- Ray Paulick
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Seattle Slew had Run Dusty Run. Affirmed had his Alydar. There was Alysheba and Bet Twice. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, Real Quiet and Victory Gallop.
The best Triple Crowns in my adult life, beginning with Secretariat and Sham, featured the continuity of competitors from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness and on to the Belmont Stakes --- all in five glorious weeks of springtime. Two rivals looking each other in the eye for three consecutive races, neither one of them wanting to give an inch. Sometimes the results were overwhelming in favor of one horse over his chief rival, but that didn't keep the vanquished from trying. At other times, revenge was served as a reward for perseverance.
These rivalries are what the sport is all about. It's whether "my" horse can beat "your" horse in the three races, with ownership of Triple Crown rivals defined broadly among the fans. Californians, for example, felt as though they had a vested interest in 1989 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence, while New Yorkers all shared a piece of Belmont winner Easy Goer in one of the most heated rivalries of the last several decades.
Unfortunately, for those who enjoy rivalries, the number of horses running in all three races is on the decline --- accentuated by this year's Preakness field, which includes only two horses from the Derby, winner Big Brown and 17th-place finisher Gayego. Sadly, Derby runner-up Eight Belles was euthanized after running the race of her life. But all of the other leading contenders have simply decided to sit this dance out.
There was a time (and, trust me, it wasn't that long ago) when many of the top finishers in the Kentucky Derby were automatically headed to Pimlico for the second leg of the Triple Crown. The 1980s brought about a serious challenge to the series, first when the late trainer, Eddie Gregson, opted to skip the Preakness with 1982 Derby winner Gato del Sol because he didn't think the colt had the right running style to suit the Baltimore racetrack. Three years later, the owner of Derby winner Spend a Buck bypassed the Preakness because of a lucrative bonus opportunity created for a series of races in New Jersey.
The latter threat prompted management of the three Triple Crown tracks to come up with a plan to convince horsemen to compete in all three races. They deviced a dual bonus scheme --- $5 million in purses and bonus money for a Triple Crown sweep or $1 million to the horse with the best overall record in the three races --- and secured Chrysler as title sponsor of the newly christened "Chrysler Triple Crown Challenge."
The bonus had an immediate impact, raising interest in the Triple Crown in 1987, when Alysheba defeated Bet Twice in the Derby and Preakness, but then lost both bonuses when fourth to that same rival in the Belmont. Risen Star earned the $1-million bonus in 1988 after finishing third in the Derby and winning the Preakness and Belmont. The 1989 series, featuring knock-down, drag-out brawls between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, saw Sunday Silence get a $1-million consolation prize after finishing second to Easy Goer in the Belmont.
There was some criticism of the bonus in 1993 when Derby runner-up and Preakness winner Prairie Bayou broke down in the Belmont Stakes, allowing Derby winner Sea Hero to earn $1 million after finishing fifth in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont. The late Paul Mellon, owner of Sea Hero, graciously donated the bonus money to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.
Chrysler eventually dropped its sponsorship, which was picked up by credit card company Visa in 1996. Visa, however, only funded the $5-million bonus, so there was no incentive for Derby also-rans to race in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, apart from the prestige of those races.
Visa dropped its Triple Crown sponsorship and the $5-million bonus in 2005, and Triple Crown Productions has not been able to secure a replacement.
There has been no Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, so no one has won the $5-million payout. Trainer Bob Baffert came agonizingly close on three occasions, with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, and War Emblem in 2002, all of whom won the first two legs but then lost the Belmont. He also trained Preakness-Belmont winner Point Given, who was fifth in the Derby.
Baffert cites the high cost of shipping horses for the Triple Crown races as one reason participation may be down. "They need to put the bonus back that rewards horses that run first, second, and third in all three races," Baffert said. "It's a huge expense on trainers to ship to these big races, so you better win something."
In addition, Baffert said, the popularity of running in the Derby has taken its toll on horses on the road to Churchill Downs. "Most of the horses in the Derby have been running hard just to become eligible for the Derby (via graded stakes earnings). So we have tired horses that need freshening."
Baffert described this year's Preakness as "Big Brown and the new shooters. Should still be a very exciting race."
But one without the rivalries that have brought out the best in the sport.
Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse from 1992-2007. Over the past 25 years he has covered Thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and more than a dozen countries and appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at email@example.com.
If Big Brown becomes the next Triple Crown winner, it will be without the great rivalries that have brought out the best in the sport.