It has been a generation since Secretariat soared into the homestretch a stunning 31 lengths ahead of his closest challenger in the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
Four years later, Seattle Slew ignited “Slewmania” by becoming the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes while undefeated.
And in 1978, Affirmed’s dominance of the classics electrified the nation, his Triple Crown enhanced by the presence of legendary rival Alydar.
Now, 36 years have elapsed since any thoroughbred has scored the elusive Derby-Preakness-Belmont sweep. In Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, California Chrome will have to outrun not only 10 rivals but history, too, to win the race known as the “test of champions.”
“I think, looking today, this horse has the best chance,” said Patrice Wolfson, who co-owned Affirmed. “He just has something special.’’
Only 11 horses are members of racing’s exclusive Triple Crown club, and there is palpable sentiment within the racing industry that a Crown winner is exactly what the sport needs to reclaim the prestige it last enjoyed when the iconic Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed graced the turf.
Twelve horses since 1978 have won the Derby and Preakness but failed in the Belmont.
“I think, to win the Triple Crown, we want to see a horse that has that excitement, and he has that,’’ said Wolfson. “Let’s hope he shows it.”
Horse racing is unique among sports in that so much emphasis to elevate the image of the game is placed on a single athlete in such a brief window of time every spring. In fact, racing has become so obsessed with the idea of giving the public a Triple Crown champion that at least one stakeholder is floating a plan to lengthen the amount of time between races so better-rested horses will have an easier shot at the sweep.
Old-school racetrackers bristle that such a move would cheapen a sacrosanct accomplishment. Proponents insist no sport can prosper without embracing change, the way team sports have done by expanding playoffs.
“If you change it, it’s not the same — it doesn’t count,” said Steve Cauthen, who at age 18 captivated the nation as the wunderkind jockey of Affirmed.
“It’s not fine with me,” said Penny Chenery, whose family bred and raced Secretariat. “I think it would invalidate all the records.”
The Derby (dating to 1875), Preakness (1873), and Belmont (1867) were unrelated before Sir Barton swept them in 1919. It was not until 1930, when Gallant Fox won all three, that the term “Triple Crown” came into vogue.
Since 1969, the classics have been fixed on the calendar, with the Derby on the first Saturday in May, the Preakness two weeks later, and the Belmont three weeks after that. Thoroughbreds get only one shot at the Triple Crown, at age 3.
Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas, whose Pimlico Race Course hosts the middle jewel of the Crown, told reporters at the May 17 Preakness that he would attempt to sway the other host sites (Churchill Downs and Belmont Park) into altering the schedule so the classics would be run one month apart, on the first Saturdays of May, June, and July.
“It’s something we’re going to take a hard look at,” Chuckas said. “Traditionalists will say no. I’m not anti-traditionalist, but I don’t want to go the way of the dinosaur and become extinct.”
When polled last week, not a single owner, trainer, or jockey connected with the 1970s Triple Crown winners was in favor of tweaking the schedule.
“I can understand this feeling that we need the Triple Crown every few years just to keep the interest up,” said Jim Hill, co-owner of Seattle Slew. “It takes not only takes an exceptional horse to win all three races, but it takes great training and management, and it takes good luck.
“I think all those things should go together, and I don’t think that the task should be lessened at all.”
A different breed
The one thing most racetrackers do agree on is that today’s thoroughbreds are raised differently than their 1970s counterparts were. Back then, the emphasis was on building stamina so horses could excel at longer distances as they matured. Today races are generally shorter and speed is prized.
The once-common distances of the three Triple Crown classics — ranging from 1 3/16 miles to 1½ miles — are now considered anachronistic marathons compared with the proliferation of sprints at three-quarters of a mile or less that have evolved as the everyday standard.
When Secretariat was foaled in 1970, the industry was dominated by sportsmen who mated and raced generations of horses. By 1985, when the yearling brother of Seattle Slew was auctioned for a record $13.1 million, breeding horses to sell them young at auctions had taken over as the more lucrative venture.
Since then, the annual North American thoroughbred foal crop has plummeted, from a peak of 51,296 in 1986 to an estimated 23,000 in 2013. The middle has essentially fallen out of the bloodstock market, and emphasis at the top has shifted to developing a “home run horse” who has the potential to win Triple Crown races — but will likely be whisked off the track to stud duty if he does win a classic race, lest injury or subsequent losses tarnish his value as a stallion.
“I think horses years ago were tougher,” said Wolfson. “They campaigned harder and they usually relished racing. They loved to run, all the Triple Crown winners of the ‘70s particularly.”
The off-track management of elite-level racehorses has changed dramatically, too.
Before California Chrome even won the Derby, his owners — a partnership of two married couples called DAP Racing — turned down a $6 million offer for a 51 percent interest in the colt.
Two days before California Chrome won the Preakness, the partnership (Steve and Carolyn Coburn, and Perry and Denise Martin) applied for protection from the US Patent and Trademark Office to prevent poachers from merchandizing the name of the most popular horse in America.
Now, in the three-week gap between the Preakness and Belmont, DAP Racing has retained a sports marketing firm, hired a talent management company, and is undoubtedly being besieged by bloodstock syndicators proposing astronomical deals to lock up Chrome’s post-racing breeding rights.
As a self-described “traditionalist,” Chenery might be expected to be aghast upon learning how assertively California Chrome’s owners had established their marketing rights.
Instead, the first lady of thoroughbred racing was all for it, recognizing brand management as a sign of changing times within a once-genteel sport that is increasingly becoming corporate.
“We didn’t trademark [Secretariat] that early because merchandising for famous horses had not gotten established,” Chenery said, adding that at age 92, she has had experience negotiating with cyber-squatters wanting to capitalize on her Triple Crown winner.
“It was the beginning of domain names on the Internet, and this nice young man called me and said, ‘I have bought Secretariat.com — could we talk?’ ” Chenery said.
What comes next?
With so much market value at stake, California Chrome is truly an equine superstar shaped by modern times. What remains to be seen is whether he is a horse for the ages.
Notable Triple Crown near-misses in the past 36 years include Spectacular Bid in 1979 (with the excuse that he stepped on a safety pin before the race), Pleasant Colony in 1981 (acted up in the gate), Real Quiet in 1998 (lost by a heartbreaking nose), Charismatic in 1999 (broke an ankle in the stretch), and Smarty Jones in 2004 (opened up a large lead but faltered at the finish).
Not counting I’ll Have Another in 2012 (scratched with an ankle injury on the eve of the Belmont), the last Derby/Preakness winner to contest the Belmont is the one remembered as the streak’s most mind-boggling bust: In 2008, seemingly unbeatable Big Brown was 1-5 in the betting but the jockey pulled him up in the stretch when the horse’s usual late run failed to materialize.
Despite not achieving the Triple Crown, Big Brown’s breeding rights sold for $50 million later that year.
In that respect, racing must be careful what it wishes for. Should California Chrome win the Triple Crown, there will be immense economic pressure on his owners to retire him on the spot to stand at stud.
Chenery said she has heard talk of Chrome’s value as a stallion flirting with the $100 million mark.
Unless DAP Racing commits to continue racing the colt, the window of opportunity for the sport to capitalize on California Chrome’s star power would be disappointingly short. Seattle Slew and Affirmed both raced at age 4; Secretariat was retired after his Triple Crown season only because Chenery had to settle her deceased father’s estate.
“People like to get to know a horse and then continue to root for him,” said Chenery. “Certainly I think the owners have a great understanding of their responsibility to racing. I know they will be under great pressure, but I bet they’ll keep going.”
The owners of the 1970s Triple Crown winners all said they would be pulling for Chrome to join their exclusive club.
“I think I’m about ready to give up [being] the last of the Crown winners,” joked Wolfson. “Sometimes I think that’s my name, ‘Mrs. Last Triple Crown Winner.’ ”
“I’ll be at the Belmont,” said Chenery. “I wasn’t going to go, because I’m getting up in years, but I just . . . if this horse can win the Triple Crown, I want to be there.”