In a brief NBC television interview with California Chrome’s co-owner Steve Coburn immediately following the 2014 Belmont Stakes, Coburn opined that it was unfair for horse owners to pick and choose among the Triple Crown races for their charges.  Tonalist and Commissioner, for example, the winner and runner-up in the Belmont did not race in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness.  Although Coburn later apologized for his outburst against the Triple Crown system and his comments about other owners, scientific polls conducted among the public after the race found that the vast majority of people agree with Coburn.

Suggestions that owners be required to run their horses in all three Triple Crown races are impractical and ill-advised.  Owners who care about their horses run them when the trainer says they are ready.  Man o’ War’s owner bypassed the Kentucky Derby, as he thought the distance was too much to ask of a 3-year-old colt so early in the year.

Moreover, if such a mandatory “start-in-all-three-races” rule were installed, the Kentucky Derby would have its usual large field and the Preakness and Belmont would most likely have sparse fields.  No one wants to see the second and third jewels of the Triple Crown with short fields.

Many well-meaning people have recommended reasonable changes in the Triple Crown; for instance, allocating more time between races or changing the distances.  Contrary to widespread opinion, these are not inconsistent with Triple Crown tradition.   The races have been run in different sequences, at varying distances, and with longer and shorter intervals between races.

I don’t have an earth-shaking change to offer, but do have a modest proposition based on my long-held preference for addressing problems and issues with easily understandable incentives rather than prohibitions and inflexible rules.  Rewarding desired behavior with attractive incentives gets more of it.

Simply put, if a horse races in the Kentucky Derby, he receives a five-pound weight allowance in the Preakness.  Colts who started in the Kentucky Derby at 126 pounds would then carry 121 pounds in the Preakness (fillies 116 pounds).  Horses that competed in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness would receive an additional five-pound weight allowance in the Belmont and carry 116 pounds (fillies 111 pounds).  If a colt raced in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness to race in the Belmont, his weight assignment in the Belmont would be 121 pounds (fillies 116 pounds).  A colt that skipped the Kentucky Derby but ran in the Preakness and Belmont would carry 126 and 121 pounds, respectively.  Finally, a colt that skipped both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, such as Tonalist, would carry 126 pounds in the Belmont whereas a California Chrome, who contested all three Triple Crown races, would run with 116 pounds.

Any kind of change to the Triple Crown format would require the cooperation of all three racetracks.  That is unlikely in the largely dysfunctional business of racetrack management.

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