Long wait continues for next Triple Crown winner

Orb grazes in the grass during an early workout at Pimlico.
Orb grazes in the grass during an early workout at Pimlico. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Horse racing fans talk about their sport not having a Triple Crown winner in nearly 35 years much the way baseball fans lament the fact that their favorite game has gone more than twice as long without a .400 hitter.

Undoubtedly, in the days leading up to the 138th Preakness at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday, there will plenty of discussion about Orb's chances to repeat what he did at the Kentucky Derby and, if victorious in Baltimore, what he might do next month in New York at the Belmont Stakes.


Yet those whose livelihoods revolve around the breeding and racing of thoroughbreds believe that as baseball has become a much different sport since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, so has horse racing when it comes to getting 3-year-olds with the bloodline and bravado to the starting gate for a chance at this elusive achievement.

They say their business has changed dramatically since Affirmed won three close races in a span of 35 days in the spring of 1978.


"Horses are running much less and they're lasting much less, at least up until now," Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said last week. "A lot of it is that they race so few times before the Derby that they haven't proven they don't belong. They don't seem to be able to last through the three races at the same level. Years ago, not only did they run four or five times [prior to the Derby], but they met each other a lot."

Bailey points to what many consider to be the sport's greatest modern rivalry, between Affirmed and Alydar. By the time they met in the final leg of the Triple Crown at Belmont Park, the two legendary horses had met eight times. In total, they would face each other 10 times, with Affirmed winning seven.

"You knew if you belonged or not, so you knew whether you should go in [to the Derby] or not," Bailey said.

Then and now


Longtime Maryland horse breeder Mike Pons, whose stallion Malibu Million sired Orb, agrees, recalling how Citation ran nine times as a 2-year-old in 1947 and continued that pace into his 3-year-old season in becoming the eighth horse to win the Triple Crown.

"You don't see a Citation running on a Monday and winning the Metropolitan and the same week he runs on Saturday and wins the Belmont," Pons said. "It's done differently now. The horses are probably not sound as they used to be."

Dr. Dean Richardson, the head of surgery at the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, wrote in an e-mail this week that he believes "that the horses that race today are actually more sound than 30 years ago and that there is much less willingness on the part of many trainers to run unsound horses. I realize this is not what a lot of people believe, but my experience is that many of today's trainers are very concerned about the horse's well being and will not press a horse to train and race when it has a diagnosed problem."

Despite only four starts prior to the 2011 Kentucky Derby, trainer Graham Motion must have believed that Animal Kingdom belonged. After taking over the horse's training in early March, Motion watched as Animal Kingdom went off at 21-1 (after starting the day at 30-1) and used the fastest last half-mile at Churchill Downs since Secretariat to win by 2 ¾ lengths over Nehro.

Considering how cluttered the Derby field looks after emerging from the starting gate — resembling a NASCAR race on four-legged machines rather than four tires — Motion said a lot has to do with the size of the field, the post position of the horse and the condition of the track on race day.

"Back in the day you didn't have to run against 14-, 20-horse fields every time these races are run. Nowadays every time you run it's a full field," Motion said Monday. "When you have 20 horses in the Derby every time it runs, you undoubtedly will always have a horse that has a bad trip. There's always going to be someone with a sob story about the trip they had."

Motion has his own — from the Preakness. The Fair Hill-based trainer still attributes Animal Kingdom's loss as a 2-1 favorite to the ride, not the rider. Jockey John R. Velazquez, who replaced an injured Robby Albarado the day before the Kentucky Derby, got caught in some early traffic and couldn't quite catch Shackleford down the stretch. Animal Kingdom faded to sixth at the Belmont.

"A lot of it is about having a good trip," Motion said. "Animal Kingdom had a tough trip in the Preakness in a full field of [14] horses, and I think it hurt his chances, quite frankly."

Motion said the fact that only eight horses have been entered in Saturday's race "could be the exception to the rule. This could be what really helps [Orb's] chances as well."

Different approaches

Pons, whose family's Country Life Farm in Fallston was opened by his grandfather in 1933, said the dearth of current Triple Crown winners might go back to the way horses are now bred to be sold rather than be raced.

The business changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the large breeding operations that dominated the sport nearly disappeared, replaced in part by many foreign owners and breeders coming over to the U.S. and buying up a large percentage of the country's promising horses.

Conversely, the boon of Triple Crown winners in the 1970s might have been a byproduct of importing some of Europe's top horses shortly after World War II.

"A lot of our top bloodstock has been exported, so there was definitely a gene pool depletion," Pons said. "Our best horses are now bred for 2-year old speed and early 3-year old speed. You don't have a lot of horses that can go a mile and a half. "

Said Bailey: "Our tax laws changed so you couldn't write off the expenses of owning and racing horses against your other business, so that took away the incentive of people in America to go the extra mile and spend the extra dollar and keep them here."

Cricket Goodall, the executive director of the Maryland Horsebreeders Association, said breeding has changed because the "percentage of races is skewed more toward shorter races. To be honest it's easier to train a horse more for speed than it is for stamina or distance."

In the past, Goodall said trainers used to "race them more into condition."

Said Motion: "I do believe that in this day and age there are less trainers looking to run horses a mile and a quarter. It's almost impossible to find a race going beyond a mile and an eighth."

Bailey said the horses that win big stakes races typically wind up have much shorter careers in order to take advantage of stud fees.

"It's pretty obvious," Bailey said. "I won't quite characterize it as the tail wagging the dog, but the breeding end has changed to become as important or more important than racing, probably more important. Horses, if they're talented, simply can't afford to pass the breeding shed up and race for another year."


Could streak end?


Orb is a rarity among recent Triple Crown winners in that the horse was not sold at auction, prompting Pons to say, "It's kind of fun to see a horse like Orb do it the old-fashioned way. It still works. It's almost like baseball where you bring a bunch of guys through your farm team and win the World Series instead of buying a bunch of free agents."

Goodall said the three-decade-plus stretch without a Triple Crown winner is also not without precedent.

"There've been dry spells before," Goodall said. "It's not like they were popping'em out every four or five years before. For some reason, there was a close bunch there [in the 1970s], but historically that hasn't been the norm."

Affirmed followed Seatle Slew by a year and Secretariat by five years in winning the Triple Crown, after what had been a 25-year-drought since Citation became the fourth horse in the 1940s to do it. Immediately after Affirmed, Spectacular Bid and Pleasant Colony came close the next two years, with each finishing third in the Belmont.

Of the 11 that have had a chance to win a Triple Crown after victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness — 12 if you include I'll Have Another, who was scratched the day of the Belmont last year — the horse that came closest to completing the grueling gauntlet was Real Quiet in 1998. After a photo finish, Real Quiet lost by a nose to Victory Gallop.

"I think Real Quiet in '98 should have won, my feeling is that Kent [Desormeaux] moved far too soon, but everything's got to go right," Bailey said.

Sometimes, the horse might not be the best, even after winning the first two legs. Bailey said that was the case in 2003, when Funny Cide took the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

"I thought Empire Maker was the best 3-year-old in the country anyway," Bailey said. "I'll tip my hat to Funny Cide. He beat me fair and square in the Derby. After the Wood, when I beat Funny Cide easily, there was no question in my mind that I had the best 3-year old in the country. When it came time to the Belmont after skipping the Preakness, there was no doubt in my mind that I would beat him."

Graham Motion sees some positive in the fact that the Triple Crown has become elusive in horse racing as other notable athletic achievements.

"I think it is a very hard thing to do — that's what makes it so special," Motion said. "I know there's talk of putting more time between races and such, but I personally think it's not meant to be an easy thing to do. Everyone's longing for a Triple Crown winner. When it happens, it will be very special because it's so hard to do. If it was easy, it wouldn't be so special."