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Horse Racing

Trying to figure out reasons for Triple Crown drought is as elusive as winning all three races

As with most debates involving sports, there are varying reasons for the absence of a Triple Crown champion racehorse over the past 37 years. It has as much to do with bank accounts as bloodlines, yet trying to pinpoint the main reason is as elusive as the achievement itself.

Longtime horsemen and horsewomen point to the changing economics in what was long called the "Sport of Kings," but seems more suitable today for sheikhs. Those whose careers are often measured in two-minute increments are hopeful that this nearly four-decade drought will end at Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

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"The business is a lot more economically driven than it ever was," said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and the Maryland Million. "This sounds bad, but [horses] are a product and there's an expectation of getting a return on the investment."

Hardcore bettors might believe that the horses who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but failed in the Belmont were not in the same class as the likes of Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner, or the 10 other four-legged superstars who won all three races as 3-year-olds.

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"I think there are multiple factors. If it was only one factor and it was that simple, people would have changed it," said Dr. Tom Bowman, a longtime Maryland breeder and trained veterinarian who has followed the racing scene closely for 40 years.

The only clarity is that American Pharoah is the favorite to join that group of three-peaters Saturday rather than be added to the list of 12 wannabes who have failed since 1978 on the 1 1/2-mile track in Elmont, N.Y., after winning in Louisville and Baltimore.

Few dispute that breeding is at the core of this ongoing dialogue. Modern-day horses are unquestionably bred more for speed than endurance, which Bowman and others say is a greater reflection of modern human behavior — or simply greed — than animal science.

"People are less and less patient about everything in life, people want to do anything that will give them the quickest return. And in horses, especially if you're breeding horses and trying to sell them to somebody else, you want to sell a product that people will view as a quick return," Bowman said.

As a result, most breeders are trying to raise horses that "run fast, run short and run early [in their life]," Bowman said. "Twenty-five years ago, there might have been more of these second-, third- or fourth-generation families that horse racing was part of their lifestyle."

Bowman said that the emphasis is also no longer on yearling sales, but on the sale of 2-year-olds, with the only consideration being how fast you can go.

"If you can go real fast, then somebody's going to pay you a whole lot of money, thinking that in a short period of time, they can recapture their investment," Bowman said.

Harford County-based breeder Mike Pons, along with his brother, Josh, has managed the Country Life Farm in Bel Air that has been in their family since 1933. He said the culture began to change when the 1986 tax laws cut down on the write-offs horse owners could make on their investments.

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Pons said that rewriting the tax laws "flipped the switch" that led to many horsemen cutting back on their operations or getting out of the business entirely.

"Up until that point, 72 cents on the dollar you incurred could be immediately written off in that year," Pons said. "Just the sheer expense in the four years it took just to get to a Triple Crown, you might have $75,000 to $100,000 tied up in any foal just to get to that point — maybe more depending on the stud fee and where you were raising those horses."

Bowman said fewer breeders and trainers are plotting long-term career strategies or "campaigns" for their horses and are trying to make a big score in a Triple Crown race in order to attract an even bigger offer — such as the one Calumet Farms made in buying Mr. Z from Ahmed Zayat right before the 2015 Preakness — or securing a quick stud fee.

It put more of an emphasis on producing multiple foals with the potential to win a big race, meaning stud fees became as vital to the day-to-day costs as the size of purses for the owners of those horses that made it to the winner's circle. Pons said a perfect example is the horse that sired American Pharoah.

Pioneer of the Nile seemed on the verge of winning the 2009 Kentucky Derby until 60-1 long-shot Mine That Bird came roaring along the rail with Calvin Borel aboard to win by nearly seven lengths. After finishing 11th in the 13-horse Preakness, Pioneer of the Nile retired that July with a soft-tissue injury.

Pioneer of the Nile's second crop of foals produced the horse that held off late-charging Firing Line at Churchill Downs and then blew away the field at Pimlico two weeks later. Three days after his victory in Baltimore, American Pharoah's breeding rights were sold to Coolmore Ashford Stud in Kentucky.

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Even before the tax laws changed, the shift from old-money families such as the Whitneys and Phippses gave way to a new phenomenon. It happened in the aftermath of Seattle Slew's march to a Triple Crown in 1977, coming just four years after Secretariat stopped what had been a quarter-century drought.

Billy Turner, who went from a relatively obscure steeplechase rider and trainer to earning national acclaim when he began training Seattle Slew at Andor Farm in Monkton in the mid-1970s, said the horse's original owners, a Washington state couple named Karen and Mickey Taylor, started a trend that continues to this day.

"When Slew won, he told the public that you could go out and buy the best horse in the world at the time on the market. People went out and spent a little bit of money and they came up with a horse that did it all," said Turner, the only living trainer of a Triple Crown winner.

Training changes

Not only did the breeding practices change; so did the training regimens.

"There's less and less trainers who worked as apprentices for Hall of Fame kind of guys and learned the business from the ground up," Bowman said. "More and more people get not concerned about building the substance of the horse for the long term rather than reaching a certain objective — hitting the quick button."

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Graham Motion, the English-born, Elkton-based trainer whose Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Kentucky Derby, said training changed largely as a result of the huge financial investment in racehorses that is comparable to professional sports franchises spending millions for stars.

Like the athletes, the horses are a bit "pampered," Motion said.

"I think it's a good comparison," he said. "With the investments that people have made, the fact that with the advancement of science and with the system and numbers we know a little bit more, we know what it takes for a horse to peak on any given day and we know if he runs every two or three weeks, that's not going to happen. Clearly we are a lot more savvy and a lot more protective of the horses."

Interestingly, just as the athletes of today are bigger and stronger than those in the distant past, Motion said that modern technology, medicine and nutrition have helped "make a case for horses being physically more imposing." He rejects the theory "that the horses are not as tough as they used to be."

Again, it comes back to economics.

"I don't think the breed has been diminished and you have weaker horses, I think [in past generations] they didn't have to race them all year round to pay their bills," Goodall said. "When people look at how much it cost to keep horses in training, it's hard to think, I am going to send the horse to South Carolina for the winter.

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"Trainers raced their horses [to get] fit as much as trained them to race them and then raced them. Probably most of it was economics, but when you look back on the older generation of trainers, they tested their horses early and they trained them hard. The horses either stood up to the training or they didn't, and when they didn't they got a year off. Horses got the winter off and they were getting healthy."

More races

In the old days, horses often raced in between the Triple Crown events.

In 1948, Citation won the Jersey Stakes before completing the Triple Crown with a record time in the Belmont.

"I think they trained harder and for longer distances," said Maryland-based Hall of Fame trainer King Leatherbury.

Still, the 82-year-old Leatherbury compares trying to win three stakes races in a span of six weeks to manual labor.

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"You did a ditch and the first day, you might dig 40 yards or something, the next day you might dig another 40 yards, but the third day, you're going to say, 'I can't go as hard, I need a break,'" Leatherbury said.

Six of the last 14 near-misses to win the first two legs have finished second in the Belmont.

Three had a realistic chance: Real Quiet faded badly down the stretch and lost by a nose to Victory Gallop in 1998; also Silver Charm in 1997 and Smarty Jones in 2004. Both were overtaken in the stretch to lose to Touch Gold by three-quarters of a length and Birdstone by a length.

Motion believes that the larger fields for the Belmont hurt the chances for a Triple Crown.

American Pharoah will be going up against seven others. A year ago, another Triple Crown hopeful, California Chrome, finished fourth in a field filled with fresh "shooters" — or "cheaters" as the favorite's frustrated co-owner, Steve Coburn, called Belmont winner Tonalist before later apologizing.

"It's not like we're that far from it having happened, and I think people really get caught up in the fact that we haven't had a Triple Crown winner," Motion said. "Everyone wants to be in these races and take a shot …and that makes it so much harder than it used to be."


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