What’s Next For California Chrome—And the Triple Crown?

Just a few hours after the Belmont Stakes was over and the Triple Crown dream had died, we may have found out why California Chrome ran a sub-par race. Photo evidence shows that Matterhorn, the horse in the starting gate stall next to him, dove left out of the gate and stepped on California Chrome’s right front foot, gashing the heel badly enough to be bleeding after the race.

That, and being forced to go wide on turn for home, easily explains the 2 ½ lengths by which he lost to Tonalist. I’m thinking that, instead of decrying him as just another not-quite-champion, that we should be impressed by his courage, that we should congratulate him for running that well despite his foot being bruised and bleeding.

Nevertheless, his defeat has only fueled the debate about whether the Triple Crown’s races should be changed. Certainly owner Steve Coburn’s immediate post-race outburst made some good points, although it did seem a bit cry babyish.

I don’t blame him, though. I’d be depressed and a bit angry too if my dream had just been shattered by a bunch of horses my horse had never run against, who were there just to take a shot at him.

So, let’s look at what Coburn said. Is it fair, or good for the Triple Crown, that horses have to qualify for the Kentucky Derby by earning points in designated races, but that anybody can run in The Preakness and the Belmont? I know the Derby requires qualification because, otherwise, they’d have 100-horse fields, which isn’t a problem for the other two. But why shouldn’t horses have to qualify with money earned for the Preakness and Belmont too? Shouldn’t horses have achieved a certain level to run in any of the three classics, just like the Breeders’ Cup? I think they should.

But I don’t think his suggestion that horses have to run in both the Derby and the Preakness to start in the Belmont is workable or desirable. You can’t force owners and trainers to run their horses in all three races—and you might end up with one- or two-horse races in the Belmont.

What about other suggestions for changing the Triple Crown? Well, I’d argue against substantial changes in any of the races, as it would mean that any future winners couldn’t be compared to the previous winners. Changing the races would just cheapen the prize. But I could go with moving the Preakness back one week so that there would be three weeks between each race. I don’t think that would horribly alter the challenge or negatively affect public interest in it.

I’m wondering, though if trainers who don’t run horses at New York tracks as they consider a Triple Crown bid for a promising 2-year-old aren’t missing a key ingredient. I watch TVG (a horse racing network) almost every day, and I just heard one of the commentators observe that no horse has ever won the Belmont Stakes and, thus, the Triple Crown without having raced at Belmont Park previously.

Belmont Park’s 1 ½-mile track is half again as big as most other U.S. tracks (which usually have a circumference of 7 furlongs to 1 1/8 miles), and its surface is deeper than most tracks. (Which is why Belmont is called “the Big Sandy.”) Does this make a difference when the title is on the line? Maybe, although they’d have to run them there in the fall of their 2-year-old year, since Belmont doesn’t open until May each year, after the Triple Crown is under way.

Now the outgoing Coburn and co-owner Perry Martin (the quiet one) have a big decision to make, a decision that’s actually harder following his defeat and injury. Assuming that the injury is only a wound and bruise, should they bring him back and aim him for the summer���s and fall’s big races, like the Travers at Saratoga, the Haskell at Monmouth, the Del Mar Classic at Del Mar and then the Breeder’s Cup Classic at his home track of Santa Anita in early November, and perhaps run him as a 4-year-old? Or should they retire him now, to protect him and their financial interest? (Of course, at this point California Chrome has already multiplied the $10,000 they spent to produce him by a factor of about 1,000.)

As a racing fan, I certainly hope they keep California Chrome in training, at least to the end of the year to run in the Breeders’ Cup. I think this would also make sense from a stud-value point of view. If he wins these races, it would prove his classic ability, which is a bit in doubt after losing the Belmont.

Interestingly, after Palace Malice, the 2013 Belmont winner, won the Metropolitan Mile, one of the other stakes races on Saturday’s stellar card, one of the TV commentators pointed out that he’d actually increased his stud value by proving he could win at 1 mile as well as at the 1 ½ miles of the Belmont. The Met Mile win showed his versatility, and the majority of breeders are more interested in producing horses who are fast enough to win the shorter races.

Plus, Coburn and Perry also have two full sisters to California Chrome. Now, genetic statistics indicate that the chances of either of them having his ability are extremely slim, but they are certainly very valuable as breeding stock. How valuable? I’d guess that, even if they don’t race at all, they’re worth more than $250,000 apiece. In fact, if I were them, I’d aim California Chrome for the Breeders’ Cup and then sell his sisters without racing them, because if they turned out to have no racing ability, it would only decrease their value. That strategy would let us enjoy California Chrome for longer and provide the best return on their investment.

Can you tell that I don’t think we’ve seen the best of California Chrome yet? You bet—I think that the Belmont was just bad racing luck at the worst time. I think he’s a star, but I also think that this loss should remind us what superstars Affirmed, Seattle Slew and, especially, Secretariat were.

In the aftermath of this year’s Belmont, I think we should be raising those three horses higher, not placing California Chrome lower.

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