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6:22 pm
Tue June 3, 2014

Why Is It So Hard For A Horse To Win The Triple Crown?

Originally published on Wed June 4, 2014 10:38 am

Only one more race stands between California Chrome and horse racing's Triple Crown, but it could be his toughest challenge yet.

Since 1978, a dozen horses — Sunday Silence, War Emblem and Smarty Jones among them — have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, only to stumble before the finish line at the Belmont Stakes.

No one can say exactly why there's been a 36-year drought since the last Triple Crown winner, but there are several theories.

An Endurance Test

The first thing you notice about Belmont Park is that it's big. More than 100,000 people can watch the race from its massive grandstand. At a mile-and-a-half long, the track is big, too. None of the horses in the Belmont field have ever raced at that distance.

"This is a stepping stone up, and not every horse is bred to go that far," says Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations at the New York Racing Association, which runs Belmont Park.

Belmont's size has an effect on the riders' strategy, too. "Ordinarily, when they come around the far turn, that's a good time to ask your horse to start to put in his maximum effort," says Teresa Genaro, who writes the blog Brooklyn Backstretch.

"If you do that in the same spot on the track here as you do at other race tracks," Genaro says, "you're still half a mile from the finish line — and you're gonna use up your horse. And they're probably going to run out of energy and speed before they get to the finish line."

The Big Sandy

There's another, more subtle thing that can make it harder to win at Belmont.

"This track is a lot sandier than most tracks," says Panza. "We get a lot of rain here, and there's humidity. Therefore we use a much sandier mix" — hence the park's nickname, the Big Sandy.

"It's part of the equation, and it's probably stopped some horses from winning the Triple Crown," Panza says.

For Today's Horses, A Brutal Schedule

There's another theory about why it's been so long since the last Triple Crown winner, one that has to do with race schedules and training. To win the Triple Crown, a horse has to win three tough races in just five weeks, but most modern thoroughbreds have never run that kind of brutal schedule.

"I think a lot of people don't train their horses as hard as they used to train them. They're afraid to train them that hard," says Fay Donk, who, with her husband, has a barn at Belmont.

"Most horses, especially your good horses, you don't want to run 'em more than maybe once a month, so they get the time to recover from their races," she says. "Back in the day ... they might run once every two weeks."

Today, Donk says, "the old-time trainers are gone, and it's a lot different."

In the 1970s, there were three Triple Crown winners: Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Since then, a dozen horses have come close. California Chrome is the latest.

The track's length "won't be a problem with him," says California Chrome's trainer, Art Sherman. "He's got the right demeanor that you want to have in a horse. He has no wasted motion. When you want him to go, he goes."

Sherman flew in from California this week. He and the horse's co-owner Steve Coburn spoke at a press conference Wednesday in New York, along with owners of the other Belmont hopefuls. Coburn says all of the attention hasn't been a problem for California Chrome.

"He just loves people. If you ever notice this horse — you pull up a camera, he'll stop. ... That's why we call him a people's horse," Coburn says. "And we've got all of America on our side, I do believe — other than the people that have these horses running against us."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Sunday Silence, War Emblem, Smarty Jones - those are just a few of the horses who won the first two legs of racing's Triple Crown, The Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Then, they went on to lose the third - The Belmont stakes. The last horse to win all three was named Affirmed, and that was way back in 1978.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On the inside, Affirmed. On the outside, Alydar. And those two are letting out all stops. They're going on out together. Affirmed, along the...

SIEGEL: On Saturday, California Chrome will try to end that 36-year Triple Crown drought. NPR's Joel Rose reports on why it's so hard to win at Belmont.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The first thing to say about Belmont Park, is that it's big. More than 100,000 people can fit into its massive grandstand on Long Island, New York.

MAN: And, they're off.

ROSE: The horses look tiny as they burst out of the starting gate on the far side of the enormous racetrack.

TERESA GENARO: This is the only mile-and-a-half dirt track in the country.

REPORTER: Teresa Genaro writes a blog called "Brooklyn Backstretch," and is a regular at the park. Genaro says Belmont's size is one of the main reasons it's so hard to win the Triple Crown. She says the strategy for riders is different here than at smaller tracks.

GENARO: Ordinarily, when they come around the far turn, that's a good time to ask your horse to start to put in his maximum effort. If you do that in the same spot on the track here as you do at other racetracks, you're still a half a mile away from the finish line, and you're going to use up your horse, and they're probably going to run out of energy and speed before they get to the finish line.

ROSE: The horses don't look small anymore, as they gallop down the stretch and the crowd gets involved.

MAN: Come on, work this horse warrie. Come on warrie.

ROSE: Turns out that guy isn't the only one with some money riding on the race. Teresa Genaro placed a bet too.

So, how'd you do?

GENARO: I won. I put five to win on him, at eight to one. So that's - I got 40 dollars.

ROSE: In the quest to win the big purse this Saturday, jockeys who have raced at Belmont before may have a slight edge, but there's no telling how the horses will handle the extra distance. Martin Panza is vice president of the New York Racing Association, which runs the Belmont.

MARTIN PANZA: A mile and a half is a long distance for these horses. None of them have run a mile and a half yet. This is a stepping stone up, and not every horse is bred to go that far.

ROSE: Panza says there's another thing that makes Belmont hard to win - it's why Belmont Park is called, the big sandy.

PANZA: This track is a lot sandier than most tracks. We get a lot of rain here and there's humidity, therefore, we use a much sandier mix in the main track here, hence, the big sandy. It's part of the equation, and it's probably stopped some horses from winning the Triple Crown.

ROSE: There's another theory about why it's been so long since the last Triple Crown winner, and it has to do with race schedules and training. To win the Triple Crown, a horse has to win three tough races in just five weeks, and most modern thoroughbreds have never run that kind of brutal schedule.

GENARO: I think a lot of people don't train their horses as hard as they used to train them, you know. They're afraid to train them that hard.

REPORTER: Kate Donk (ph) and her husband are trainers who have a barn at Belmont.

KATE DONK: Most horses, especially your good horses - you don't want to run them more than maybe once a month. So they get the time to recover from their races.

ROSE: Did they used to get trained a little harder?

DONK: Back in the day? Oh yeah. You know, they might run once every two weeks. The old-time trainers are gone and it's a lot different.

ROSE: In the 1970s there were three Triple Crown winners - Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Since then, a dozen horses have come close. California Chrome is the latest. His trainer, Art Sherman, says he's the horse to do it.

ART SHERMAN: I think that a mile and half won't be a problem with him. He's got the right demeanor that you want to have a horse. He has no wasted motion. When you want him to go, he goes.

ROSE: Sherman flew in from California this week along with the horse's owners. At a press conference today at Rockefeller Center, co-owner, Steve Coburn, says the attention of the Triple Crown run has not been a problem for California Chrome.

SHERMAN: He just loves people. If you ever notice this horse - you pull up a camera, he'll stop. He'll let you take his picture. That's why we call him a people's horse. And we've got all of America on our side, I do believe, other than the people that have these horses running against us.

ROSE: And even a few of those people might not mind seeing the first Triple Crown winner in almost 40 years. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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