The Triple Crown bonus has become the Triple Crown onus.
Sponsors of the $1-million bonus--Chrysler Motors Corp. and Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park, the three tracks that run the Triple Crown races--have taken to the bunkers as the Belmont Stakes approaches a week from Saturday. They are hunkered down for the duration, hoping that none of three dismaying possibilities happens.
These are the possibilities:
--Unbridled, a bleeder running without his medication for the first time as a 3-year-old, gushing blood from the nostrils, similar to what befell Demons Begone, the favorite in the Kentucky Derby in 1987.
Unbridled, winner of the Derby and second in the Preakness, is a shoo-in to win the bonus, which goes to the horse with the best finishes in the Triple Crown races, but he must complete the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont to qualify.
--Something happening to Unbridled--being scratched from the Belmont or not finishing the race--and Land Rush winning the bonus by running third.
With the illness of Mister Frisky, Land Rush and Unbridled will be the only horses to have run in all three Triple Crown races. Land Rush, who was seventh in the Derby and sixth in the Preakness, losing those races by a combined margin of 30 lengths, would get one point for finishing third in the Belmont, under the Triple Crown's 5-3-1 point system.
--Again, Unbridled either not running or not completing the Belmont, and Land Rush not finishing among the first three. In this event there would be no million-dollar payoff, and the wags would be asking about a carry-over of the bonus to next year.
The only outcome that will bring down the blood pressure of the Triple Crown sponsors is for Unbridled to win the Belmont.
Any other finish will leave Unbridled's bonus tainted, since Summer Squall, second in the Derby and first in the Preakness, is skipping the Belmont because his managers, who are also dealing with a horse that bleeds, don't want to risk running June 9 without Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication that is prohibited in New York.
The Triple Crown bonus, which started in 1987, has invited ridicule before, but this is the closest the sponsors have come to out-and-out disaster.
There was some muttering in 1987, for instance, when Alysheba won the Derby and the Preakness, but still didn't collect the bonus. Alysheba missed third place by a neck in the Belmont and finished with 10 points, one fewer than Bet Twice, who was second in the first two races before winning the Belmont.
Winning two out of three is good in most sports, racing's Triple Crown bonus always a possible exception.
"What we don't want to do is have a knee-jerk reaction to something that may be happening this year and is unlikely to ever happen again," said Ed Seigenfeld, executive director of the Triple Crown group. "Another thing is that no one has come up with an alternative that makes more sense than the rules we already have."
The establishment of the $1-million bonus--there's also a $5-million payoff for the horse that sweeps the Triple Crown--was a knee-jerk reaction to begin with, so maybe one knee jerk deserves another.
In 1985, Bob Brennan, who had just rebuilt Garden State Park in New Jersey, proposed a $2-million bonus to any horse that won three races for 3-year-olds at his track and also won the Kentucky Derby.
Not even Brennan--and certainly not the insurance company that guaranteed his bonus--dreamed that a horse would come along and sweep those four races, but that's what the speedy Spend a Buck did.
The fourth race in the series was the Jersey Derby, which was run so close to the time of the Preakness that Spend a Buck's owner, Dennis Diaz, skipped the middle Triple Crown race to run for the $2 million at Garden State Park.
The Jersey Derby was also a $1-million purse in those days, with the winner earning $600,000. Pimlico officials denigrated Diaz for not running Spend a Buck in their Preakness.
The next year, Brennan was indirectly responsible for the Belmont's not having a matchup of the Derby and Preakness winners.
Ferdinand was the upset winner of the Derby, and Snow Chief, who had been favored to win in Kentucky, rebounded and won the Preakness. Snow Chief's camp then elected to run for the $600,000 in the Jersey Derby, which was run nine days after the Preakness, and after winning that race they skipped the Belmont.
By the time the Triple Crown tracks got around to establishing the bonus in 1987, Brennan's empire was tottering. His Garden State bonus was no more, and the Jersey Derby had been devalued to a total purse of $500,000. The Triple Crown bonus was fighting a dragon that had lost its wings.
Since 1987, the year of the alleged Alysheba inequity, the Triple Crown bonus--which expected to keep the Kentucky Derby horses running in the Preakness and Belmont--has been generally ineffective in keeping horses running.
In 1987, five horses raced in all three Triple Crown races. Four completed the circuit in 1988, there were three in 1989, and this year there are two.
In two of the four years before the bonus, there were similar results. Three horses ran in all the Triple Crown races in both 1984 and 1985.
Wayne Lukas, who has sent horses to all the Triple Crown races in the same year both before and after the establishment of the bonus, has suggested that the $1 million be applied outright to the purses of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, which would make them $1-million stakes.
It is incongruous, in a sport that offers at least 18 million-dollar stakes this year, that not one of them is a Triple Crown race. The most a Triple Crown race has been worth was this year's $756,000 Derby.
Lukas estimates that it costs an owner between $30,000 and $40,000 just to get a horse to one of the Triple Crown races. Entry and starting fees alone are $20,000 for the Derby, $10,000 apiece for the Preakness and Belmont. For the last seven years, fourth place in the Derby has been worth only $25,000, and until the last two years, when fourth place in the Preakness finally reached the $30,000 range, that payoff was well under $20,000.
Even in the era of harmony among the Triple Crown tracks, having a horse run fourth in one of their races is no bonus for the owner.
Horse Racing Notes
Sunday Silence, finishing serious training for Sunday's $300,000 Californian at Hollywood Park, worked half a mile in a sparkling :46 3/5 Thursday, with Chris McCarron aboard. Sunday Silence, last year's horse of the year, will make his first start since he won the Breeders' Cup Classic last November. . . . Tasteful T.V. and Annual Reunion, who will carry 119 pounds apiece, are the high weights in the 10-horse field for the $100,000 Honeymoon Handicap at Hollywood Saturday. The 1 1/16-mile grass race is for 3-year-old fillies.
The California Horse Racing Board is divided on the appointment of a successor to secretary Len Foote, who resigned. Henry Chavez, the board chairman, says that the finalists are Dennis Hutcheson, the acting secretary, and three candidates from out of state. Chavez expects the post to be filled within 60 days. . . . The six-month strike by mutuel clerks and other workers at Caliente Race Track has ended, but there is the possibility of another strike by late June. Caliente's race and sports books have reopened, but greyhound racing won't start for probably another three weeks and horse racing won't resume until the end of the year.
Earl Scheib's Saros Brig, the 6-year-old mare who earned almost $800,000, broke down in the Lady Canterbury Handicap at Canterbury Downs near Minneapolis and was destroyed.