Mar 16th 2011 07:49 pm |
This past Saturday, Uncle Mo made his 3-year-old debut beating a few nondescript colts in the Timely Writer at Gulfstream Park. The race furthered the short career of, what appears to be, this years best hope for completing the Triple Crown.
If Uncle Mo ends the Triple Crown series’ longest drought, winning the ultimate trifecta in North American racing, he will do so with only five career starts, two starts as a 3-year-old, and one race beyond 1 1/16 miles. Which had me asking the question: Is it physically possible for such a lightly raced colt to win three races in a five-week span at the demanding distances that comprise the three Triple Crown races?
Obviously, racing has changed a great deal since 1978, when Affirmed became the last to complete the Triple, but have horses changed that much since then? I would argue that the Thoroughbred hasn’t changed, it’s the training methods employed by humans that has changed. If we take the same breed of racing animal, and lighten their racing schedule leading to the Kentucky Derby to a point where it would be unrecognizable to the trainers of the past, is it possible for that same animal to sweep a race series that has proven to be one of the most elusive feats in all of sport?
If we look at the total number of starts and 3-year-old starts before the Kentucky Derby of the eleven Triple Crown winners (and the near misses* since 1978), it provides some perspective on the necessity for real racing experience to sweep (or nearly sweep) the big three:
* I define near misses as any colt that won two legs of the Triple Crown and finished in the top three of a third.
There are two Triple Crown winners that might support the idea that less starts wouldn’t hinder the possibility of another Triple Crown, however:
- Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown after only six career starts but had three races as a three-year-old and went 1 1/8 miles twice during his early sophomore season in winning the Flamingo and Wood Memorial. He also had published works at 4 furlongs, 6 furlongs, and one mile, within two weeks of Derby Day.
- Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown with no wins in six career starts and not a single start as a 3-year-old. He competed in the series before it was recognized as the “Triple Crown” so the three races were significantly less competitive then. Another thing to consider: Sir Barton lost his first six starts by over sixty combined lengths — a different era, indeed. If a maiden with such a record won the Kentucky Derby today, there would be a congressional hearing.
With few exceptions, colts that won or come close to a Triple Crown, have had a solid racing foundation. With the trend toward less racing for colts before the first Saturday in May, one wonders if we’ll ever see another American Triple Crown winner. Yes, we have had close calls since Affirmed but all of those colts had at least nine career starts and three starts as 3-year-olds (Uncle Mo will enter the Derby with five career starts and two starts at three).
If the trend continues beyond this year, and trainers continue to treat the best 3-year-olds like china dolls, then the odds that we’ll ever see another Triple Crown winner will go from “long” to “off-the-board.”
SOURCES, NEWS, AND NOTES
I used the Daily Racing Form’s Champions to check the records of all the colts referenced above.
It seems like i’m not the only one who was inspired by Uncle Mo’s race (if you can call it that) to do a little number crunching related to Derby preparation. Jessica Chapel at Railbird published a piece about trends towards two preps before the Derby. And, Teresa Genaro at Brooklyn Backstretch, published a piece titled Derby Preps: Starts and Starters that looks at the number of preps and the average number of starters in those races.
T.D. Thornton wrote an excellent piece for the Thoroughbred Times about a little known New York track called Maspeth and the history of thoroughbred racing under the lights. Unfortunately, it is only available in the print version of the magazine. Hopefully, they will put it online at some point in the future — it is really nice piece of history. It’s good to see the racing weeklies providing significant space for well-researched historical articles — the DRF weekend has also published some excellent racing history in the last year.
Thanks for reading and good luck!