Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Triple Crown: U.S. Horse Racing's Most Elusive Prize

In the United States, we have several kinds of horse racing.  The most popular is Thoroughbred racing, often called the Sport of Kings. These races are run on turf (grass) and dirt, as well as on synthetic surfaces, over distances from 6 furlongs (1207 m) to  1-1/2 miles (roughly 2400 m).

Although Thoroughbred racing is a big money game, there are still small breeders out there who hope to beat the odds. Racing is full of "rags to riches" tales. Steve Coburn and Perry Martin are living one of those tales . They call their racing business "Dumb Ass Partners." They are two Californians: one works as a press operator in a plant; the other owns a small lab that tests technology and materials. New to racing, they started as share owners in a syndicate that owned a mare named Love the Chase.

Califronia Chrome: 2014 Derby and Preakness Winner
The mare was undersized and she didn't do well on the track. The syndicate put her up for sale, and Coburn and Martin decided to buy her. She cost them $8000 U.S. After a few more bad races, they retired her from racing and bred her to an apparently unremarkable stallion. The foal that resulted was named California Chrome.

This year, California Chrome has American racing all atwitter: he just might win the Triple Crown of American horse racing this year: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.

No horse has managed to do this since Affirmed in 1978, though 13 got to the last race, the Belmont, with a chance. Since 1875, when the grueling three-race series began, only 11 horses have claimed the title. What makes it so hard is that the second race is only 2 weeks after the first, and then there's just 3 weeks before the last, and longest, race.

The races are open to any 3-year-old Thoroughbred who qualifies. It doesn't matter if they're colts, fillies or geldings, though the majority to run have been colts.

The first race is the fabled Kentucky Derby, held on the first Saturday in May. It's 1-1/4 miles (2000 m), the farthest most of the young horses have ever been asked to run. The Derby culminates a week of parties and celebrity events; fashion is front and center at Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville KY on Derby Day, with trendy hats (and also some that are bizarre). Mint Juleps (a sugared bourbon drink) are the traditional cocktail.

The field is always crowded, making it a difficult race to run. California Chrome won it by 1 and 3/4 lengths.

The second leg of the series is the Preakness Stakes, run at Pimlico Racetrack in Baltimore, MD. The Preakness is the shortest of the races at 1-1/8 miles (1911 m), and its crowd is the most diverse in the series: baseball caps are more likely than fancy hats, and instead of mint juleps, folks are downing beer. The Preakness is run on the third Saturday in May--a tight turnaround for today's racehorses, who tend to be quite lightly raced. Twenty-two horses in all have captured both the Derby and the Preakness (excluding the eleven Triple Crown winners), only to be beaten in the Belmont.

California Chrome won the Preakness by 1-1/2 lengths, holding on against a strong challenge by another top colt, Ride on Curlin.

The Belmont is 1-1/2 miles (2400 m), a distance more common in Europe than in the U.S. For many starters, this will be the only time in their careers they'll be asked to run so far. The race is run at Belmont Park in New York State on a huge race track, on the third Saturday after the Preakness. This gives the horses three weeks to recover from the first two races. For some, it isn't enough time.

To add to the challenge, new starters may be added to the mix, "fresh" racers who didn't go to the Preakness and perhaps skipped the Derby as well. This year's field looks like it will be 11, so to win it, California Chrome will have to beat 10 other horses.
Secretariat, 1973 Triple Crown Winner

He's got some great cheerleaders to cheer him on: Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat, and the owners of Seattle Slew and Affirmed, the other two Triple Crown winners from the 1970s (1977 and 1978, respectively), will be rooting for the colt. So will a lot of people who enjoy a happy ending to a rags to riches story.

Postscript:  On June 7, a horse named Tonalist ran the fastest at Belmont Park and ended California Chrome's bid for the Triple Crown. (Ironically, Tonalist's dam was a daughter of Pleasant Colony, one of the 13 previous contenders who have sought the crown since 1978, only to lose it on the 1 1/2 mile track.) Chrome finished fourth after suffering a minor injury when he stumbled slightly at the start of the race. Once again, the challenge was too much. But it was a glorious campaign and a good effort from a very good horse.