Commentary: The Problem With ... The Promotion Of The Triple Crown - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Commentary: The Problem With … The Promotion Of The Triple Crown

Jockey Sonny Leon hoists the Kentucky Derby trophy after Rich Strike’s improbable victory

Editor's Note: This is the latest in a series of commentaries, all of which will begin under the premise of “The problem with …” Rather than to complain, however, as the introductory phrase might suggest, the purpose of these articles is to present the big picture of a major racing issue and create a dialogue about what is best for the sport's future. Part 1 in the series can be read here.

The problem with the Triple Crown (I challenge any Turf writer to come up with a more polarizing start to an article) is that the obsession with it is hurting the ability to promote the sport of horse racing as a whole.

The prevailing wisdom is that the attention the Triple Crown receives as the biggest event in horse racing in the United States will spill over to the rest of racing, kind of like how a rising tide lifts all boats. However, the way the Triple Crown is presented and promoted has made the series its own mini-sport that holds hostage aspects of the sport at large.

To fix this and have the Triple Crown working in tandem with the bigger picture of horse racing in America, should the Triple Crown adapt to the direction that the industry has been headed? After all, the Triple Crown has remained unchanged since its three-races-in-five-weeks schedule was solidified in 1969 — the one exception coming in 2020 because of COVID-19. Or, should it be the other way around and horse racing do more to adapt to the Triple Crown?

Usually, the scrutiny falls on the Triple Crown. Are today's 3-year-old Thoroughbreds not prepared for the rigors of three long races in a brief five-week period? Should the races be shorter because they would fit better with current breeding trends? Should there be more time between races because today's American Thoroughbreds usually get more rest between starts?

I previously offered my opinions on these ideas in a column for Paulick Report in 2020 when the Triple Crown schedule was forced to change that year because of COVID-19. Most sports go through some type of radical revolution to adapt to the ever-evolving sports and entertainment market — interleague play in baseball, different overtime rules in football, expanded playoffs in every major sport, and more.

So, why couldn't horse racing do something revolutionary, knowing that other sports go through initial backlash from traditionalists but are ultimately more successful in the long run? Because, at least in horse racing's current climate, altering the Triple Crown is considered non-negotiable.

The backlash would be like to New Coke. (This is a reference I also made in the first “The Problem With” column because one of the greatest lessons in marketing is not to be like New Coke.) Or, imagine if the famous Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island on July 4th became the Nathan's Salad Eating Contest, even if salad is healthier than hot dogs.

Instead, let's accept that the Triple Crown in horse racing is sacred on a biblical level and appreciate that the races attract the biggest crowds on track, the most viewers on TV, and the brightest spotlight on the sport, particularly from casual fans and non-racing media.

However, the brief “shot in the arm” horse racing experiences starting on the first Saturday in May at the Kentucky Derby dissipates significantly after the horses cross the finish line at the Belmont in June. The reason is that horse racing in its year-round presentation is nothing like the Triple Crown.

Here are a few ideas for how it could be, together with different ways to package the Triple Crown without touching its sanctity:

– Create a race at the end of the year just for horses that have run in a Triple Crown race that year. Or another race in the spring or summer for older horses that have run in a Triple Crown race during their careers. These races — let's call them the “Triple Crown Masters” for older horses and the “Triple Crown Graduate Stakes” for 3-year-olds — could move to a new location each year. Think of this as expanding the playoffs in horse racing, like in other sports, without touching the significance of the final.

– Do more to recreate the Triple Crown atmosphere around the country. One of the most popular aspects of the Triple Crown is the race-day experience for the fans that only engage with horse racing during the Triple Crown. For some, it's having a reason to dress up in fancy hats and clothes. For them, create “Triple Crown Days,” kind of like a concert series that captures the atmosphere of the Triple Crown. Many racecourses in England host a “Ladies Day” that links their track to the aura of the famous “Ladies Day” at Royal Ascot. For others, the Triple Crown is about the atmosphere in the infield, considered a big reason for the success of Triple Crown fandom even if it has nothing to do with racing itself. Fine, have music festivals on race days. Why can't other racetracks enjoy the financial windfall that the Triple Crown tracks do by appealing to these fans?

– Embrace the idea that the Triple Crown is for young horses and focus on the collectiveness of the horses that participate rather than trying to single out one brightest star. The problem is that fans, regardless of whether they're casual fans or afficionados, have little familiarity with horses that run in the Triple Crown. We just don't know enough about them. Prior to 2000, a total of 30 horses across 125 Kentucky derbies entered the race with four or less lifetime starts. Over the next 18 runnings from 2000 to 2017, there were 32 horses entering the Kentucky Derby with four or less lifetime starts. In 2022, it was more than one third of the field. So, treat the Triple Crown like the Little League World Series or college sports where we can better appreciate the competition for the athletes at this stage in their life.

– Emulate the Breeders' Cup “Win and You're In” format for Triple Crown races. It's easier to grasp than a point system and allows regular sports fans and casual horse racing fans to consider that there's a regular season or regional qualifiers and that the Triple Crown races are like the championships.

– Get away from the Triple-Crown-or-bust mentality where the question of “Can [insert name of Kentucky Derby winner] etch his name in history?” Once Rich Strike's connections decided not to run in the Preakness or the Kentucky Derby winner loses in the Preakness, the air comes out of the series' sails. Even if there is a modern Triple Crown winner, racing becomes self-deprecating and likes to diminish the most-revered accomplishment you can have by claiming it still wasn't as good as when Secretariat did it.

– Promote the fact that a horse ran in a Triple Crown race as an accomplishment, even if they did not win. Along those lines, create some type of incentive, financial or otherwise, for a Triple Crown participant to run in a stakes race. Because, just as quickly as a star is born in the Kentucky Derby, the winners go away, either because of their breeding potential or injury. Since California Chrome mania, only 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and 2021 winner Mandaloun raced as 4-year-olds. Mandaloun was actually a weird case because he technically didn't “win” the Kentucky Derby until Medina Spirit was disqualified in February of his 4-year-old season.

– Bucking the above trend will be Rich Strike, whose connections plan to continue racing the 80‑1 Kentucky Derby winner in 2022 as a 4-year-old in 2023. He's run four times since the Triple Crown. As the Kentucky Derby winner, he is actually more well-known to general sports fans than Flightline. However, many in the sport just want to use whenever he runs as an opportunity to disparage that he got “lucky” and isn't a “legitimate” Kentucky Derby winner, even though the “legitimate” Kentucky Derby winners in their eyes don't do any favors for the sport by racing to the breeding shed. Instead, let's appreciate that there can be a Cinderella story in the Triple Crown and indulge in the fantasy of its possibility like college basketball does every March in the NCAA tournament. Sure, George Mason has been nowhere close to the Final Four since their Cinderella run in 2006, but other “longshots” have, making every NCAA tournament game, regardless of how lopsided the matchup may seem, intriguing.

Exploring how the aura of the Triple Crown can last longer than five weeks actually makes me appreciate the series even more. See, for all of you that bristled when I started this column with “the problem with the Triple Crown,” I didn't try to tamper with American horse racing's most sacred vessel. We actually may have found some ways to make fans, particularly casual and new ones, more devoted to it.

Announcing horse races inspired Jonathan Horowitz to become an advocate for off-track Thoroughbreds, as well as to learn to event on OTTBs and to expand his announcing of and writing about equine sports to horse shows around the United States. He also announces a variety of sports around the Denver-metro area, where he and his wife, Ashley, run the Super G Sporthorses eventing barn. Jonathan can be reached on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube at @jjhorowitz.

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