Triple Crown Hysteria

Before I keyboard another sentence, I want to say that I think that all this Triple Crown hysteria is pretty stupid. I say this for two reasons: first, I’m going to get a lot of clicks on this piece, because everyone who Googles “Gelfand stupid” will read this monograph. Second, I really do think that the Triple Crown is a horrible excuse for its intended purpose, which is to define the best three year olds in America and, with any luck, produce a Triple Crown winner who would, in turn, guarantee a publicity jackpot.

This is the point at which I remind you that no one has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 and then I talk about Seattle Slew and Secretariat and all that, but you know all this stuff. This isn’t The Huffington Post, for God’s sake; it’s a horse racing blog.

Now, I think all of us would agree that a Triple Crown champ would be wonderful, and that we could use some good news these days. If I’ll Have Another wins the Belmont, we’re not going to return to the glory days of 1938, when the nation stopped to listen through the radio static to the match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit. But we’d get some feel-good stories and maybe a few more people in the grandstand. (Please, dear racing Gods, don’t let some Middle East oil billionaire snatch up I’ll Have Another before the Belmont.)

Having said that, I have to add that by my criteria, Bodemeister is still the best three-year-old out there and that folks have been mighty kind to Mike Smith, who tried to win the Kentucky Derby by sprinting, quarterhorse style, from beginning to end. I think the world, or at least an entire hemisphere, of Mike Smith, and you could argue that he’s as good as anyone else out there except Rafael Bejarano. But please… Smith did everything but scream “Wahoooo!” as he raced around the Twin Spires.

A guy who has been riding horses for 35 years can probably tell if his charge is on a pace to run six furlongs in 1:09 and change. I know some folks say that the trainer told him to let the horse set his own pace, but it takes a mighty stupid (more clicks) jockey to stick with a mighty stupid strategy. I always thought the most worthless thing any trainer could say to a jockey was “Get the lead, but don’t go too fast,” but those words are like wisdom handed down from Zion compared to “Let him set his own pace.”

So, in my mind, the Triple Crown isn’t really going to prove much of anything, except that the day is long gone when a horse can run the Kentucky Derby as if it were a five furlong dash and then come back two weeks later and win the Preakness.

The problem with the Triple Crown in general is that it long ago ceased to be a valid test of greatness and, instead, turned into a battle for survival. Even though we don’t precisely know why, we know that horses can’t run as far or as often as they once did. In terms of fitness and endurance, the breed in general has regressed to the mean. The American classic distance is now a solid six furlongs.

In 1823 – going back just a hiccup in time, at least in anthropological terms – Eclipse and Sir Henry turned out 60,000 spectators in New York for the Match Race of the Century. Not only did they race four miles, but they did it three times in one day, pausing just long enough to cool down and allow rival fans to call each other names, exchange blows, and bet even more money against each other.

So, if your argument is that we can’t change anything about the Triple Crown because we have to stick to horse racing tradition… I got your tradition right there. The paradigm has already shifted.

Now that we all agree on that, a fellow could probably make an argument for running all three Triple Crown races at, say, a mile, but that might be going too far (irony intended) and it would never happen anyway.

Still, we can find a compromise that allows a more realistic test of greatness by providing horses with reasonable and ordinary recovery time between races. I say run the races five or six weeks apart. Just for starters, we’d have a lot better chance of producing a Triple Crown, and the horse that won said Triple Crown might even be the best of his generation. We’d also build up the anticipation to the races, which is mostly the idea anyway. And more time would allow other three-year-olds to pad their resume, simply get better, and make each race more meaningful and competitive than the last.

For those who cannot abandon tradition, I understand. But horse racing tradition these days means weak fields and, ultimately, no Triple Crown champion since Affirmed.

I still say Alydar was better.

This blog was written by Twin Cities Radio Personality Mike Gelfand. Gelfand can be seen at Canterbury on Today at the Races every Friday night with Paddock Analyst Angela Hermann.



  1. Mike, there are days when I struggle with your pre-race handicapping on Fridays (just kidding) but I have to say you are right on with this blog article. Some of the traditions in horse racing are the very reason nationwide popularity in the sport has been in decline for decades, though it’s gratifying to see Minnesotans continue to flock to Canterbury Park in very large numbers year after year. Kudos to Canterbury for doing most things right …… but back to the point. If what was once the Major Sport of horse racing could evolve with some passion, as other Major Sports have done, the Triple Crown structure you suggest would be much more logical than the current structure, provide a more reasonable test of 3 year old greatness and, if properly marketed, actually boost interest in the sport itself over a longer period of time. But, as I often find when dealing with horse racing traditionalists who do next to nothing while waiting for the good old days to magically return, logic means little. C’est La Vie.

  2. Mark Zamzow says:

    Stretch, I’ll agree with you that Bodemeister is a nice horse. And if the American classic races were run at a mile and an eighth, he might be the best three year old on the country.

    I guess you could shorten the distances. And while you’re at it, give an extra week or two between races. But part of the charm of the Triple Crown is how tough it is to accomplish.

    Since Affirmed in 1978, so we’ve had the excitement that comes from watching a dozen horses get the first two legs. So far each of them has failed to close the deal in the Belmont, sometimes in dramatic fashion….. Touch Gold clipping Silver Charm in the final strides, for example.

    But I’ll Have Another may just be good enough to break that string of Belmont losses.

    For me, there’s no need to change what I think is a very good thing.

    Stretch, as I’m sure you’re aware, the Canadian Triple Crown is run on three different surfaces…. poly, dirt and grass. Crazy, right? So before you bring changes to the American Triple Crown races, I’d like to see you make some changes to the Canadian Triple. Then, let’s let twenty or thirty year pass, just to see how those changes affect the Canadian Classics. Once the verdict on that is in, go ahead and try some minor changes to the American Classics.

    But who knows? By then we might have another three or four Triple Crown winners.

  3. russ ruud says:

    I used to train horses at canterbury ; strech picked my horse in the paper to win ! went off at 25 to one ;;; the rest of them left 12;30 ;good pick ?

  4. Sunnygirl29 says:

    The quality of racehorses diminished after the loss of people who truly understood bloodlines and genetics. While one could argue that we know more now than ever, it is not being utilized. The direction breeders have chosen to go is leading down the path of weaker and less capable contenders. It is my belief, this indiscriminate breeding issue has led to the myriad of troubles across the country today. In so reasoning further, to the lack of Triple Crown winners.

  5. Danny Breeds says:

    Danny B.
    I agreed with most of your article expect for Smith and Bejarano. They are both high quality jocks, but those in the know have made way more money off Joel Rosario than either of them combined. Rosario came to Southern Cal and just started booting home winner after winner after winner for size and has never looked back. He’s the best one out there now by a furlong and it’s only a matter of time until he gets on the right horse at the right time in one of these classics.

  6. Lincster says:

    Man, “Gelfand stupid” in Google really brings up a lot of results….. 🙂

    Seriously, my issue is that in England/Ireland, and in Australia, the horses still run all day. The classic race is not 6f, but well over a mile (or 1600M). So, it could be that our oversea friends are pushing the horses too hard, or it could be that we are doing something that changes the breeding stock.

    I certainly don’t know enough to put out an opinion, I’m just putting out an observation. Do you ever wonder that moving from primarily turf to primarily dirt has hurt?

  7. M Gelfand says:

    I appreciate the thoughtful responses. I don’t know quite what to make of I’ll Have Another’s scratch/retirement, but it certainlty doesn’t do anything to change my mind. My guess is that this is a story that will be playing out for some time.

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