More complicated than win-lose for California Chrome in Belmont

If thoroughbred doesn't win Belmont, case for making changes to Triple Crown will be much stronger

June 06, 2014|Peter Schmuck

ELMONT, N.Y. — — The case can be made that there is a lot more riding on California Chrome than a 100-pound jockey and a chance to be mentioned in the same conversation with the greatest thoroughbreds of all time.

The case can be made that when Chrome bursts out of the starting gate at Belmont Park on Saturday, he'll be carrying the weight of the horse racing world on his chestnut shoulders.

He won't just be chasing history. He won't just be trying to end a 36-year Triple Crown drought, though that's the main headline. The consequences of a win — or a loss — could make this year's Belmont Stakes a transformational moment for a declining sport that desperately needs to sell itself to a new generation of potential fans.

California Chrome has just about everything you could want in a Triple Crown contender, from the blue-collar back story to the lovable supporting cast who will make the movie script easy to write someday if he seals the deal. Hopefully, Wilford Brimley will still be around to play colorful owner Steve Coburn.

The short-term benefit of a victory is obvious. Horse racing needs all the star power it can get, and the Triple Crown series is really the only vehicle that can deliver that in sufficient quantity. If Chrome's second encore is a big hit, it will send a surge of positive energy through the sport that could impact attendance and betting handles coast to coast for the rest of the racing season.

The long-term horizon is a bit more complicated, since the aura and anticipation surrounding the possibility of a Triple Crown this year is magnified by the lack of a Triple Crown winner for nearly four decades.

Presumably, if Chrome keeps his date with history, it will make the Triple Crown series more relevant to sports fans not old enough to remember when Affirmed last won all three jewels in 1978. But if he conquers the marathon 11/2-mile distance, Chrome will also take some of the intrigue away from the series over the next few years. It really won't have the same ring when the 2015 Kentucky Derby winner arrives in Baltimore and maybe New York with a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since ... 2014.

Of course, much of that could have been said about any of the recent contenders. What actually makes California Chrome different — other than the folksy charm of his connections — is the large impact he might have if he loses, and especially if he loses to one of the Derby contenders who did not run in the Preakness.

There is growing sentiment that the Triple Crown format needs to be changed to protect the horses and encourage the owners and trainers of the top 3-year-olds to enter all three races. That wouldn't necessarily make it easier to win all three, but it would eliminate some of the incentive for the other top Derby horses to sit out the Preakness and try to spoil the party at Belmont Park.

It might happen regardless of the outcome of the Belmont Stakes, but a victory by Chrome would bolster the argument that winning the Triple Crown is supposed to be an extemely difficult achievement and would be less magical if it were made easier. Conversely, a loss to Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong or one of the other Derby horses that bypassed Pimlico will surely touch off another round of format bashing — with Coburn leading the way.

He railed at the trainers who preserved their horses for a chance to "upset the apple cart" at Belmont Park and insisted that if his horse does not win the Triple Crown this year, it will not happen in his lifetime.

More likely, another Triple Crown anticlimax will kick-start an effort already being championed by Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas and other influential members of the horse racing community to move the Preakness back at least a week and push the Belmont back two weeks to create a format that more closely mirrors the normal racing schedule of the top thoroughbreds.

Coburn suggested that the format should also require that only horses who run in the Kentucky Derby be eligible to run in the Preakness, and only horses who run in the first two races be eligible for the Belmont. That probably would produce more Triple Crown winners, but it still might be a tough sell in New York because it would likely lead to smaller fields for the final jewel.

Maybe none of it will matter. Maybe horse racing in the 21st century simply is what it is — a small collection of premier events that prop up an industry with a distinctly graying audience. Maybe Chrome will win and merely prove that the nation's casual sports fans have a very short attention span.

The fact that we've waited so long doesn't necessarily mean that the next Triple Crown will have a lasting impact, but California Chrome certainly has captured our imagination. Whether he can carry the erstwhile "sport of kings" to a higher level of public appreciation remains an open question only he can answer.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at

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