When Spend a Buck won the 1985 Kentucky Derby and then skipped the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, managements of the host tracks began to worry that the Triple Crown series was losing its preeminent position in U.S. racing.
So the tracks formed Triple Crown Productions to promote and market the races, and enlisted the Chrysler Corp. to put up $1 million for the horse who performs best in the series each year. The races' prestige and popularity were revived, and their problems seemed to have disappeared -- until three weeks ago.
As soon as Summer Squall won the Preakness, his owner announced he would stand firm on a decision made 11 days earlier -- that the colt would skip the Belmont because he can't use the drug Lasix there. Unbridled, the Kentucky Derby winner, will earn the $1 million bonus merely by finishing Saturday's race -- even if he staggers around the track and finishes last. Suddenly, everybody in the racing industry is seeing defects in the Triple Crown series and the bonus arrangement.
The Thoroughbred Times editorialized: "The Belmont Stakes has been trivialized by a bonus. Winning the race is not nearly as important as finishing it, at least in the eyes of the owner and trainer of Unbridled. . . . The integrity of the sport would be best served by eliminating the Triple Crown Challenge immediately."
Do America's most famous horse races really have a problem, or is recent criticism an overreaction to the Summer Squall situation? Chick Lang, Pimlico's former general manager and a member of the group that founded Triple Crown Productions, said he thought the Breeders' Cup was running its show much better than the Triple Crown.
"The Breeders' Cup is structured right and marketed properly," Lang said. "If the Triple Crown doesn't make some adjustments, the Breeders' Cup is going to run by them like a bus."
Lang acknowledged that the structure of the bonus arrangement is fraught with problems, and said that when he was a part of the group that created it "we knew it was like walking around with a hand grenade in your pocket. It could blow up in your face. It has to be corrected."
He proposed several other sensible changes:
Medication rules for the three races should be uniform.
Supplementary nominations should be permitted, so that late-blooming horses have a chance to run.
Size of the fields should be limited to 14 horses; those 20-horse cavalry charges at Churchill Downs are a disaster waiting to happen.
Purses for the races should be raised.
This last point might be the most critical. When Spend a Buck defected from the Preakness to run in the $1 million Jersey Derby, his owner made the decision on economic grounds: a chance at a $2.5 million bonus. There wasn't enough financial incentive to run in the Preakness. Yet after all the changes made by Triple Crown Productions, the tracks never fully addressed this central problem. They still are trying to get off cheaply by paying winners more in prestige than cash.
In an age when seven-digit purses are increasingly common, it is ludicrous for Churchill Downs to put up a paltry $350,000 for the Kentucky Derby, and for Pimlico and the New York Racing Association to offer $500,000 for their big attractions. The Jersey Derby still offers a pot as big as any of the Triple Crown races. If the bonus that Unbridled can earn by finishing last overshadows the Belmont Stakes itself, the problem lies as much with the purse of the Belmont as with the bonus.
"All three of the races ought to be $1 million," Lang said.
As long as the individual races offer substantial pots, there certainly is nothing wrong with a bonus that encourages horses to stick through the three-race series and rewards overall achievement. Any system for the bonus can be second-guessed, as has been happening in the last three weeks, but since the Triple Crown Challenge was created, these races have produced some extraordinary drama.
In 1987 the battles between Alysheba and Bet Twice drew comparisons with some of the great thoroughbred rivalries. In 1988 the filly Winning Colors became a national heroine by winning the Kentucky Derby; Risen Star delivered a phenomenal performance winning the Belmont and earning the $1 million bonus. In 1989 the Easy Goer-Sunday Silence rivalry generated weeks of excitement; their electrifying battle in the Preakness was voted in one poll as the race of the decade. And the first two legs of this year's Triple Crown produced outstanding performances by Unbridled and Summer Squall.
Not many events in any sport have produced so much high drama so much of the time. While the tracks should consider some changes in the rules governing the Triple Crown races and should definitely boost their purses, they should not feel a sense of gloom and doom just because Saturday's Belmont looks like a clunker.