Ruler on Ice’s victory in the Belmont Stakes brought the Triple Crown to an unsatisfying conclusion. The competition in this spring’s classic races had been sub-par, and for the 33rd straight year no horse was going to sweep the three-race series. Then the Belmont turned into an anticlimax when Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom was squeezed back at the start and virtually eliminated from contention, making possible Ruler on Ice’s implausible upset.
And yet the Belmont was, by almost any measurement, a notable success. More than 55,000 people turned out in the rain to watch it. Fans around the country bet with gusto. Television ratings were good.
At a time when almost every other segment of the U.S. thoroughbred industry is in decline, the Triple Crown series is as popular as ever. The total live attendance at the three races exceeded 327,000, and the full cards on the days of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont generated more than $322 million in wagers.
The industry needs to keep the Triple Crown thriving. It should resist the temptation to be complacent and instead look for ways to make its premier product even better. The 2011 series suggested the need for some changes, and I would suggest that Pimlico and Churchill Downs consider making them in 2012.
Pimlico this year offered a lucrative bonus (potentially as high as $5.5 million) to a horse who won the Preakness after competing in prep races at other tracks owned by Frank Stronach, principally the Santa Anita Derby and the Florida Derby. But the incentive didn’t draw larger-than-usual fields to the prep races. Shackleford, the runner-up in the Florida Derby, earned a $550,000 bonus when he won the Preakness, but he was going to run at Pimlico anyway. The bonus accomplished nothing, and the money for it could have been spent in a much more productive way.
The Triple Crown tracks have wisely turned their big races into the centerpiece of a one- or two-day extravaganza filled with good stakes competition. A race such as the $500,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic might get moderate attention on a normal racing day, but it will have a national audience when it’s run an hour before the Kentucky Derby. Churchill’s high-quality program on the first Saturday in May generated $53 million in bets on the non-Derby races.
Pimlico’s card on the day of the Preakness was a half-baked version of what Churchill and Belmont offer, because a bunch of $100,000 stakes races aren’t lucrative enough to attract large fields of good horses. Instead of wasting money on the Preakness bonus, the track should increase the purses, beef up those supporting stakes and revive the discontinued Pimlico Special. The changes would pay off with greater fan interest and significantly more wagering.
Churchill Downs is undoubtedly reluctant to tamper with a product as successful as the Derby, but it is hard to ignore the evidence that a change is overdue. The maximum size of the field — now 20 horses — needs to be reduced.
The Derby now regularly draws 20 entrants, and while the big fields do not necessarily cause a trouble-filled race, they subject horses in inside post positions to a significant disadvantage. In the last eight years, the winning post positions have been 13, 10, 8, 7, 20, 8, 4 and 16.
With 20 horses in the gate, the horses in posts 1 and 2 are in an especially scary position. They’re in danger of running into the rail, and while their jockeys try to move outward to get a little clearance, the riders on the outside are angling inward so they can save ground. The results are often disastrous for the horses on the inside.
In 2007, Curlin broke from post 2, got caught in a squeeze play and dropped back to 14th place before finishing third. He came back to beat the same rivals in the Preakness. In 2010, the favorite Lookin at Lucky drew post 1 and encountered so much traffic that he never got into contention. He won the Preakness and proved that he was the best colt of his generation.
This year, the Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch broke from post No. 1 and got bumped hard in the first few strides, setting off a chain of events that cost him more than a chance to win. He suffered a career-ending injury.
Reducing the field to a maximum of 16 or 18 horses would not harm the Derby. The race is regularly cluttered with deadwood, and it would not suffer from the absence of long shots who don’t belong in the lineup anyway. To make sure that the right horses get into the race, Churchill should refine its eligibility criteria, which now give preference to horses with the highest earnings in graded stakes races. Steve Davidowitz, editor of GradeOneRacing.com, has proposed that earnings in 2-year-old sprint races shouldn’t count; they’re irrelevant to the Derby. I’d propose disregarding earnings in turf races, too.
Churchill can tweak the rules in many possible ways, but in any event it should aspire to make America’s greatest race a fairer race.