948.

Now, it is 28 years since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, and that gap, coupled with Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro's breaking his right rear leg on national television within 100 yards of leaving the starting gate at the Preakness, has set off another outcry over the sport. The main concerns:

The races are too grueling for modern horses.

The spacing of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont is unrealistic.

There will never be another Triple Crown winner.

Although many within the thoroughbred racing industry stand behind tradition and cringe at the idea of changing the requirements for a Triple Crown winner, Lou Raffetto, the president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said the idea of change should be explored.

"The game has changed," said Raffetto, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations at Pimlico Race Course. "We can't put blinkers on and say we're just not going to change because it has always been done this way. It would be myopic not to at least take a look and see if we can make it more viable for horses to perform in each of the events."

To change the Triple Crown, Raffetto said, would be a relatively simple thing. All it would require is agreement among the participating racetracks and their television broadcasting partners. "Nothing but cooperation is necessary," Raffetto said. "I've wished for a long time that we had three weeks between the Derby and the Preakness. Four would be better."

NBC sports president Ken Schanzer said Friday that any change that might be made "is a matter for the racing community to decide. And we'll be pleased to broadcast the schedule on which they settle."

NBC carries the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and ABC broadcasts the Belmont.

Raffetto said he, chief executive officer Joe De Francis and Magna Entertainment Corp. chief operating officer Don Amos will meet to discuss the issues sometime during the summer.

"Then, I'll take it to the next step, which would be to discuss it with the NYRA and Churchill Downs officials," Raffetto said. "I believe if we decide to move [the Preakness] to early June - I wouldn't want to run on Memorial Day [weekend] on a regular basis - it would make the Triple Crown races and the undercards so much better. It would be better for the series to get as many horses to run back in each jewel as possible. And, obviously, it would also have some benefits for the horses."

Raffetto believes all the pros and cons of a major change have to be weighed.

"There's always been a lot of tradition to consider," he said. "But, given what has happened this year [Barbaro's injury and few Derby horses running in the Preakness and few Preakness horses running in the Belmont], there seems to be a catalyst to take a hard look now."

Horses first

From the public's perspective, the most compelling reason for change is to protect the horses. No one denies the Triple Crown is a grueling test. If it weren't, there surely would be more than 11 winners in its 87-year history.

And the perception is that horses today are less sturdy than those who ran in the series decades ago. It is also generally believed horses who run for the Triple Crown are more often injured and have shorter careers because of the wear and tear they go through preparing for and competing in the series.

But Dr. Dean Richardson, who performed the operation on Barbaro's shattered leg at the University of Pennsylvania's George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals, is emphatic when asked if the industry is breeding a less sturdy horse in its quest for speed and whether running a horse three times over five weeks is asking too much.

"Categorically, no," he said. "No. When you look at thoroughbred racehorses, the incidence of injury in thoroughbred racing is not any higher than it ever was. It's still a risky endeavor. Horses are going fast. These are massive animals running fast. [But] there's no evidence whatsoever that the prevalence of injury in thoroughbred racing is increasing."

Laurel Park-based trainer Mike Trombetta agreed and added the lack of a Triple Crown winner, in his opinion, is not because of horses being less sturdy and therefore less capable of surviving the three tough races.

"The series is hard on the horses, even if they're perfectly healthy, just like winning any major athletic championship is terribly hard on any athlete," Trombetta said. "In this case, you're talking about three Grade I's in [six] weeks. It's a very difficult thing to ask of any horse. But it's not impossible. It just isn't easy."

And Trombetta reels off a list that includes Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex as relatively recent competitors who had real chances to win but lost by a foot or a neck for a variety of reasons.

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