As we have pointed out, the game of horse racing is consistently changing. Breeding is headed in new directions and track operators are modifying track surfaces in order to keep both horses and jockeys safe when racing. The Kentucky Derby has been modified in the past as well to accommodate horses and the fans. Originally run at 1 ½ miles, the derby was changed to its present day distance of 1 ¼ miles in 1896. In 1975, the derby field was capped at 20 starters. An astonishing 23 horses started the year before. In 1986, the Triple Crown nomination procedure was initiated as well as the graded stakes earnings procedure. Graded earnings determine whether or not a horse earns the right to run on the first Saturday in May. A 20 horse field is expected each and every year and this year is no different. With 20 horses barreling from the gate, problems arise very quickly and horses may be eliminated from contention in the first turn. For this reason, a 20 horse field may be denying the racing world a Triple Crown.
Horse racing is a dangerous sport. Horses and jockeys have small windows for successful opportunities, but these windows occur in a split second. One false move or one false step could result in injury or death. On the flip side, it also proves that horse racing can be a beautiful sport. When a jockey and horse are moving in simultaneous rhythm, it can be an absolute pleasure to view. As an example, watch the 1998 Kentucky Derby. Watch and listen as Kent Desormeaux wills Real Quiet to victory. On that day, they were racing together as one unit and continued their winning ways in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later. Winning the Kentucky Derby displays a horse’s ability and a jockey’s ability as an athlete and shows they are able to pass the most challenging test of their racing careers. But with a 20 horse field, positioning often plays the largest role and creates traffic problems that lead to dangerous racing conditions.
If you look back at the last three Triple Crown winners, they faced much smaller fields: Secretariat (1973) 13 horse field, Seattle Slew (1977) 15 horse field, Affirmed (1978) 11 horse field. With decreased numbers, horses are afforded a greater opportunity to win. In a 20 horse field, everyone is trying to jockey for position headed into the first turn. Injuries small and significant are unavoidable, horses are asked to run a style unfamiliar to their normal patterns, and their chances of winning can be eliminated as soon as they break from the gate. Horses and jockeys are pinned in or forced wide which causes the horses to run further than originally asked. To be the best you have to beat the best, but are the best always entered in the most prestigious race in America?
It is safe to assume that some horses simply do not belong in the Kentucky Derby. Yes, they have earned the right to be there by acquiring enough graded stakes earnings, but they do not have a legitimate chance to win. This ultimately takes some of the glory away from the race and limits the chances of a Triple Crown. Since 1978, 11 horses have swept the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but were denied a spot in history by losing the Belmont Stakes. Also in that time, five horses failed in the Kentucky Derby, but came back to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. In 2001, Point Given entered the derby as the favorite, not only to win the derby but to win the Triple Crown. He loomed large in the derby, but his racing strategy was altered due to the large field. He eventually finished 5th behind winner Monarchos; his only race in which he did not hit the board. However, he returned to the winner’s circle with ease in the Preakness and absolutely destroyed the field in the Belmont Stakes. In my opinion, he should have won the Triple Crown, but his derby performance denied that opportunity. Four years later, Afleet Alex had a hard closing effort in the derby caused by traffic problems to finish 3rd. He also returned in the same fashion winning the Preakness and dominating the Belmont. Two horses in the past decade and both could have been Triple Crown winners, but the derby field played a significant role in their downfall.
So what can be done? Horsemen and horsewomen have suggested several options. Some have suggested trimming the distances of the three races with the Belmont being the longest at 1 ¼ instead of 1 ½ miles. Others have suggested placing more time between the races with the derby in May, the Preakness in June and the Belmont in July. I think that many of the problems pertaining to a Triple Crown can be solved in the derby alone. By limiting the field to one starting gate, a horse has a better chance to succeed. It narrows the field to the best 14 horses and makes the field more competitive. Although they will still exist, it eliminates traffic problems to a greater degree. It is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured with 20 horses before track operators are forced to narrow the field. A one-gate field also levels the competition and gives multiple horses a chance to win.
As I stated in the beginning, the Triple Crown is without a doubt the hardest feat to accomplish in all of sports. It requires a great amount of stamina and determination from the horse, the jockey, and other racing connections. Three races in a five week span is the test of champions. This format should remain in place. It is tradition, it is history, it is the Triple Crown. I believe we will see another Triple Crown winner, but all aspects must click. The horse must be bred to run distance and on dirt without significant problems. The horse must run the race of its life in the derby to contend for the Triple Crown, especially if it continues to be a 20 horse field. I can remember Alysheba in 1987 losing to Bet Twice, watching Silver Charm fall to Touch Gold from the floor of a sporting goods store as I was helping customers in 1997. I remember Real Quiet losing by a nose to Victory Gallop a year later from a hotel room in Indianapolis, and Smarty Jones fading to a hard charging Birdstone in 2004. The opportunity to win a Triple Crown is there. It’s in the barns on the backsides of tracks and the breeding sheds across the country. It’s in the horse stalls, the paddocks, and in the saddles. Great stories have been told about past champions and great stories are waiting to be told as the fans anxiously wait for a horse to emerge as a Triple Crown champion. Perhaps we will witness the magic begin once again this Saturday. As a fan myself, I’ll always keep my fingers crossed and hope for the racing magic to occur so that I may have the chance to tell my kids and grandkids that I saw a Triple Crown champion.
Written by Big Brink