The Kentucky Derby is without a doubt the greatest two minutes in sports. It is the quintessential race that every horsemen/horsewoman dreams of winning. The road to the derby is a long, hard journey that begins early in a horse’s life and if everything clicks on the first Saturday in May, it can be the ride of a lifetime. Winning the Kentucky Derby would be comparable to walking on air. Winning the Triple Crown would be comparable to walking among the derby gods.
This May will mark the 33rd anniversary of Affirmed’s historic march through the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes or as it is known throughout the sporting world: The Triple Crown. Not only did Affirmed win all three races, but he was the last to accomplish the feat in the world of racing. Since that time 11 horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but have failed to place their names alongside the 11 horses that call themselves Triple Crown champions. The 1970s alone saw three of these champions compete: Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and Affirmed (1978). Secretariat’s dominating win in the Belmont snapped a 25 year drought without a Triple Crown champion; the last being Citation in 1948. This past decade has seen four horses try to accomplish the daunting feat only to fail. With 33 years and counting, the longest drought in Triple Crown history, one can only ask, can it be done?
As we count down to the Kentucky Derby, we will be examining some possible reasons as to why we have not had a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed. Most notably, we will look into breeding, track surfaces, and the derby field. The Triple Crown is the hardest feat to accomplish in all of sports. By altering the Triple Crown, it takes away from the nostalgia and history, but conditions can be implemented that can give America what it has been lacking: a Triple Crown champion.
The world of horse racing has dramatically changed over the years. Racing conditions, equipment, medications, purses, training practices, and handling have all been staples in the racing world, but they have improved over time. Multi-million dollar corporations now have a firm grip on the racing world and money is a driving force. I’m not saying that money is the root of all evil, but it is the number one factor. Everyone is trying to make money from the railbirds to the trainers to the track owners. The only way to accomplish this goal is to offer solid racing with solid purses and solid fields. And, the process begins with breeding.
For generations, horses were originally bred to run distance. Now it seems that horses are bred more for their looks and speed. They are treated as financial investments rather than athletes. I’ve always been a big advocate for checking a horse’s pedigree before heading to the ticket window, especially in a race like the Kentucky Derby. But now with the amount of cross-breeding, horses are more prone to hereditary defects that leave them more susceptible to injury and they are unable to run longer and further. Longer distances, such as the Triple Crown races, increase the chance of injury which may lead to premature retirement or even death. Trainers and owners are now limiting time between races at both 2 and 3 years old in order to protect their investment. If a horse is lucky enough to win a Grade 1 or a classic race, their breeding rights immediately sky rocket leaving the owners financially secure. Champions are now being bred with champions in hopes of producing the greatest horse of all time. But this still remains to be seen. Horses just don’t seem to be tough enough to handle the grueling schedule and distances which is a shame. For instance, Citation ran nine times as a 2 year old and 20 times at 3. He ran a total of 45 races in his career which lasted into 1951 at the age of 6. Big Brown, winner of the 2008 Kentucky Derby, ran once as a two year old and only twice before the derby. After winning the Preakness, he did not finish the Belmont Stakes and put his Triple Crown hopes in question. He ran twice more before retiring due to injury. This is a perfect example of how horses are bred more for speed over stamina. They just don’t breed them like they used to.
I understand that horsemen/horsewomen are looking out in the best interest of their horses and I commend them for this effort. They are in fact living creatures that deserve our respect. I have seen some great horses compete in the Triple Crown and have benefited financially from the trainers/owners decisions to rest between races. Barring injury, any horse that is lucky enough to win the Kentucky Derby is more than likely moving on to the Preakness in hopes of capturing all three races. But, if they misfire and come back to the stalls in perfect condition, perhaps we should examine their pedigree and question whether or not breeding purposes cost the horse the Triple Crown before the horse even set foot on a track.
Breeding is a multi-billion dollar industry and all owners are looking for that special horse. It absolutely plays a serious part in deciding whether or not a horse can make all three distances and conquer each rival along the way. It is an interesting debate and one worth noting as we approach the Kentucky Derby. I believe a special horse will emerge and give us all the surprise of a lifetime by winning the Triple Crown. Will that horse be in this year’s field? I don’t know, but I will definitely be looking at the bloodlines before post time.
Written by Big Brink