Horse racing will soon have a Triple Crown winner -- if not this year, then sometime in the next few. The sport could even be at the onset of a succession of standouts, as it was in the early 1970s, a decade that produced, of course, three Triple Crown champions.
Fred Astaire won an Emmy for outstanding actor, "Annie Hall" won the Academy Award as best picture, the Yankees won the World Series in six games, the Cowboys won their second Super Bowl, Al Unser won the Indy 500 by nine seconds and Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978. That's how long ago it was that a horse swept the famed series of races: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. The price of a first-class stamp was 13 cents, Jimmy Carter was president and a 2-year-old golf prodigy named Tiger Woods appeared on "The Mike Douglas Show" with Bob Hope.
Since Affirmed, 20 horses have won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, California Chrome being the 20th. He's also the 13th since 1978 to go to New York with a chance for a sweep. And if he's unsuccessful on June 7, the clamor to change the series to accommodate modern training methods and frailties could become an uproar.
At the start of the 1970s, some observers openly wondered whether there ever would be another Triple Crown winner. The series, it seemed, had become too demanding and too stressful for these modern horses. Since the sport had last seen a Triple Crown winner in 1948, seven horses had won the first two races in the series, only to falter in New York. Over the Belmont Stakes there seemed to hover a dark cloud containing everything that could go awry. And if a sweep required a horse of Citation's talent -- well, maybe there wouldn't be another.
But, of course, there was, as the great Secretariat expanded his dominance and superiority through all three races in 1973, setting track records and a world record along the way and captivating an entire nation. Seattle Slew was still undefeated when he seized all the jewels in 1977. And after Affirmed became the third horse in six years to win the Triple Crown, some observers openly wondered whether it had lost some of its allure and if a sweep was becoming, well, commonplace. But how could an accomplishment that once seemed quixotic quickly become ordinary?
Since Affirmed, 20 horses have won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, California Chrome being the 20th. He's also the 13th since 1978 to go to New York with a chance for a sweep. And if he's unsuccessful on June 7, the clamor to change the series to accommodate modern training methods and frailties could become an uproar. Tom Chuckas, the president of the Maryland Jockey Club, already has suggested moving the Preakness to the first weekend in June and the Belmont to July. But could horse racing sustain the excitement and interest that long, from May to July?
The current spacing of the series, with the three races run over five weeks, isn't lapidary, but has been in place only since 1931. Twice, in 1917 and 1922, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness were run on the same day. The Preakness has been run before the Derby, and the Belmont before the Preakness. When Sir Barton became the first Triple Crown winner, the Preakness was run just four days after the Derby, and when Gallant Fox swept the series, the Derby was run eight days after the Preakness. But the series' place on the racing and cultural calendar has indeed become accepted and anticipated and even traditional; to temporize it and make it less demanding in the hope that a Triple Crown winner might become more likely would be, at the very least, hasty and, at worst, insulting.
Some astute observers have suggested many possible explanations for the absence of a Triple Crown winner since 1978: Medication has weakened the breed, breeders emphasize speed over stamina and, most popular of all, in a melding of reasons, the modern Thoroughbred simply can't stand up to the demands of three races in five weeks. While such factors have probably contributed to the situation, the Triple Crown in recent years was, more than anything, simply overwhelmed by numbers. And with the numbers shifting, the sport will soon see another Triple Crown winner, possibly on June 7.
In 1916, as the first World War raged, Sir Barton was among 2,128 Thoroughbreds foaled, or born, in North America and registered with The Jockey Club. And so in 1919, he became, in effect, the valedictorian of a very small class of 3-year-olds. In 2011, California Chrome was among 1,833 Thoroughbreds foaled, or born, in California. In other words, the North American foal crop in 1916 was comparable to California's in 2011. Do you think California Chrome would win the Belmont if it was restricted to Cal-breds?
Affirmed stood out from a foal crop of 28,271. But when the numbers get beyond that, or so it would seem, standing out in a Triple Crown series becomes exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible. The key to winning a Triple Crown isn't so much one horse's superior talent as the discrepancy, the gap, between his talent and the others'. Is he so superior that he can encounter trouble or find a surface he doesn't like or simply have a bad day and still win?
The Triple Crown champions won Derbies that averaged 13.45 starters. Since 1978, the Derby has averaged 17.44.
The 11 Triple Crown winners emerged from foal crops that averaged 10,922. Increasing steadily, the foal numbers peaked in 1986, with 51,296, and from that large group emerged two great horses, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. They were both good enough to sweep a Triple Crown, but neither was so good that he could beat the other with anything less than his best effort. Silver Charm, from a crop of 35,341, wasn't so superior that he could make a mistake and win; Smarty Jones, from a crop of 37,901, wasn't so superior that he could withstand several challenges and win.
And then there's the immense popularity of the series. The Triple Crown has become horse racing's only outpost in the popular culture, and that's especially true of the Derby. Casual observers know it. Everybody aims for it, dreams about it. And so again the numbers overwhelm. The Triple Crown champions won Derbies that averaged 13 starters (actually 13.45). Since 1978, the Derby has averaged 17 starters (17.44).
But the numbers, or at least the foal numbers, are trending in a direction that's favorable for another Triple Crown winner. The North American foal crop in 2011 was 25,500 (estimated by The Jockey Club), the smallest since 1975, or since Affirmed was born. The group's large enough to produce a truly superior horse, yet not so large that it's likely to produce two who are great or even several who are outstanding. And the numbers continue to decline, with estimates for 23,500 registered foals of 2012 and 23,000 of 2013. In other words, even though the Triple Crown's popularity ensures large fields for future races, the foal numbers argue for the increasing possibility of a standout.
Could California Chrome be such a standout? In five consecutive stakes victories this year, he has looked very much like it.