California Chrome and the winds of change

May, 20, 2014

It hasn't taken long for California Chrome to effect some change in the racing industry. After Art Sherman, the trainer of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, wondered out loud about his colt using a nasal strip in the Belmont Stakes, the track's stewards unanimously agreed Monday to let California Chrome to wear one.

While there is no rule barring nasal strips at New York Racing Association tracks, it is up to the stewards' discretion to allow them. There's little doubt the extra 60,000 people or so that California Chrome will attract to Belmont Park on June 7 helped the officials make a logical decision.

On June 8, California Chrome might be the impetus for even greater change in the racing industry. Listening to the noise in the background from one of the host tracks and the words of the colt's co-owner Steven Coburn after the Preakness, California Chrome might be the straw that breaks the camel's back in regard to changing the structure of the Triple Crown.

California Chrome figures to be an odds-on favorite in the Belmont Stakes and will enter the race having already beaten most of his main rivals. Of the 10 prospective candidates to face the California-bred in the Belmont, six lost to him in the Derby. But only one of them, Ride On Curlin, ran in the Preakness.

In fact, only three of the 19 starters in the Derby ran in the Preakness, with California Chrome and Ride On Curlin running 1-2. Four other major contenders -- Commanding Curve (second in the Derby), Wicked Strong (fourth), Samraat (fifth) and Intense Holiday (12th) -- skipped the Preakness in favor of resting while California Chrome went through the grueling ordeal of winning the race on just two weeks rest. Now California Chrome faces a third race in five weeks while most of his main rivals will have had five weeks off.

That inequity clearly does not sit well with Coburn.


I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my lifetime because there are people out there trying to upset the apple cart. They don't want a Triple Crown winner.

" -- Steven Coburn, co-owner of
California Chrome
"In my opinion, there are trainers out there that train horses just to upset the apple cart," Coburn said during the news conference after the Preakness. "I honestly believe that there are a lot of good horses running out there, and 19 of them started in the Kentucky Derby. I honestly believe that they need to change this sport to where those 20 horses that start in the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races. If you bow out in the Preakness, you don't come back for the Belmont.

"I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my lifetime because there are people out there trying to upset the apple cart. They don't want a Triple Crown winner. They want a paycheck. So that's my honest opinion. If they don't like it, I don't care. But that's my opinion."

The numbers back what Coburn, and others, are saying. In four of the past five years, each Belmont Stakes winner has raced on Kentucky Derby weekend and then rested for five weeks. Since 2000, when trainer D. Wayne Lukas and long shot Commendable proved it could be done, nine of the past 14 Belmont winners had five weeks rest.

It's against that backdrop that Pimlico president Tom Chuckas told last week that he plans to approach officials at Churchill Downs and the New York Racing Association about changing the time between the three jewels of the Triple Crown to level the playing field. On Monday, he said at a news conference that he would push for moving the Preakness to the first week in June and the Belmont to the first weekend in July.

"I respect tradition, but I also think tradition cannot impede the growth or betterment of the industry," Chuckas said. "When we get our most attention, we tend to consolidate, which is not beneficial to the thoroughbred industry as a whole. People might say you will have to put an asterisk by the horse who wins the Triple Crown under these conditions. This schedule has changed often, so the bottom line is you don't have to put an asterisk.

"If you take a look at the NFL, NBA, [Major League Baseball] and NHL, all of them have gone through transformations with wild-card additions and scheduling changes, but do you really believe there should be an asterisk by the Seattle Seahawks because they won the Super Bowl under different conditions than the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl? I don't think so.

"The philosophy of the trainers has drastically changed over the years. It is hard for them to bring a horse back from the Derby in two weeks and run a horse three times in a five-week period. Most of them will not do it. But this idea is not just for the Triple Crown races. We have an obligation to the public to put our best racing on the table when the world is watching, and we are not doing that. We could promote a Woodford-Dixie-Manhattan series for older turf stars and Triple Crown filly series with the Kentucky Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan and Acorn. All those things are possible but is going to demand a collaborative effort between the parties to make this happen."

A victory by California Chrome in the Belmont could make it a moot point in some eyes, though Chuckas and others figure to press the point regardless of whether the 36-year Triple Crown drought ends.

But if anyone other than Ride On Curlin (the only other likely Belmont starter to contest all three legs of the series) wins the Belmont and spoils what seems like a Triple Crown slam dunk, the outcry could turn into an inferno that finally torches the current structure. If that happens, California Chrome deserves a chapter in racing history, win or lose on June 7.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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