Monday, June 9, 2014

Triple Crown Mania: The Ballad of Steve Coburn

We have now gone 36 years without a winner of the Triple Crown. Not since Affirmed finished off a great duel with Alydar has horse racing seen a horse good, and lucky, enough to win all three jewels of the greatest limiting factor in the industry.

Yes, you read that correctly, I contest that the Triple Crown, and the control the three tracks having in controlling racing's narrative, is the single greatest limiting force in the popularity of the sport of kings.

Things haven't been helped by California Chrome's owner Steve Coburn coming across like a spoiled brat after Tonalist upset his horse in a race that wasn't close. New shooters are hardly new in horse racing, and Coburn acting as if he was somehow wronged in all of this not only reveals a complete lack of sportsmanship, but also reveals a total ignorance about racing itself. Also, it should be noted that Coburn had no qualms about so-called "new shooters" when he beat them in the Preakness. It's only when CalChrome failed to kick in the Belmont that this long-time practice became an excuse for his horse just not showing up.

The good news is, it appears that most are seeing Coburn as the sore loser he is and there will be little interesting in dumbing down the award for future generations.  Leave the Triple Crown as it is.

In other areas of horse racing there are certainly things that need to be changed.  For one, how points are allocated to horses for the Triple Crown (and Churchill Down's almost monopoly on deciding that) needs to be looked into.  Another item to consider is de-emphasizing the Triple Crown in the public's eye.

I realize that this seems like heresy but it's not.  The fact is the Triple Crown highlights only a sliver of the best horses one year before their prime, and are usually not the best races of the year.  Further down the calendar there are several good stakes races (The Haskell being one, Breeder's Cup a second) that are given short-shrift only because of marketing.  Horse racing supporters will point to huge crowds at the various tracks on the days that the Triple Crown races were ran.  What they fail to mention is that on the Sunday's following those races (despite, in many cases, several competitive, big-money stakes races being on the cards) those tracks were ghost-towns.

One big issue that I think needs addressed is the control of the statistics in horse-racing by subscription-based, fee-charging websites and companies.  In all major sports statistics are free. You can go back several years in the NFL, NBA, MLB and the NHL and find stats surrounding everything. In horse racing however, if you want to find the past performances on the horses in the 3rd race at Monmouth, you either have to buy a subscription to a horse data site or purchase a program at the track.  This is wrong and should be reconsidered as opening up the statistical analysis side of the sport is key to bringing in more (and better) wagering.

There are several other issues that horse racing needs to address that I won't go into detail here. They include, track management who view tracks as concert venues rather than racing venues. weak and/or corrupt state commissions that need to be overhauled, the lack of nationwide standards which allows for silly controversies such as the CalChrome nose-strip, drugs and doping and minimum conditions for the care and treatment of both current and retired racers.

All of these things are important for the future growth of the sport. A sport that I've been following since I was six and Alydar and Affirmed punched it out over three races to give us our last Triple Crown winner. Since then I've watched, waited, anguished and laughed as I've watched both triumph (Afleet Alex in the 2005 Preakness) and tragedy (Barbaro in the 2007 Preakness). Through it all I've enjoyed going to the track and wagering my money on animals that I've learned to both respect and love. It's never been the horses that have let me down, only the humans associated with them.

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