The Brock Talk

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Triple Crown Could Benefit From Dog Days of Summer

Just about this time every year the dog days of summer begin as daily triple digit temperatures become the baking norm for some while humidity joins heat to beat down others. If you not just closing your umbrella and taking off you sweater in Seattle, bouncing on a boat in Lake Superior or hiking around Colorado at about 6,000 feet elevation, these are the days when weather is no longer a topic but a concern. It can be dangerously hot.

The dog days of summer are also a miserable time for sports fans with apologies to major league baseball who consider July Fourth the unofficial start of the “things are getting serious in the standings now” season. So by their own definition, many of fans of the boys of summer are just now cranking up their enthusiasm while reading box scores and checking the standings more often.

Fans of the National Football League (in non-lock out years) are still weeks away from training camp and pre-season games; while college football fans are still counting down to the start of their season in months. The National Basketball Association crowned their champions weeks ago, as did the National Hockey League. Women’s World Cup Soccer, Wimbleton Tennis and Derek Jeter’s awkward march toward 3,000 hits are among the major sports stories now and over the July Fourth weekend.

I say this not to sound like the 11-year-old children who repeatedly whine to their mothers, “I’m board!” in every U.S. town and city this time of year. I bring this up to illustrate perhaps a lost opportunity for thoroughbred racing. Let me be clear, however. This is no criticism of racing departments throughout America. They put on a great weekend of racing nationally with Flat Out continuing the trend of upset winners in the older horse division by winning the Suburban (gr. 2); and Smiling Tiger served notice to male sprinters on the West Coast by winning the Triple Bend (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park. Cross country, Teaks North gave similar warning to turf horses with his win the United Nations (gr. 1) at Monmouth Park. The Dwyer (gr. 2) at Belmont Park, the Shoemaker Mile (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park and the Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs are just a small sampling of great races this past weekend.

None of those races, however, were nationally televised by a network. They probably never will be. In order for racing to guarantee a network telecast, it has to fire one of their four big bullets – the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup. And the most logical race to move to July 4 weekend – the Belmont Stakes (gr. 1) - third leg of the Triple Crown.

Moving the Belmont Stakes may seem a bit radical, but there has been a large contingent of trainers, owners and media who have criticized the current Triple Crown schedule as to rigid. After the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) is run on the first Saturday in May, the Preakness is just two weeks later with three between the second leg and the Belmont Stakes. It has, after all, been 33 years since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978.

Grade 1 horses are not used racing three times in five weeks say these critics. Today’s top thoroughbreds typically race no more frequent than every four to six weeks. Why then, is the sport’s most important series of races substantially different? The answers are as old as they can be annoying.

Because that’s the way it’s always been. You can’t change the way the game is played. It won’t be fair to compare the new Triple Crown winners to the old ones. How do we compare the records?

These are many of the same arguments professional baseball heard when they expanded the schedule from 162 regular season games to 182 games. When the NFL merged with the All-American Football Conference in 1950, they played 12 regular season games. Last year the league played 16 regular season games and are considering 18. Baseball’s American League plays with a designated hitter. It would be difficult to change the game of baseball more that in one fell swoop again. And the NFL has been changing tackling rules going back to when they outlawed clothes line tackles and grabbing face masking.

So you can change the way the game is played as exemplified by the most successful professional North American sports over the last 50 years – baseball and football.

The new Triple Crown would obviously start on the first Saturday in May with the Kentucky Derby. The Preakness could be run four weeks later with the Belmont coming after five more weeks, concluding the Triple Crown each year on the Saturday of the July 4 weekend.

As mentioned above, moving the Belmont Stakes to July 4 weekend would take advantage of the very slow time in American sports. A patriotic Belmont would not likely attract more television viewers than the Coke Zero 400 NASCAR race from Daytona (also run this past weekend), but should have little problem with regular season baseball in early July, Wimbleton Tennis or the Professional Golfers’ Association tournament that week. In years when a potential Triple Crown winner races in the Belmont, horse racing will knock most of these sports out of the proverbial television ratings park.

Stringing out the Triple Crown may also reverse a troubling trend in the races leading up to the Triple Crown. Because of the grueling five week test of the Triple Crown schedule, trainers are running in fewer races preparing for the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown schedule. They want fresh horses going into those races so they are running in few races in the months leading up to the Derby. The last five Kentucky Derby winners had only two prep races in the months before their respective Kentucky Derbies.

That trend hasn’t seemed to impact the major grade 1 Derby preps such as the Florida, Arkansas and Santa Anita Derbies, nor the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes or Resort World New York Casino Wood Memorial. But early graded preps like the Robert Lewis Stakes, Risen Star Stakes and Holy Bull Stakes are becoming less and less significant. At the very least, they are currently less attractive to the trainers with Kentucky Derby aspirations than in years past.

In the modern sports arena horse racing has been relegated to a position far below the NFL, college football and NASCAAR in their popularity and ability to draw television viewers. Major league baseball and the National Basketball Association may have challenges in the televisions ratings for given games, but their popularity is unquestionably above that of horse racing. Trainers, like football coaches and baseball managers, have a strong tendencies to copy what the champions are doing.

In such a competitive environment for the attention and dollars of American sports fans, there are very few opportunities to acquire a bigger piece of the sports pie. It would take more than a few tweaks to change the schedule of the Triple Crown, and it would no doubt create long debates comparing Triple Crown winners of yore with any future horse who may win the three races in the classic series.

Sometimes big change can also result in big pay-offs. To be fair they can end with big failures too. But horse racing may have an opportunity. It is an opportunity to capitalize on a slow time on our nation’s sports calendar. It is an opportunity to align one of our premier events with a big national holiday. And an opportunity to excel in when others are melting in the dog days of summer.

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