California Chrome And Why Horse Racing Needs To Change

By Willis Patenaude
California Chrome
Brian Spurlock – USA TODAY Sports

Horse racing history was thwarted once again as California Chrome failed to win the Belmont Stakes, finishing fourth, thus continuing the 36-year Triple Crown drought.

In a moment of emotional anger, Chrome’s co-owner Steve Coburn called the victory by Tonalist the “coward’s way out.” Many saw it as an example of poor sportsmanship from a sore loser. Others rallied around Coburn, acknowledging what many refuse to admit: the TC is broken.

Chrome was a victim of modern circumstance that allows horses who aren’t qualified to run in the Kentucky Derby, or who choose to skip it altogether, to act as cherry-picking gate-crashers in the Belmont. Of the top three finishers, only third-place finisher Medal Count competed in a prior TC race when he finished eighth in the Derby. The eventual winner, Tonalist, had four weeks of rest, last competing on May 10 while Chrome was busy vanquishing all challengers in the Preakness Stakes on May 17.

Is it any wonder then that Chrome could hardly hold off Tonalist and second-place finisher Commissioner, who also skipped the Derby and Preakness? Is this fair? Not if you’re a logical person who believes in such concepts as honor and integrity. A proper analogy would be golf. A golfer cannot skip the entire season, earn zero FedEx Cup points and then compete for the FedEx Cup Championship. So, why is this kind of “cowardly” behavior acceptable when it comes to horse racing?

Traditionalists will argue that changing the TC will diminish it, but this is an abject absurdity put forth by people who are living in the past. The term itself wasn’t coined until the 1930s, and the first “Triple Crown” winner, Sir Barton in 1919, wasn’t officially declared a TC champion until the 1950s.

In fact, every horse that won the TC before 1950 was retroactively awarded the title at annual awards dinners of the Thoroughbred Racing Association in New York. All the talk of tradition is purely invented as an after-the-fact construct, not an intricate part of the sport’s history.

More to the point, the TC has seen changes, so arguing against them now is misguided sentimentalism that puts “tradition” ahead of the sport’s own survival. In 1917 and 1922, the Preakness and Derby were run on the exact same day, and the Belmont has taken place before the Preakness 11 times.

The current format wasn’t permanently established until 1956, which allowed 1930 TC winner Gallant Fox to win the Preakness before the Derby, and the current distances weren’t finalized until 1926. If previous generations had no issues making changes, why does the current one?

The most ridiculous argument against changes is also the most ignorant. It goes, “if Secretariat had to win under this format, then so do others.” Well, history has proven it wasn’t always like this and past TC winners had it a little easier.

The last three TC winners and their main rivals competed in all three races. Secretariat had Sham, Seattle Slew had Run Dusty Run and Affirmed had Alydar. In today’s world, Alydar’s owners would have taken the “coward’s way out” and skipped the Preakness as Chrome’s rivals did.

Furthermore, Sir Barton beat two horses in the Belmont, and Affirmed and Secretariat only beat four, while Chrome had to beat 10. The idea of “new shooters” spoiling the Belmont is a rather recent phenomenon. Six of the last seven Belmont winners when a TC was on the line skipped the Preakness. In contrast, between 1961 and 1998, eight of 11 Belmont spoilers started the Preakness. That’s called integrity.

Also, the average number of horses in each race is far larger than anything past TC winners had to deal with, and the Belmont has seen the largest increase.

Historically, TC winners faced an average of 4.4 horses in the Belmont, while today’s contenders face 8.3. In fact, the most horses defeated by any TC winner in all three races was 33 by War Admiral in 1937. Affirmed, the last TC winner, defeated just 20. Chrome, by comparison, had to beat 18 in the Derby alone!

Change is hard, but it does not diminish or destroy. Roger Maris is not diminished, the DH didn’t destroy baseball, the forward pass did not ruin football and change will not diminish the Triple Crown. However, people clinging to a tradition that allows Smarty Jones and California Chrome to be defeated by the “coward’s way out,” already has.

Willis Patenaude is a writer for Follow him on Twitter, “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google

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