ELMONT, N.Y. - There will be no Triple Crown winner this season.
The streak is 34 years, and one trend is screaming out.
Horses are no longer bred to run three major races over five weeks, including the 1 1/2-mile test of will and skill that was run for the 144th time at Belmont Park on Saturday.
When I’ll Have Another was scratched Friday morning, the streak without a Triple Crown, which dates to 1978 when Affirmed pulled off the magical trifecta, took on even greater significance.
And while Union Rags was impressive on Saturday, chasing down Paynter to win by a neck, it simply showed that he was the best horse on that day.
Union Rags skipped the Preakness after being a well-beaten seventh in the Derby, and Paynter has had only five races in his career.
Unless thoroughbred racing, which is missing desperately needed central leadership, changes the format to spread the races over, say, two months rather than five weeks, the chances of another Triple Crown winner appear slim.
“I think the Triple Crown has become so elusive because it is no longer a three-race series,’’ said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who once won six straight Triple Crown races with four horses. “When you have to get earnings to get in that first one [the Kentucky Derby], and couple that with full fields in the Derby and Preakness, those are hard races. It’s tougher now than it used to be.’’
Michael Matz, who trained Barbaro in his ill-fated 2006 season, thought he had a legitimate Triple Crown contender in Union Rags.
After what everyone agreed was a bad trip in the Derby, Matz changed jockeys from Julien Leparoux to John Velazquez and skipped the Preakness to give his horse time to rest and prepare for the Belmont.
“We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential,’’ said Matz, who quickly shipped Union Rags back to his Maryland-based farm following his Belmont victory. “When we trained him we gave him four races as a 2-year-old and gave him a rest and had a good plan. He never missed a beat. His first race couldn’t have been any easier. He had trouble in his second race and his third race. I do think that this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, is one of the best 3-year-olds in this crop. Whether he could have done something against I’ll Have Another, I don’t know, but it sure would have been fun to see.’’
But unless there is a major breakthrough in the way horses are bred, or unless Triple Crown officials space out the races - say one a month in May and June, and perhaps ending with the Belmont Stakes on July 4 - the streak without a Triple Crown is likely to continue.
Oh, a super horse such as a Secretariat could show up, or a horse such as Union Rags could have three clean trips in succession. But that seems less likely in an era when horses run less, sometime needing months, rather than weeks, to prepare for their next challenge.
The 2012 Triple Crown season is now over and the streak is 34 years and counting.