BOZICH | Despite American Pharoah, the Triple Crown needs a California upgrade
American Pharoah ended the Triple Crown drought last year, but horse racing would still benefit by expanding the reach of the event by moving the second leg to California.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Before they run the Preakness on Saturday in Baltimore, I want to thank trainer Bob Baffert, jockey Victor Espinoza and the remarkable American Pharoah one more time. They saved us from another blast of the tired 37-year-old question:
Is anybody going to win another Triple Crown?
Mission accomplished. Tradition upheld. The connections of Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat no longer have to sell horse racing by themselves.
But that doesn’t mean the Preakness is or should be in the clear.
If the Triple Crown has a questionable link, it’s the Preakness. Pimlico is a dump. Tradition is the primary thing that keeps horsemen coming back to Maryland on the third Saturday in May.
If you started the Triple Crown series today, Pimlico would rank 73rd on the list of tracks you’d pick for a signature event. Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Arlington, Del Mar, Monmouth, Saratoga and other spots do more to sell racing beyond hard-core fans.
Churchill Downs and Belmont are historic venues capable of hosting big racing moments like the Breeders Cup. Their owners have invested money in their facilities.
Those two tracks inspire a blast of history, not a sense of “What am I doing here?”
At Pimlico, you hope you survive without the power failing. Ask anybody who has been stuck in a Pimlico elevator or been advised that cab drivers won’t risk driving out to pick up a fare late on Preakness night.
If racing really wanted to increase the appeal of the Triple Crown, they would shake up the challenge, extend the distance of the second leg and move the race to Santa Anita.
Here’s a hot racing tip: Get the West Coast invested.
American Pharoah’s big win did not translate to more interest in racing in the western half of America. That was reflected in the Kentucky Derby’s Nielsen ratings.
Of the top 15 markets, one was west of the Mississippi River -- Denver.
The entire state of California shrugged. Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento, like Baltimore, were missing from the Top 20.
(For the record, so was New York City. But the Big Apple gets a pass. Always has. Always will. That’s life is the way Frank Sinatra explained it.)
I’m not the first to suggest this. Horsemen have discussed it for years. Two years ago, members of The Jockey Club confessed they wanted to discuss running the Derby on the first Saturday in May, the Preakness the first Saturday in June and the Belmont the first Saturday in July.
Racing has long been allergic to change. What changed? Nothing. Maybe some traditionalists wanted another horse to prove that a Triple Crown performance was possible before shaking and stirring the landscape.
American Pharoah did the job. Winning a Triple Crown can be done.
How about growing the Triple Crown audience? Can that be done?
Michael Wilbon of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption has argued the Triple Crown has become too much of a regional event. The Derby Nielsen ratings appeared to confirm that.
The top 3-year-olds report to Baltimore two weeks after the Derby. They are asked to do less, not more. They run the Derby at a mile-and-a-quarter and the Preakness at a mile and three-sixteenths. After a three-week gap, it’s time to grind over a mile-and-a-half at the Belmont.
Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to contest the second leg of the Triple Crown at a mile and three-eighths, making each race a bit more daunting than the one before?
While you’re at it, strengthen the second leg by working southern California into the schedule. Trainer Doug O’Neill and Nyquist will try to back up their Derby win in the Preakness Saturday. His stable is based in southern California.
Ditto for Baffert and American Pharoah last year. And trainer Art Sherman and California Chrome in 2014. Including the Los Angeles area in the Triple Crown would get the sports world talking.
Maybe racing can’t fix all of the Triple Crown problems. But keeping the second leg in Baltimore certainly does not help.
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