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Triple Crown Doesn’t Need No-Show Bet

Well, now it turns out that the connections of the ill-named Spend a Buck--Make a Buck would be more like it--might have done racing a service.

First of all, they might have triggered the powers that control the Triple Crown events--the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes--into posting a bonus for any horse that sweeps those.

That is long overdue. In an era when million-dollar bonuses are posted for contestants who can win two women’s golf tournaments in a row, when bowling events can result in million-dollar windfalls, when, in fact, a horse like Spend a Buck can win $2 million just by adding wins in a couple of inconsequential New Jersey sprints to his Kentucky Derby, it is high time a horse who does what only 11 horses have done in history be at least comparably rewarded.

The second thing Spend a Buck might have done was call attention to racing, which is the name of the game.

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But what is also the name of the game is that the whole controversy validates the importance of the Triple Crown. The Jersey Derby, which lured away Spend a Buck, is capitalizing not on its own resources but on the considerable clout of the Triple Crown and its instant identification with the sporting public.

It’s a parasitical arrangement. If the $2.6 million were posted merely for winning those races in Jersey, it might have made WOR-TV. But when the Triple Crown is involved, the whole country sits up. So, when the owner of the Garden State track threw in the Kentucky Derby winner--and effectively threw the Preakness into the ashcan--he got the desired notoriety.

But he is cleverly cashing in on another man’s grift. It doesn’t denigrate the Triple Crown’s importance. It reaffirms it.

Some years ago, Bob Cousy, the basketball player, in a conversation as to why his sport was having such difficulties attracting customers from other sports, sighed and allowed that basketball needed time to get public imagination because it was bucking “baseball’s 75-year bin of anecdotal lore.”

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The Triple Crown is not that old. Sir Barton won the first one in 1919. But the races that make up the Triple Crown total more than 300 years--111 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, 110 of the Preakness and 115 of the Belmont. That’s a lot of anecdotal lore.

Winning a Triple Crown is incontestably a super feat. Only super horses can do it. Merely great horses usually fall a race short.

So, any insurance company in the world would probably be glad to underwrite a $2 million prize on the if-come. That’s not terribly risky for something that’s happened only 11 times in 111 years. The premiums should not be prohibitive. In fact, there was no Triple Crown winner from 1948 to 1973 and, of course, none from 1875 to 1919.

What happens now is, opportunistic race track owners get the message. They have opened up the bidding for Kentucky Derby winners. Garden State has shown a way to call international attention to its race track, reminding the bettors that the windows are open there daily.

Still, it smacks a little of cannibalism. Of killing the golden goose.

The Kentucky Derby doesn’t need the Preakness or the Belmont. But the Preakness and the Belmont need the Kentucky Derby. And racing needs all three.

You see, any sport needs a star. It’s one of the things that’s wrong with golf lately and will be wrong with boxing when Larry Holmes retires. It’s called marquee value.

The Triple Crown has marquee value. It’s racing’s share of the publicity bauble. Baseball gets its days in the sun with the World Series. Football has the playoffs, the Super Bowl and the college bowls. Golf has its Masters and Open.

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Kentucky Derby winners have skipped the Preakness and Belmont before. But usually they were California horses whose owners did not expect to win at Louisville in the first place and had made no forwarding plans.

If they’re going to skip it annually because some guy comes up with a temporary fistful of dollars and a hokey bonus series, it’s going to hurt all racing.

Look at it this way: If Jack Nicklaus wins the Masters, do you want to see him in the Open and the British--or do you want to see him take on a field of 2-handicappers and club champions at some club that needs the publicity and is willing to pay for it?

Is racing a sport--or just a wheel?


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