Racing fans are perched on the edge of their seats in the lead-up to Saturday’s Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.
The US has been gripped by the story of California Chrome, the colt bred for just $10,500 and trained by the 77-year-old Art Sherman. He has rewarded his first-time owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin with a shot at the Triple Crown glory at the New York racecourse.
May’s Kentucky Derby is America’s most famous race, but add in a win in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Racecourse a fortnight later and the whole world tunes in to watch a horse make a tilt at the Belmont on the first Saturday in June.
Victor Espinosa, California Chrome’s 42-year-old Mexican rider, was on Good Morning America on Tuesday, and Sketchers, the shoe company signed a deal with Martin and Coburn earlier this week. And yet, despite all the media hullabaloo globally, there is a growing clamour for the Triple Crown to be changed forever.
It was Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, who suggested that the race should be moved to the first Saturday in June, and the Belmont shunted to the first Saturday in July. Stuart Janney III, vice-chairman of the Jockey Club and a member of the New York Racing Association’s board, is the latest leading figure to come out to criticise the tri-partite series in its current format.
We're trying to make super horses and I think it takes not only an exceptional horse to win all three races but great training, management and some luck
The argument goes that the more space between races, the more trainers would be prepared to race their horses in all three legs. The thinking behind it is for a more difficult Triple Crown, if anything, than an easier one.
California Chrome will be the 12th horse to try to augment his successes in the first two legs of American racing’s triptych since Affirmed scored in 1978 under 18-year-old rider Steve Cauthen. The 36-year hiatus is the longest that race fans have had to wait since Sir Barton became the first winner of all three races in 1919. It is the pressure cooker environment of three races in five weeks, however, that is the crucial element that stands the successful horses apart, according to Dr Jim Hill.
Hill owned the 1978 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, a horse who appears in the genealogy of California Chrome on his sire’s side.
“I can understand this feeling that we need the Triple Crown every few years just to keep the interest up,” Hill told Al Jazeera. “That's not really what we're trying to do. We're trying to make super horses and I think it takes not only an exceptional horse to win all three races but great training, management and some luck. All those things should go together, and I don't think that the task should be lessened at all.”
Hill is not the only one associated with a former Triple Crown winner who feels this way.
In 1973 the legendary Secretariat snapped a 25-year run of failure, which had resulted in seven horses trying but falling short in the Belmont going back to Citation in 1948.
Secretariat won the Belmont by an astonishing 31 lengths – there have been 17 Belmonts decided by a neck or shorter going back to 1905 – and his owner Penny Chenery believes that the demand for change is simply down to a switch in breeding methods.
“We don't breed horses for stamina so much these days, and we don't train horses to run so frequently,” Chenery said from Boulder, Colorado. “I think change would invalidate all the records and all of the times. It would make it just an entirely different event. I know it's hard to win, but I guess the feeling is that since it hasn't been won in so long, people will lose interest in it, but I think it just makes it a more interesting challenge.”
Change is always bound to push traditionalists to arms, but the history of the Triple Crown is one of a constant state of flux.
The Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the three races having first been run in 1867, which pre-dates the Preakness by six years and the Kentucky Derby by eight.
The race schedule in its current format was only established in 1969, and prior to that Citation enjoyed a month’s rest after the Preakness before he won the Belmont. Assault in 1946 and War Admiral in 1937 had it particularly tough with the Preakness coming just a week after the Kentucky Derby, and the Belmont three weeks after that.
When Sir Barton won, the Triple Crown idea did not even exist. It was a concept that was borrowed from England.
“Horses years ago were tougher, and they campaigned harder, and they usually relished racing,” Patrice Wolfson, part-owner of Affirmed, said.
“They loved to run, all these Triple Crown winners of the seventies particularly. It's such a special group of races and the timing is perfect, and a horse has to be up to it. It's super the way it is and nobody should think of ever changing it under any circumstance.
“I think a horse going for it like California Chrome; this is really what's wonderful about it. Whether he does win it now and we have a new Triple Crown added to the list, I think I'm about ready to give up the last of the Crown winners. Sometimes I think that's my name; Mrs Last Triple Crown Winner. You'd just like to see a great horse win it, and I think he's got the potential to possibly be a great horse, so we'll be cheering for him.”