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SO LONG, TRIPLE CROWN

No thoroughbred has claimed racing's most prestigious title in 29 years. It's the longest drought since 1948-73, with no reign in sight.

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published April 29, 2007


Twenty-nine years and counting. Imagine if that much time elapsed before the NFL could determine its next Super Bowl champion or college basketball could crown another Final Four winner. But in thoroughbred racing, the ultimate achievement - the Triple Crown - remains a rarely witnessed pinnacle of greatness. It could well be the most difficult feat in all of sports; harder than baseball's Triple Crown or golf's Grand Slam. Consider the grueling stakes. A 3-year-old horse - the equivalent of a human adolescent - gets one shot to win the three biggest races of its life in a five-week span, before the biggest crowds (100, 000-plus) it will ever see and in the two biggest distance challenges it will ever face (one-and-a-quarter miles at Churchill Downs and a mile-and-a-half at Belmont Park). Then factor in that horses generally need a month to six weeks to recover between regular races. No wonder it's been so long. And that begs the question: Does it mean so long to any realistic hope of seeing another Triple Crown winner?

The last time a horse accomplished the feat - winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness two weeks later and the Belmont Stakes three weeks after that - Stayin' Alive was rocketing up the pop charts and Close Encounters of the Third Kind was racking up millions at the box office.

It was 1978 and Affirmed, carrying teenage jockey Steve Cauthen, was staying alive against archrival Alydar with close encounters of three kinds, finishing first to Alydar's second in thoroughbred racing's trio of crown gem events.

"It's become the Holy Grail that nobody can quite get their hands on, but it will happen again, " says Cauthen the youngest jockey to win the Triple Crown at age 18.

The triumph of Affirmed, bred outside of Ocala, marked only the 11th time a horse had captured the Triple Crown, dating to Sir Barton in 1919. And because it came on the heels of Seattle Slew's 1977 Triple Crown win and Secretariat's in 1973, public expectations were raised that the ultimate thoroughbred racing accomplishment would at least be a moderately common occurrence in years to come.

Yet here in the 30th anniversary season of Seattle Slew's gallop to glory - the lone thoroughbred to earn the crown undefeated - racing fans have been left with a slew of Triple Crown contenders who fell short. Since 1979, 10 horses have won the Derby and the mile-and-three-sixteenths Preakness, only to fail in the punishing Belmont Stakes.

What's more, in six of those attempts, the favorites finished second or third behind horses who skipped either the Derby or the Preakness or both - one of the many traditional hurdles that must be surmounted.

An array of factors since Affirmed and Seattle Slew have converged to make winning the Triple Crown harder than ever.

With the 133rd running of the Derby set for Saturday, the Times is looking at several key issues that have contributed to the longest gap between Triple Crown winners, eclipsing the 25 years between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973 - specifically, the big business of breeding, the emphasis on speed over endurance and durability, and the intensified level of competition in the lead-up to the Derby, linked to increased physical stress.

There is, however, one thing that will never change. "It will take a great horse and a lot of good luck, " Cauthen says. "It doesn't take much to go wrong, and it wouldn't have taken much to go wrong in our year."

Just ask Bob Baffert.

One of the industry's preeminent names - winner of the Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer from 1997-99 - has triumphed in the first two legs, only to lose at the Belmont with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 by a nose and War Emblem in 2002 when his colt stumbled coming out of the gate.

To Baffert, winning the Derby - with its field of up to 20 compared with 15 in 1977, 11 in 1978 and an average of 13.5 during the 11 Triple Crown years - is a tall order in itself. It sports the biggest field of any thoroughbred race in America.

"Everybody's hung up on this Triple Crown thing - if it's going to happen, it's going to happen, " he says. "It's getting more difficult just to get to the Derby."

Case in point: Baffert didn't qualify a horse this year, after competing in 10 of the previous 11.

"As far as winning the Triple Crown goes, " he adds, "there's only one obstacle: find a really, really good horse and keep him sound. That's the hard part. It's just like the Indy 500. You need a really fast car and hope the son of a gun doesn't blow the engine before you get to the finish line."

The need for racing luck is something that all of the more than a dozen experts we interviewed spoke about: whether it's Spectacular Bid stepping on a safety pin and getting a hoof infection just before the 1979 Belmont, jockey error or any number of Derby favorites and potential Triple Crown winners hindered by traffic problems at Churchill Downs and losing to less impressive horses.

But there is no disputing other obstacles have arisen in the past three decades.

"One of the basic things is this: The faster they run, the more shock they put on their legs, " says Billy Turner, trainer of Hall of Famer Seattle Slew. "And the more important it is to have good bone quality. If the bone quality isn't there, the trainer has a constant headache and he's working his insides out trying to make the Derby. If he does a little too much, the problem will get worse."

Incidents with horses breaking down have always been part of the sport. But last year's tragic episode with Barbaro, who broke a leg in the Preakness after storming to a Derby victory and was euthanized Jan. 29, illustrates the delicate nature of a horse's speed-producing skeletal structure - not to mention one of the many unexpected occurrences that can instantly dash a Triple Crown dream.

Today

Overview of how hard it is to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Monday

The business of breeding is muddling and weakening the gene pool.

Tuesday

Travel, expanded schedule, tougher competition are taking their toll.

Wednesday

A new track to the Triple Crown, via synthetic surfaces?