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Racing sure is doing a terrific job of putting its best hoof forward, isn't it? Because of an absurd bonus setup and even more absurd drug policies, the Triple Crown races will have clouded the 3-year-olds' picture more than they will have clarified it.
The Triple Crown bonus arrangement was adopted in 1987, two years after Spend a Buck won the Derby but bypassed the Preakness. The horse's owner, Dennis Diaz, chose instead to run in the Jersey Derby and go for a $2 million bonus that Garden State Park had put up for any horse sweeping the Cherry Hill Mile, the Garden State Stakes, the Kentucky Derby—all of which Spend a Buck had already won—and the Jersey Derby.
Spend a Buck got the bonus, but Diaz panicked racing officials, who feared that other states would siphon off horses by offering extravagant bonuses. So the Triple Crown's host tracks, Churchill Downs, Pimlico Race Course and Belmont Park, signed up the Chrysler Corporation to underwrite a bonus of their own: $5 million for a Triple Crown winner or $1 million for a horse who starts all three races and earns the most points—with a minimum of one point—under a 5-3-1 system for win, place and show.
The flaws in the bonus system were exposed in 1987, when Alysheba won the Derby and the Preakness but finished only fourth in the Belmont. The $1 million went to Bet Twice, who won the Belmont after finishing second in both the Derby and the Preakness. Amazingly, it is conceivable that a horse could win the $1 million by earning a single point. Still, the point system has not been changed.
Now comes Summer Squall, who ran second to Unbridled in the Derby before the two horses reversed that order in the Preakness. Squall's owners decided to skip the Belmont because they can't administer the antibleeding drug Lasix in New York, where it is illegal. Both Unbridled and Summer Squall have eight bonus points, but Unbridled now needs only to finish the Belmont—even last—to collect the $1 million. Unbridled's trainer, Carl Nafzger, will certainly be aiming to go all out to win, but if Unbridled should be unable to start, or finish, the race, the undistinguished Land Rush would win the bonus by finishing third, because he would be the only other horse to run in all three races.
The Triple Crown's other big embarrassment is its lack of uniform medication rules. In 1987 Alysheba finished fourth in the Belmont after being taken off Lasix. The message this sends to the public is that a horse has to be a druggie to win the big stakes races. This spring both Unbridled and Summer Squall ran on Lasix in the Derby and the Preakness, as did many of their opponents. But while Nafzger gave the drug to Unbridled as a precautionary measure, Summer Squall's owners felt their horse needed it to survive a tough campaign in which he had five races in nine weeks. Cot Campbell, head of the syndicate that owns the colt, said that he probably would run Squall in the Belmont if Lasix were legal in New York. Yet the sport is being deprived of a rubber match because Campbell doesn't want to risk Squall's health—or the censure he would receive if the stress of the Belmont were to cause Squall to falter and bleed during the race.
?Kill the Triple Crown bonus and increase the purses for each of the races to at least $1 million (the Derby is $350,000-added; the Preakness and Belmont are both $500,000-added). This will help keep the best horses on the Triple Crown path.
?Ban medication for stakes races, but allow it for lesser events. Sure, this is a double standard, but so what? The best horses should be able to run without help, but more important, each of the Triple Crown races should be run under the same set of rules.
Q. Isn't it a shame we're talking about this stuff instead of anticipating either the coronation of Unbridled as a Triple Crown winner or a Belmont duel between him and Summer Squall?