Nobody knew when Steve Cauthen rode Affirmed to victory in the 1978 Belmont Stakes that it would not be done again for three decades, and then some.
There have been chances. A dozen colts since then have won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. But the long home stretch at Belmont Park has been a graveyard for Triple Crown dreams.
The last horse with an opportunity, I'll Have Another, didn't even try it, scratching the morning of the Belmont.
In truth, the best shots at the Triple Crown in the past three decades were colts whose bad Kentucky Derby luck cost them -- Risen Star, Point Given and Afleet Alex. They all won the last two jewels after coming short in the Derby.
Can California Chrome end the drought? That's the question that will capture horse racing in the next three weeks and, fortunately for the sport, will capture part of the nation's general sports conversation, too.
It is the one time when the sport receives the general public's attention, at least for something positive. In fact, so hungry has the sport been for a Triple Crown winner that the drumbeat has intensified to tinker with the format of the three races that comprise it, spreading them out to match the less demanding running schedules of today's trainers and thoroughbreds.
California Chrome, a colt of humble breeding out of California, has a chance to end that discussion, for the time being.
If he wins at the Belmont, you can dial down the talk of scrapping horse racing tradition in search of a superhorse. If he falls short, you can bet on a reorganization happening.
One person who says something needs to happen is Steve Coburn, co-owner of California Chrome, who already is leery of the half-dozen Derby starters who skipped the Preakness to go straight to Belmont. Todd Pletcher, who has saddled more Derby starters than any other trainer, hasn't run a colt in the Preakness for three years, and will have three fresh horses waiting for California Chrome at the Belmont.
Only three Derby starters went to the Preakness this year, and there have been no more than six in the past five years -- out of Derby fields that average just over 19 starters.
"I honestly believe that they need to change this sport to where those 20 horses that start the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races," Coburn said. "If you bow out in the Preakness, you don't come back for the Belmont. I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my lifetime because there are people out there trying to upset the apple cart. They don't want a Triple Crown winner. They want a paycheck. So that's my honest opinion. If they don't like it, I don't care."
Coburn isn't the only one talking about changes to the format. Before Saturday's Preakness, Pimlico Race Course president Tom Chuckas Jr. said, "I'm not anti-tradition, but the game has changed. . . . Trainers' philosophies have changed. At the end of the day we owe it to our fans to put the best product on the table."
One prominent suggestion has been to move the Preakness to the first Saturday in June, and then to hold the Belmont on July 4 weekend. It would match the spacing to today's running styles, and likely provide more incentive for more trainers to run in all three races.
Racing purists don't like it. I understand the argument. Just because something is hard doesn't mean you change the finish line. It's a lowering of the bar, literally, and you see it too much in too many areas of our lives.
There's part of me that likes the idea of the Triple Crown being the most difficult feat in major American sports.
But the Triple Crown, it must be said, isn't sacrosanct. Moses didn't hand down the format on stone tablets. When the great War Admiral won his Triple Crown, the three races were spread over six weeks -- not five. (Of course, he ran a fourth race inside that stretch, just to stay fresh.)
The dates of the three jewels changed repeatedly during the first 50 years of their history.
The sport, frankly, is in decline. It can't capture the public's attention except for these rare runs at racing immortality. If it can give itself a boost by making the goal more attainable, it's better than languishing in its current dysfunction.
I've had a change of heart on this. I'd like to see the Triple Crown bar stay where it is. But at this point, the cost might be too high.
Not only is horse racing a sport in decline, but the thoroughbred breed itself is in decline. Horses can't run as long as they used to. They can't run as often as they used to. Decades of breeding for speed has left the breed less sound.
And not only that, but horses aren't getting any faster. The men's world record in the 100-meter dash has been broken 22 times since 1964. The thoroughbred record for one mile on dirt (Dr. Fager's 1:32 1/5) has been matched just once since 1968. The fastest time in each of the three Triple Crown races was run by Secretariat, 41 years ago.
There are ways to address these issues without remaking horse racing completely. If the Kentucky Derby would limit its field to 14 starters, it would create a more honest race and perhaps lessen the chance for the best horse to get caught up in a traffic mishap.
And, perhaps, the biggest problem of all is the structure of the sport itself. Horse racing is run by individual governmental bodies in the various states where races are contested, and if you put state government in charge of anything, it's going to be screwed up if it goes on long enough.
There is no central authority. There are no common rules. There is no overarching principle or sense of direction.
Into all of this steps California Chrome, with his six-race winning streak and the hopes of his sport riding in his saddlebags.
If he wins, racing gets its Triple Crown hero and its signature accomplishment might hang onto its traditional foundation. If he loses, he might be the last Triple Crown near-miss, as we know it.
And while that's worth mourning, for horse racing, it might actually be the right thing.
Wednesday, August 20 2014 9:47 PM EDT2014-08-21 01:47:16 GMT
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One day after winning the Preakness, California Chrome was healthy and happy in his Pimlico stall, but questions over whether he'll be allowed to use a nasal strip could add a wrinkle to his run for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes.More >>
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Friday, May 16 2014 4:58 PM EDT2014-05-16 20:58:08 GMT
With more and more Kentucky Derby horses skipping the Preakness, California Chrome should have a smooth road to the Belmont -- but early speed in the race makes it tricky for the heavy favorite.More >>
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