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TRIPLE CROWN TROUBLE : Lately, Horse Racing’s Big Three Have Added Up to a Triple Frown : With Derby Winners Gato Del Sol (left) and Spend a Buck (right) Having Skipped Preakness, Series Tries Going to the Whip

Times Staff Writer

The 1980s have been difficult years for horse racing’s Triple Crown.

A gelding didn’t win the Kentucky Derby-- breeders would have cringed at that--no trainer drugged a horse to win the Preakness and no jockey scandals came out of the Belmont Stakes. But individually and as a group, the tracks that run the Triple Crown races have had their problems.

In 1982, both Churchill Downs, which stages the Derby, and Baltimore’s Pimlico, the host of the Preakness, discovered that their races weren’t imperatives.

Henry Clark, a respected trainer, said thanks but no thanks to the Derby that year. After Linkage had won the Blue Grass Stakes, a traditional prep nine days before the Derby, Clark jolted Kentucky hardboots all the way to their soles, bypassing Churchill Downs to concentrate on the Preakness. It was the first time in 24 years that a Blue Grass winner hadn’t run in the Derby.

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Linkage didn’t win the Preakness, either, finishing second to Aloma’s Ruler, and in fact didn’t win a race the rest of the year.

Then, while officials at Churchill Downs were still removing the egg from their chins over the Linkage snub, the year’s biggest bombshell hit when Eddie Gregson, the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Gato Del Sol, chose not to run his colt in the Preakness two weeks later.

Gregson remains a bit of a maverick. Despite his ’82 victory in the Derby, he and his stable operation aren’t wedded to that race, either. He said after Gato Del Sol’s Derby win that he would return to Churchill Downs only if he had a 3-year-old that had a good chance to win. True to his word, he skipped the Derby the next three years.

Gregson was such a man of his word this year that he got into a disagreement with one of his owners about whether Icy Groom should run in this Saturday’s 112th Kentucky Derby.

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Icy Groom, second to Snow Chief in the Santa Anita Derby and fourth in last Thursday’s Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, was not, in Gregson’s opinion, ready to run the Derby distance of 1 miles. But Bill Fleming, who owns the colt, wanted to run in the Derby, anyway, so another trainer will saddle Icy Groom here Saturday.

“There’s a lot of Breeders’ Cup money ($10-million worth, spread over seven races in one day in November) at the end of the year every year,” Gregson said the other day. “It would be foolish to crank up a horse for the Kentucky Derby if you only thought he could run second or third in the race.”

Back in ’82, Chick Lang, Pimlico’s general manager, did some Gregson-Gato Del Sol parodies that would have been in poor taste even on “Saturday Night Live.” Lang, his spleen still showing, was hardly less inhibited last year when the Derby winner, Spend a Buck, spurned the Preakness.

A gelding, Creme Fraiche, did win the Belmont Stakes last year but in front of only 43,000 fans, the smallest crowd in more than 15 years. Further, only about 4 million people watched the Belmont on television. That was by far the lowest rating for the year’s Triple Crown races and is one of the reasons that this year CBS won’t be televising the race for the first time in 34 years.

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“The TV market for racing can’t get any lower than it is right now,” said Gerry McKeon, president of Belmont Park and two other New York tracks. He was alluding to the ratings for the Belmont Stakes and other race telecasts, including the Breeders’ Cup.

Ratings for last year’s two other Triple Crown races were also poor. The Derby numbers dropped 15% from the previous year, and more people watched the Preakness on television in 1953 than in 1985.

Reasons for the Derby decline are not that discernible, but Spend a Buck’s absence was the Preakness’ problem. The Belmont, which is run three weeks after the Preakness, also suffers from a loss in interest when there is no horse eligible for the Triple Crown, and that has been the case in five of the last seven years, when there were different winners of the Derby and the Preakness.

Lately at Pimlico, it has been a problem just getting the Derby winner to run in the Preakness. Gregson didn’t send Gato Del Sol simply because he didn’t think the plodding gray colt could win the race, which at 1 3/16 miles is a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby. Many horsemen saw the logic in the decision, but Lang’s caterwauling was relentless.

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Last year, with Spend a Buck, was something else again. Bob Brennan, the enterprising operator of a rebuilt Garden State Park in New Jersey, had offered a $2-million bonus to any horse that won the Derby and three races at his track.

Spend a Buck’s win in Kentucky put him within one race of all that money, and because of their closeness, he couldn’t run in both the Preakness and Garden State’s Jersey Derby, the fourth race in Brennan’s series and a stake that carried a $1-million purse besides the bonus.

Spend a Buck’s owner, Dennis Diaz, chose the Jersey Derby, sloughing off Lang’s argument that a Triple Crown sweep would astronomically increase the colt’s value as a breeding stallion.

Winning the Jersey Derby, Spend a Buck collected $2.6 million, a record payday for a horse. Tank’s Prospect won the Preakness, a victory worth $423,200.

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Actually, Brennan did the Triple Crown tracks a favor, because his Spend a Buck coup has galvanized Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont into forming a consortium that is now promoting their three showcase races for the first time.

Triple Crown Productions--as the group is known--is moving slowly, however. In the first year, its only accomplishment was a common nomination blank with which an owner could make a horse eligible for the three races by paying $600 by Jan. 15, or after that by paying $3,000 by March 17.

This system resulted in 452 3-year-olds being nominated for the Triple Crown, more than any of the three races ever got when nominations were taken separately for each stake.

No important horses have been excluded from Saturday’s Derby because of the new nomination procedure. But it is too early to determine whether a late-developing horse might not be able to run in the Preakness and Belmont because he wasn’t nominated early. Before the Triple Crown setup, supplementary nominations at premium fees could be made for the Preakness and Belmont.

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Curiously, though, one eligibility rule is different for each race. If more than 20 horses are in line to run in this year’s Derby--something that has happened four times in the last five years--starters are determined by money earned in graded races. The Preakness, which limits the field to 14, gives preference to horses based on their earnings in all races. The Belmont, with a 16-horse maximum, has an eligibility rule that combines the stipulations for the Derby and Preakness.

Also, the Triple Crown tracks are not offering a bonus, nor are they in agreement on medication rules.

A bonus, one Triple Crown source said, was contingent on obtaining corporate sponsorship, and although a cigarette company was interested, the tracks apparently preferred a different product.

Television has sometimes been uncomfortable with cigarette-sponsored races because of federal laws prohibiting tobacco advertising. CBS, which carried the Marlboro Cup from Belmont Park for many years, once referred to the stake on the air as “the Cup.” Racing has enough problems with television without aligning its most recognizable series of races with a cigarette underwriter.

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There are reports that next year’s Triple Crown races will each have a $1-million purse, with a $1-million bonus for a horse that accumulates the most points through high finishes in the series. The 1984 Derby, which was worth $712,400 to the winner, ranks as the richest Triple Crown race to date.

Meantime, the specter of Brennan and his bonus money remains. If another Derby winner defects to New Jersey, Nancy Lang may have to hide her husband’s razor blades.

Carl Grinstead, one of the owners of Snow Chief, the heavy favorite in Saturday’s Derby, said after winning the Santa Anita Derby that the colt would continue running in the Triple Crown races as long as he kept winning.

Several hours after making that statement, however, Grinstead and his partner, Ben Rochelle, went to dinner in Los Angeles with officials from Garden State Park.

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There might have been some small talk about ex-hoofer Rochelle’s old movies, but mention of the May 26 Jersey Derby undoubtedly went with the entrees. The Preakness will be run May 17, so Snow Chief couldn’t make both races.

An official from Garden State Park said that the track was encouraged by the meeting. And despite Grinstead’s statement after the Santa Anita Derby, the handlers of Snow Chief are on record as saying that their goal is to break John Henry’s earnings record of $6.5 million. Winning the Jersey Derby would be worth $600,000. The Preakness winner will earn about $400,000, and the field in Jersey probably will be easier.

Brennan could get Lang, Pimlico, Grinstead and Rochelle off the hook by beating Snow Chief in the Kentucky Derby with Fobby Forbes, the colt he races for his Due Process Stable.

Fobby Forbes won the Garden State Stakes April 19, making him eligible for Brennan’s secondary bonus of $1 million, which Fobby Forbes could collect by taking the Kentucky Derby and the Jersey Derby. If that happened, Brennan would practically be taking money out of one pocket and putting in another.

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Eual Wyatt, the racing secretary at Garden State, said that if Fobby Forbes wins the Kentucky Derby, Brennan might run him in both the Preakness and the Jersey Derby. Even for Brennan, that would be showing a lot of cheekiness.

A breeding argument, similar to the one Lang used in trying to get Spend a Buck to the Preakness, would be less convincing to Snow Chief’s owners. Even with a Triple Crown sweep, Snow Chief, who was bred cheaply in California, would not be a popular stallion in Kentucky, the cornerstone of the American breeding industry.

Although a Triple Crown bonus is inevitable, common medication rules for the three races are not. Horses are allowed to run in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with certain medications permitted by Kentucky and Maryland racing authorities. But for the Belmont, New York doesn’t allow any medication.

Racing’s medication rules are so varied and complicated that on the day before the 1983 Preakness, the owners of Desert Wine spent most of the afternoon in a Baltimore courtroom. There, they argued that their colt, who had bled internally in California, should be allowed to run on Lasix, a diuretic commonly given to arrest the problem.

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The judge agreed with the Desert Wine people, the horse ran second to Deputed Testamony the next day and the Maryland rule on Lasix was later reworded more specifically.

This year, the Maryland Racing Commission wanted to continue allowing horses to run on Lasix, except in the Washington International and the Preakness, the state’s two major races. That proviso would have made the rule for those races jibe with New York and Europe, which also doesn’t allow medication and always sends several horses to the International.

The commission was opposed by Maryland horse owners and breeders, as well as by Pimlico, and a state legislative panel rejected the request to change the rule.

Medication disputes and the efficacy over bonuses aside, what the tired-blood Triple Crown needs is another horse to sweep the series.

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There have been only 11 Triple Crown champions, and none since Affirmed in 1978. That’s the longest Triple Crown void since 1973, when Secretariat’s sweep ended a 25-year drought. The series quickly had two more champions in the 1970s, Seattle Slew and Affirmed becoming the only consecutive winners in ’77 and ’78.

Winning the Triple Crown may not be the most difficult achievement in sports, but it is not easy. Several years ago, a Virginia college professor figured that the odds on a horse’s winning it were 27 trillion to 1. And that was based on an annual foal crop of 30,000, which grew to an estimated 50,000 by 1984.

To have a chance at the Triple Crown, a young 3-year-old must carry 126 pounds and try to run the Derby’s 1 miles, a distance he has never raced before. Then he must be speedy enough to win the 1 3/16-mile Preakness only two weeks later, while retaining enough stamina to last the 1 1/2-mile Belmont distance three weeks after that.

“It’s very hard to win the Triple Crown,” trainer Laz Barrera, who did it with Affirmed, said. “Some of the horses are only barely 3-year-olds when they run in the Derby. They’ve got to run their hearts out in that race, then come back in the next two soon after that.

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“And the weight is something, too. The three races shouldn’t be that close together. You can punish a horse for nothing by running him in the Triple Crown.”

Affirmed beat Alydar by 1 1/2 lengths in the Derby, by a neck in the Preakness and by a head in the Belmont. Never did a horse work so hard to win the Triple Crown.

As a 3-year-old before the Kentucky Derby, Affirmed won the Santa Anita Derby, the Hollywood Derby and two other California races in his only four starts.

“His races in California were not that tough--there was nobody to run with him,” said Patrice Wolfson, who raced Affirmed with her husband Louis. “And the weather in California was awfully rainy that winter, which also might have helped him in the Triple Crown because he hadn’t been trained that hard.”

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Wolfson said that the practice of transporting horses by plane might make it easier to compete in the Triple Crown. It also makes more horses available for the races, thus increasing the challenges.

“I remember how Laz (Barrera) had fixed up the back of a big jet for Affirmed when he was flown from California to Kentucky,” she said. “There was a mare on the plane with him, but it was such a big plane that she wasn’t anywhere near our horse. Affirmed fell asleep and didn’t wake up until he got to Kentucky.”

William Woodward’s Belair Stud farm won two Triple Crowns--in 1930 with Gallant Fox and in 1935 with Omaha, a son of Gallant Fox. Calumet Farm also had two Triple Crown champions--War Admiral in 1937 and Citation in 1948.

Of the Triple Crown champions from the 1970s, only one of their owners has made it back to the Derby. Slew o’ Gold, a son of Seattle Slew, finished fourth at Churchill Downs in 1983, running for some of the same people who had campaigned Seattle Slew.

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“The same people don’t stay on top the way they used to in racing,” said Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat. “Calumet has been in a long slump. Greentree (Stable) was in a slump and maybe they’re coming out of it now. The (Ogden) Phipps family has had its ups and downs and finally seems to be coming back.

“Maybe we haven’t had a Triple Crown winner for a while because of the quality of the crops we’re breeding. And what can you do about that? If you could easily solve that, the game wouldn’t be as much fun as it is.”

Mickey Taylor, one of the owners of Seattle Slew, said that the 1970s were fortunate to have three such standouts as his horse, Secretariat and Affirmed.

“And there was a fourth, Spectacular Bid, who just missed,” Taylor said.

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Spectacular Bid won the Derby and Preakness in 1979 and then ran third in the Belmont, which was won by Coastal.

“We were spoiled by all those good horses coming along at the same time,” Taylor said. “Since then, it’s been back to reality.”

Nevada odds on Snow Chief’s winning this year’s Triple Crown have dropped to 10-1. He may be the best of a crop that has become mediocre with the loss of several top competitors to death and injuries.

“There is the tendency to throw the word great around loosely,” Patrice Wolfson said. “Being the top 3-year-old is one thing; winning the Triple Crown is something entirely different.

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“Snow Chief has got a lot ahead of him. He does seem to have consistency in his favor and appears to handle different racing surfaces, which is what a Triple Crown champion will have to do.”

Snow Chief figures to be the odds-on betting choice in the Derby.

“That’s the only way to go to the Kentucky Derby with a horse,” Taylor said. “Seattle Slew was 1 to 2 in the Derby. I can’t say that Snow Chief won’t win the Triple Crown, but he’s got a long grind ahead of him. It’s one major step at a time.”

Mesh Tenney, who at 77 came out of retirement recently to resume training horses after 12 years away, won the Derby with Swaps in 1955 and thought he had a Triple Crown horse. But Swaps had a foot problem. He was lame after winning the Santa Anita Derby, and when the foot soreness flared up again after the Kentucky Derby, he was returned to California instead of going on to the Preakness.

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“To win the Triple Crown, a horse has to be strong and also have a good disposition,” Tenney said. “I don’t know Snow Chief that well, but he looks like he might be able to do it. He looks like a sensible horse.”

Considering all the pitfalls from the Derby through the Belmont, the Triple Crown odds of 10-1 on Snow Chief seem low. Lucien Laurin, who trained Secretariat and also had Riva Ridge, winner of the Derby and Belmont in 1972 but a fourth-place finisher in the Preakness, would make any horse more than 10-1 to win the Triple Crown.

“The Triple Crown is supposed to be tough, isn’t it?” Laurin said. “That’s why only 11 horses have won it.”

TRIPLE CROWN WINNERS

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