Illustration for article titled Why California Chrome Not Winning The Triple Crown Is Even Worse Than You Think

California Chrome fell short of winning the Triple Crown, which sucks for California Chrome, but sucks even more for the racing world.


It really wasn't a surprise that California Chrome lost. It hardly happens that a horse wins the Triple Crown. The first horse to do so was Sir Barton in 1919, when the Triple Crown didn't even exist—Sir Barton was retroactively named the first winner of the Triple Crown in 1948, the same year Citation became the first horse to officially win the Triple Crown. Retroactively, seven more horses were awarded the honor. More confusing still, the Triple Crown had informally been called the Triple Crown since the 1930's, so even though the horse racing industry did not recognize it, it more or less existed then. Since Citation in '48, there have only been three Triple Crown Winners: Secretariat in 1972, Seattle Slew in 1977, Affirmed in 1978.

There's been much talk over the last few decades that the format of the Triple Crown needs to change. The main argument being that it would draw more people to horse racing and garner more interest to the sport. It sounds good, but there's nothing wrong with the format today, in fact, it's one of the few things horse racing has done right and fixing it might just break it altogether.


The format as it stands now:

The Kentucky Derby: First Saturday in May (114-mile/2.0 km)

The Preakness: Two Weeks After the Derby (1316-mile/1.9 km)

The Belmont: Three Weeks After the Preakness (112-mile/2.4 km)

Of the many proposed changes the one that is gathering the most steam is simply to space the races further apart. Five weeks, so the argument goes, isn't enough time to run three races of this caliber. Other popular arguments include changing the distance; especially the Belmont, which is pretty much a marathon in horse racing.


Of the many debates horse racing purest give demanding that it not be changed most usually boil down to the fact that it would invalidate the records. That's not necessarily right or wrong; it's just not the best argument. Of the 11 Triple Crown winners, eight of them did not win under the current format; only the last three (listed above) accomplished that. Nobody really makes any argument that those three horses invalidated the previous eight. The reason's rather simple; the current format actually made it more difficult to win the Triple Crown, not easier.

Detractors of the current format should also keep in mind that horse racing underwent a 25 year drought, from Citation in 1948 until Secretariat in 1973, without a Triple Crown winner. Yes, this current drought is much longer, but that doesn't mean it isn't going to happen, and it certainly isn't going help racing to simply make the Triple Crown easier to win. Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed were all amazing horses and great athletes (Secretariat most of all) and that's why they won the Triple Crown.


Winning the Triple Crown under this format can be done and several horses have come close over the last 36 years. Click here for a complete list of horses who won at least two of the three legs of the Triple Crown (I'll Have Another (2012) and California Chrome (2014) both accomplished this as well, but are not on this list. I'll Have Another didn't even race in the Belmont which you can read about here if you are interested).


You might have heard some grumblings about how Tonalist, the 2014 Belmont Stakes winner, only won the Belmont because unlike California Chrome, he did not race in all three legs. It's hard to say if that's the case or not, but plenty of other horses have won the Belmont having run all three legs of the Triple Crown.


There have been 12 horses all with a chance to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed won it all in '78, with Smarty Jones coming heart-breakingly close to winning it all in 2004. Afleet Alex won both the Preakness and the Belmont and took third in the Kentucky Derby. Silver Charm and Real Quiet won both the Derby and the Preakness only, like Smarty Jones, to finish second in the Belmont. Tabasco Cat won the Derby and the Belmont, but faltered with a sixth place finish in the Preakness. Riva Ridge might have brought the 70's four Triple Crown winners if not for a rainy day and sloppy track when he ran the Preakness in '72.

The horse racing industry wants a Triple Crown winner. It brings people to the gate, and for a sport that is dying off it needs all the fans it can get. Nothing does this better than having a horse win the Triple Crown. Had California Chrome won the Belmont it would have ended the tired debates about how the format needs to be changed. California Chrome did not lose the Belmont because of the format. It lost the Belmont because it's a really hard race to win.


The truth is that California Chrome is a great horse, at least as a three-year-old and will likely rest on his laurels from this year alone. Another truth is that California Chrome is not one of the special few. He has nothing on Secretariat (no horse does) and he's no Seattle Slew or Affirmed. The Triple Crown is hard to win for a reason and is considered racing's highest honor for a reason. That reason is really simple: The format as it stands now, well, it's proven to separate the elite horses from the great horses. And elite horses don't come around so much, but stick around long enough and you'll likely see a few Triple Crown winners in your lifetime. Should they change the format, well, you'll likely see one every few years.

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