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Absence of Triple Crown threat bad for Belmont, but not racing

Saturday is Belmont Day, which, depending on the year, can be either a singular and epic day in horse racing history -- or not. This year it's not. It's almost certainly true that the Belmont Stakes will be modestly attended and lightly viewed. There is no Triple Crown at stake and, as the mainstream sports audience has been made stridently aware since the day following Lookin At Lucky's victory in the Preakness, neither the Kentucky Derby (Super Saver) nor Preakness winner will run in the third leg of the series. There's no sugarcoating this situation -- it prevents one of the grand jewels of American racing from reaching outside its core audience.

The Belmont card looks good, which is cool for horseplayers (after all, the most enduring and important constituency in the game) and the big race itself brings together an intriguing collection of unproven horses who may yet achieve greatness. But as a big event capable of drawing eyeballs to televisions, it doesn't exist. If you are one of those people who watches only three races in the best of years, you'll probably be doing something else come 6:15 on Saturday. But let's not make this bigger than it is.

This circumstance leads to a now-familiar handwringing, inevitably centered on the notion that the Triple Crown must be altered in a way that makes it more attainable, presumably so that interloping fans will stay longer at the table -- into the first week of June instead of the middle of May. Think about what a small difference that is. It will come up again before you're finished reading, or at least before I'm finished writing, which I appreciate is not necessarily the same thing.

(A pause here: The calamitous Belmont situation is exceedingly rare. It occurred in 2006, when the racing community was still in shock over Barbaro's breakdown in the Preakness and hardly noticed. Before that it had been more than 50 years since neither the Derby nor Preakness winner ran in the Belmont. It's occurred so infrequently that it should be rejected as cause for panic.)

Back to the Triple Crown. It's been 32 years since Affirmed and Steve Cauthen held off Alydar to win a breathtaking Belmont Stakes and wrap up the Triple Crown in June of 1978. It was the third Triple Crown of the decade (Secretariat swept the series in '73 and Seattle Slew in '77), comprising a golden age of racing by almost any measure. (The 40's was a golden age, too, with four Triple Crown winners, but that was a very long time ago, and in how many other sports are modern judgments made through comparisons to the 1940's? Answer: None. Wait. Maybe in boxing, another thriving enterprise.)

Racing is struggling to retain its audience and its earning power. A line of popular thinking holds that changing the parameters of the Triple Crown series would remedy the sport. Among the suggestions: Alter the distances of the races (because the modern Thoroughbred is no longer bred to run the 1 ½ miles of the Belmont, or perhaps even the 1 ¼ miles of the Kentucky Derby) or perhaps the interval between them (Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher instantly blamed Super Saver's Preakness loss on the stress of running back in two weeks; modern-day racehorses almost never do that and even less often run three races in five weeks).

John Pricci, a very respected turf writer and handicapper and former colleague of mine at Newsday, recently blogged that the Triple Crown series might benefit from running the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, the Preakness on Memorial Day and the Belmont on July 4th. That's an intriguing idea that deserves attention.

However, a couple thoughts: The supposedly more fragile modern Thoroughbred has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown seven times in the last 14 years (seven in 12 years from 1997-2008, to be more precise), which is a serious batting average. Three of those seven -- Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and Smarty Jones (2004) -- were probably the best horses in the Belmont, but failed narrowly for strategic reasons.

In that same 12-year period, two other very good horses, Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005), each clearly the best of his generation, dominated both the Preakness and Belmont after failing to win the Derby (which is by far the toughest of the three races, because of the 20-horse field that turns it into a crap shoot in which Calvin Borel is the X-Factor).

The point here is this: It's not like recent horses have been getting overwhelmed by the Triple Crown. With just a few breaks, the sport might have had three or four Triple Crown winners in just over a decade. Afleet Alex was close in the Derby. Smarty Jones's jockey was overmatched by the task and ridden into the ground by jealous veterans. Silver Charm got beat by less than a length in the Belmont and Real Quiet by a nose.

Here is a larger question: Has the sport of racing truly been harmed by the lack of a Triple Crown winner (or the lack of a Triple Crown candidate in the Belmont)? You could credibly argue that the failure of any horse to win the Triple Crown has only lent credibility to the task. If it hasn't happened in 32 years, it must be worth watching horses try. My position is you can debate the point either way: It's good if horses keep winning (like in the 1970's), but it's not so bad if they keep failing in the effort.

Supporters of the racing game like to say this: "Horse racing NEEDS a Triple Crown winner.'' (Actually, what they say is "WE need a Triple Crown winner.") And this makes my think: Do we? What is that going to accomplish, beyond big television ratings for the Belmont Stakes and a momentary spike in interest that will pass before the first cherry bomb explodes?

In 2004, more than 120,000 jammed Big Sandy and watched Birdstone take down Smarty Jones. They roared in full throat as Smarty tried to hold on in the stretch, only to give way in the final sixteenth of a mile. It was a sensational moment. I was in a tunnel between the paddock and the finish line, my ears ringing from the roar. I wonder: How much better would the moment have been had Smarty Jones won the race? And for how long?

Racing is an ancient and expensive sport, populated by characters any writer could love. But the sport is fighting for its life. The 40's are gone. The 70's are gone. The model needs changing in major ways, but the Triple Crown isn't one of them. The Triple Crown is just fine. It will be won again by a worthy horse, and that horse will be celebrated like a Super Bowl winner. Until then, the waiting isn't bad. It's good.

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