Even if we do have a Triple Crown, horse racing a niche sport

Friday June 7th, 2013

Orb (center, rear) finished fourth in the Preakness Stakes, dashing all hopes for a Triple Crown run.
Patrick Semansky/AP

A field of 14 racehorses will contest the 145th Belmont Stakes Saturday in Elmont, N.Y., on the outskirts of New York City. Among the starters will be the winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, a blazingly fast colt who ran neither of those races but might be better than those who did. Also joining them is a filly who is not among the favorites but who provides an intriguing alternative interest -- not only because she is exceptionally swift, but also because she will be ridden by the best female jockey in the sport (maybe one of the best in history). At stake is victory in one of the most important thoroughbred races on the planet, a race that influences the breeding of future generations like almost no other. It is, by almost any measure, a fascinating contest, rich with storylines and history, and it will unfold at a legendary American sports venue.

Unfortunately, none of this really matters this year. The much harsher truth is that this Belmont Stakes is a B-list sporting event because there is no horse in the race that won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness; thus there's no chance for a historic Triple Crown victory, which would be the first in 35 years, since Affirmed held off Alydar in 1978 to win the third triple of the 1970s. There will be no stories recalling the mighty champions of days gone by (at least not in a Triple Crown context) and none cataloguing the near-misses of the last three-and-a-half decades. There will be no sense of gravity and import, no whiff of history in the Gotham air. There will be a good horse race, a nice crowd, a solid telecast by NBC, drawing respectable ratings that the network's publicists will skillfully (and justifiably) measure against other "non-Triple Crown" Belmonts. And that's it. See you next spring.

This is the corner into which horse racing has been painted, and into which it has painted itself (with great help from the media, myself included). Each year the Triple Crown unfolds with a predictable rhythm: in March and April, Kentucky Derby contenders reveal themselves and their backstories, which are inevitably rich and compelling. In horse racing, the people involved are more interesting than in most other sports. (But again, It's racing, and that diminishes the impact these tales can make, except within a very narrow time frame).

On the first Saturday in May, a horse wins the Derby and becomes a momentary crossover sports commodity, a figure to be chased along through the fortnight between the races at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. The thinking goes: if only -- this year, Orb -- can win the Preakness, then all the wide, wide world of sports will embrace his run to Belmont, and just maybe he can win the Belmont, and then racing would have a star. (Insert swooning here.)

That didn't happen. Instead, Oxbow (trained by 77-year-old Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and ridden by 50-year-old Hall of Famer Gary Stevens), got loose on the lead in the Preakness, jogged through slow fractions and then galloped home in an easy win. Orb didn't come close to duplicating his Derby performance for a few reasons. The pace was slow, which made it very difficult for a come-from-behind horse to come from behind. Also, jockey Joel Rosario made a decision to keep Orb down inside on a dead, crowded rail, which the horse did not like. And finally, the horse had a lousy day in comparison to his Derby and his earlier victories in Derby prep races. Most likely, it was some combination of all three. Whatever the cause, the sport shuffled out of Baltimore with the Triple Crown dead for another year, whereas if Orb had won, of course, the sport would have sprung to life as if it was 1939.



This is a tired premise that I have occasionally espoused. I now reject it. Let's live in an alternate reality for a moment. Let's say Stevens got pressured on the lead in the Preakness and Rosario swung Orb outside down the backside of the Pimlico oval and, most of all, let's say Orb felt good. Let's say he felt like running fast. He circled the field on the final turn and stretched out rolling down the lane, winning by four lengths. And the Triple Crown was alive with amiable trainer Shug McGaughey, old-school owners Ogden Mills (Dinny) Phipps and Stuart Janney III, and a beautiful bay colt bred to run all day. Where would we be this week?

We would be in the buzz at Belmont Park. (I know I would have been there all week, but I'm not. I'm working on an NFL feature, though I will be at the race on Saturday -- check SI.com for the story later in the evening). Yet the power of that buzz is debatable. The NBA Finals began last night in Miami and continue on Sunday night. Major League baseball is embroiled in a PED scandal the likes of which no sport has experienced. The NFL is never quiet; OTAs last week, mini-camps this week and Big Ben is having knee surgery. To be sure, a Triple Crown attempt would skim off its share of attention; it always does. Let's suppose a Preakness-winning Orb won the Belmont and became the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed. So sweet. I'm on record with my own feelings about this milestone, which I may or may not see in my life time (currently leaning toward "not."). A year ago, when Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another pulled out of the Belmont on the day before the race, I wrote:

People who care about horse racing for any reason all have a list that they keep close to their soul. It is a list of the Triple Crown near-misses that disappointingly connect the great thoroughbreds of the 1970s -- Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed -- to the present. It is a long line of failure, for as many reasons as there are horses who have fallen short.

At the top of my list has always been 2004, the overcast afternoon when that record throng of more than 120,000 watched Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones pull away from his opponents on the far turn and run deep into the stretch with a big lead over the field. The grandstand shook. Racing is gone from the stage of American sport, but at the moment it might as well have been 1936, and that was an amazing thing to feel. But with each stride, little Birdstone cut into Smarty's lead, until finally nailing him inside the 16th pole and winning by a solid length.

The building slouched in disappointment, and the winning trainer (Nick Zito) famously apologized to the runner-up (John Servis). As a journalist, I do not care deeply about who wins and loses games from a fan's perspective. But as a writer and a human being, I long to see what history looks like on a racetrack. Or anywhere else. I cherish every world record I've seen in track and field. I won't forget watching David Tyree pluck a football from the air in Arizona and pin it to his helmet. On that day eight years ago, I chased Servis through the paddock, talked to him briefly, and then returned to the press box at a deflated crawl, head down, sweating and defeated, hearing the crushed stone beneath feet that I was barely lifting. I think of that walk every time I traverse the Belmont paddock...

A Triple Crown would be a moment -- a beautiful, lingering, memorable moment. But on the Sunday morning following the Belmont in which the Triple Crown drought ended, racing would awaken precisely where it was a month before the Derby. It's a niche sport whose days as a major player on the sports landscape are decades gone. A Triple Crown would, indeed, give the sport a star. (And if the winning horse was ridden by Rosie Napravnik, there would be two stars, and the human would be much the bigger; getting far too hypothetical here.) Yet, the desperate notion that racing needs a Triple Crown to stops its slide from the mainstream of American sports and recapture its bygone relevance is silly and misguided. A Triple Crown by Smarty Jones or Big Brown or I'll Have Another or Orb or the yearling son of Zenyatta and Bernardini will not suddenly rewind time.

It is powerfully tempting for the racing industry to sell the pursuit of the Triple Crown, and it makes for an alluring two weeks, waiting to see if the Derby winner can win the Preakness. But when that doesn't happen, the sport drops with a thud three weeks before the Belmont. When it does happen -- and it happens pretty frequently, eight times in the last 16 years --there's another three weeks of anticipation. And those are always a good three weeks, where history mixes with hype and both mix with hope. But in playing all its chips on the dream of a Triple Crown, racing (and yes, again, racing media) has devalued everything that's not a Triple Crown. And consider this bizarre possibility: The industry and media have leaned so heavily on the Triple Crown drought as the foundation for telling the story of the sport, that an actual Triple Crown might diminish the weight of the accomplishment. It happened in the 70s.

Which brings us to Saturday's Belmont, a very good and interesting horse race. Orb is running as the 5-2 morning line favorite, and seems to have found a measure of the energy that he showed in the week leading to his Derby win. Oxbow is running, and while it's unlikely he will get the soft splits he got in Baltimore, it's cool to see Lukas (and Stevens, too) center stage again, and not just because he was good once, back in the day. Then there is Freedom Child, who might have won the Derby if he hadn't been accidentally held by an assistant starter at the beginning of the Wood Memorial prep race, where he finished last (all bets on him were refunded). Freedom Child subsequently came back to dominate the Peter Pan Stakes on the just the type of sloppy track that's expected Saturday.

Unlimited Budget, a filly trained by Todd Pletcher, was unbeaten until she finished third in the May 3 Kentucky Oaks, the female version of the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher trained filly Rags to Riches to her 2007 Belmont victory over the great Curlin, the first filly Belmont win in 102 years. (Pletcher also will have five of the 14 starters in the race). Rosie Napravnik will ride Unlimited Budget, becoming the first woman to ride in all three Triple Crown races in a single season. (Julie Krone, the best female jockey in history, won the 1993 Belmont on Colonial Affair). Revolutionary, the third-place finisher in the Derby, is also back for another shot.

It is a deep race, full of fast horses and compelling stories. Non-Triple Crown Belmonts gave us Afleet Alex in 2005, Rags to Riches in 2007 and Union Rags a year ago. But it will not give us the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, and that is a shame. Perhaps in another year. Perhaps in another decade. Perhaps never. But there is much to racing beyond pursuing that elusive slice of history. There are other days, other moments.

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