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Triple Crown in need of polish?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Before Secretariat in 1973, it had been 25 years between Triple Crown winners. The thoroughbred racing industry and its fans were worried they would never see another horse like Citation, who won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1948.

Now, it is 28 years since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, and that gap, coupled with Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro's breaking his right rear leg on national television within 100 yards of leaving the starting gate at the Preakness, has set off another outcry over the sport. The main concerns:

The races are too grueling for modern horses.

The spacing of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont is unrealistic.

There will never be another Triple Crown winner.

Although many within the thoroughbred racing industry stand behind tradition and cringe at the idea of changing the requirements for a Triple Crown winner, Lou Raffetto, the president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said the idea of change should be explored.

"The game has changed," said Raffetto, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations at Pimlico Race Course. "We can't put blinkers on and say we're just not going to change because it has always been done this way. It would be myopic not to at least take a look and see if we can make it more viable for horses to perform in each of the events."

To change the Triple Crown, Raffetto said, would be a relatively simple thing. All it would require is agreement among the participating racetracks and their television broadcasting partners. "Nothing but cooperation is necessary," Raffetto said. "I've wished for a long time that we had three weeks between the Derby and the Preakness. Four would be better."

NBC sports president Ken Schanzer said Friday that any change that might be made "is a matter for the racing community to decide. And we'll be pleased to broadcast the schedule on which they settle."

NBC carries the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and ABC broadcasts the Belmont.

Raffetto said he, chief executive officer Joe De Francis and Magna Entertainment Corp. chief operating officer Don Amos will meet to discuss the issues sometime during the summer.

"Then, I'll take it to the next step, which would be to discuss it with the NYRA and Churchill Downs officials," Raffetto said. "I believe if we decide to move [the Preakness] to early June - I wouldn't want to run on Memorial Day [weekend] on a regular basis - it would make the Triple Crown races and the undercards so much better. It would be better for the series to get as many horses to run back in each jewel as possible. And, obviously, it would also have some benefits for the horses."

Raffetto believes all the pros and cons of a major change have to be weighed.

"There's always been a lot of tradition to consider," he said. "But, given what has happened this year [Barbaro's injury and few Derby horses running in the Preakness and few Preakness horses running in the Belmont], there seems to be a catalyst to take a hard look now."

Horses first

From the public's perspective, the most compelling reason for change is to protect the horses. No one denies the Triple Crown is a grueling test. If it weren't, there surely would be more than 11 winners in its 87-year history.

And the perception is that horses today are less sturdy than those who ran in the series decades ago. It is also generally believed horses who run for the Triple Crown are more often injured and have shorter careers because of the wear and tear they go through preparing for and competing in the series.

But Dr. Dean Richardson, who performed the operation on Barbaro's shattered leg at the University of Pennsylvania's George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals, is emphatic when asked if the industry is breeding a less sturdy horse in its quest for speed and whether running a horse three times over five weeks is asking too much.

"Categorically, no," he said. "No. When you look at thoroughbred racehorses, the incidence of injury in thoroughbred racing is not any higher than it ever was. It's still a risky endeavor. Horses are going fast. These are massive animals running fast. [But] there's no evidence whatsoever that the prevalence of injury in thoroughbred racing is increasing."

Laurel Park-based trainer Mike Trombetta agreed and added the lack of a Triple Crown winner, in his opinion, is not because of horses being less sturdy and therefore less capable of surviving the three tough races.

"The series is hard on the horses, even if they're perfectly healthy, just like winning any major athletic championship is terribly hard on any athlete," Trombetta said. "In this case, you're talking about three Grade I's in [six] weeks. It's a very difficult thing to ask of any horse. But it's not impossible. It just isn't easy."

And Trombetta reels off a list that includes Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex as relatively recent competitors who had real chances to win but lost by a foot or a neck for a variety of reasons.

"It's a lot of near misses, and I think one reason is the 20-horse field in the Kentucky Derby, not the spacing of the races," he said. "The best horse doesn't always win the Derby because of the number of horses there. I think Afleet Alex would have been a Triple Crown winner if he hadn't had that bad trip in the Derby. Thirty years and more ago, the fields for the Derby were much smaller."

When Sir Barton won in 1919, he beat 11 horses in the Derby. In fact, of the 11 Triple Crown winners, only War Admiral, in 1937, had to beat 19 others.

"This year, I think the best horse did win and I think Barbaro could have won the Triple Crown if not for his injury," said Trombetta, who was one of just two other trainers of Derby horses who brought their runners to the Preakness.

No follow-through

The fact that trainers of so few Derby horses decided to enter the Preakness and then the Belmont is another concern for the tracks hosting Triple Crown races. But despite the publicity and criticism trainers took for not coming to take on Barbaro, it was not that unusual.

Only three Derby horses took on Sir Barton a second time in 1919. Only one ran in the 1943 Preakness against Count Fleet. Only two of the five who took on Secretariat at the Preakness in 1973 ran in the Derby, and only two Derby entries took on Affirmed again in 1978. Of those two, only Alydar carried through to the Belmont.

If Trombetta had entered Sweetnorthernsaint, seventh in the Derby and second in the Preakness, in the Belmont, he would have been the only trainer to run the same horse in all three races this year.

Asked about the spacing of races, trainer Dan Peitz - whose horse Steppenwolfer finished third in the Kentucky Derby, skipped the Preakness and will now run in the Belmont - and trainer Tom Albertrani - whose Bernardini skipped the Derby, won the Preakness and will now miss the Belmont - both said they are not advocates of change.

"I've always said, 'no,"' Peitz said. "No, because that's what makes it so special. It takes a special horse to win the Triple Crown. Barbaro will be a blow to the industry if he doesn't make it because people get attached to the stars in this sport. I'm saying prayers for him. ... But you can't say Barbaro's injury was caused by the grind of the Triple Crown. He was the most well-rested horse there."

And Albertrani said he wouldn't mess with tradition, either.

"I don't think protecting a horse from injury has anything to do with the series," Albertrani said. "I think a lot of people just felt Barbaro was a great horse and there are a lot of other opportunities out there to run for big money. You don't have to run in the Preakness or the Belmont.

"But change it? I think tradition is what it's all about. Can your horse do it? You wouldn't want to change that."

Open to change?

At Churchill Downs, track president Steve Sexton said he believes there have been so many near misses during the past eight years, the argument that the crown can't be won doesn't apply. And he added that after the first two races in this year's series he sees no compelling reason to rush into a change.

"It was quickly concluded that Barbaro's injury came from taking a bad step and was not related to running back in two weeks," he said. " ... But we always have to be thinking of the future and of maintaining the safety of both the horse and the jockey. So, we're always willing to discuss options with our sister Triple Crown tracks."

In New York, Bill Nader, senior vice president of the New York Racing Association, said he is open to discussing changes in the series and believes Pimlico officials should initiate such discussions.

"The Derby is in the best position on the first Saturday in May," he said. "After that, it's up to Pimlico, coming in the middle, to dictate to us.

"The argument that ... you can't mess with tradition can't play as the closing argument. Times have changed. Horses don't run as often as they used to. In the 1970s they'd run every two weeks or less. I do think it really does need to be looked at."

But though the Belmont will run for just the third time in 36 years without either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness winners this year, Nader said he isn't in favor of a change just to accommodate current training practices. "I would do it only if there was convincing evidence that it would help the horse by reducing the chance of injury," he said. "Otherwise, the tradition means more."

Barbaro's legacy

Perhaps in the end, in an odd twist, it is Barbaro who proves the Triple Crown series works fine just the way it is.

The fact that so many believe Barbaro would have won the Triple Crown appears to go against the current belief that the series should be changed because winning it has become "impossible."

The fact that Barbaro's Fair Hill-based trainer Michael Matz mapped out a plan in which the horse ran just twice in 13 weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby - a race he won by the largest margin in 60 years - shows there is a humane and successful way to approach the demands of the strenuous series.

And, the fact that his injury has nothing, apparently, to do with Triple Crown demands, belies the idea it is the series itself that is dangerous.

Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who own Barbaro, are not among those campaigning for change.

"The series didn't worry us because we felt our trainer had laid out a sensible plan," Roy Jackson said. "We were looking forward to it because we knew we had a special horse and we felt he still hadn't run his best race. We're just sad the racing public really didn't get a chance to see him run at his very best."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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