As difficult as it may be to win the Kentucky Derby, there seems to be a highly reliable path to success in the final leg of the Triple Crown.
For four of the past five years, each Belmont Stakes winner has raced on Kentucky Derby weekend and then rested for five weeks until resurfacing in the winner's circle after New York's most important race.
Going back to 2000, nine of the past 14 Belmont winners had five weeks' rest. That cold, hard fact of Triple Crown life apparently is anything but news to the trainers of the 18 horses who finished behind California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby. Only two of the horses who ended up behind him at Churchill Downs are expected to join him at Pimlico, and they finished seventh and 11th.
The horses that were closest to California Chrome at the finish (Commanding Curve, Danza and Wicked Strong, who were second through fourth, respectively) are all skipping the Preakness. All of them may return in the Belmont, where their connections are no doubt hoping that the combination of rest for their horses and a draining race for California Chrome in the Preakness will tilt the scales in their favor.
It makes sense for them -- though not for anyone who would love to see the first Triple Crown sweep since 1978.
Perhaps California Chrome is that good and that special that he can win the Preakness and then overcome the obstacles placed in his path in the Belmont. But if he's tripped up in the Test of the Champion by a rival who opted for discretion over valor on the Triple Crown trail, it might be time to take a long look at the current structure of the series to see if there's a way to level the playing field.
In recent years, talk about changing the Triple Crown has become a rite of spring.
Some want to change the distance of the races, but that won't stop horses from skipping the Preakness and targeting the Belmont.
One school of thought is to stretch out the Triple Crown from the first Saturday in May through July 4. In an era when increased spacing between races has become a vital part of training regimens, the logical thought would be to increase the time between the three races. But how much? Would an extra week between each race make a major difference? In terms of rest, that would work. A lengthy eight-week gap would probably force Derby also-rans to find a race between the Derby and Belmont.
The problem, though, arises if the Derby winner loses in the Preakness. How many people are going to be interested in a rubber match between the Derby and Preakness winners on July 4? Considering how short the memory of mainstream sports fans can be, will they even remember who won the Derby if a Triple Crown bid is not in play? In essence, the elongated time frame could, under some circumstances, turn the Belmont into a glorified version of the Haskell.
So what can be done?
Perhaps horsemen need a more lucrative reason to run their horses. It's not a perfect solution, but the securing of a sponsor to offer a participation bonus might be the way to keep more horses on the Triple Crown trail from start to finish and keep in place a tight, five-week series that works best for maintaining the interest of mainstream sports fans.
The idea of a bonus for the top overall finisher in the Triple Crown is hardly new. In the aftermath of 1985 Derby winner Spend a Buck opting for a bonus to win the Jersey Derby over the Triple Crown lure of the Preakness, it was seen a means of scaring away competition.
Once that threat disappeared, interest waned in the participation bonus, and by the mid-1990s, it was history.
But now the Triple Crown is facing a different threat -- one from within that is making it harder than ever to sweep.
Perhaps by giving the best overall finisher in all three races a $1 million bonus and allowing everyone else who competes in all three legs to share in another $1 million pot, we'll see more than seventh- and 11th-place finishers tackling the Derby winner at Pimlico. Perhaps those dollars will attract more familiar faces to the Preakness and lessen the number of quality opponents in the Belmont with more rest than a Derby-Preakness winner.
There will no doubt be some squawking over this suggestion. Some people will assail rewarding a horse that finishes seventh in all three legs of the Triple Crown. But if the tracks hold their ground, it may soon convince owners to stay on the Triple Crown trail from start to finish and share in the cash.
There's no guarantee this strategy will work, but it seems like a safer first step than changing a structure that's been in place for more than half a century.
Then again, maybe California Chrome will overcome the odds, sweep the Triple Crown and show that all this fretting was for naught.
As of right now, the Kentucky Derby winner is the only one with the best answer to the problem.