Yesterday was the 142nd edition of the Kentucky Derby, which has been marvelously marketed under the slogan “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sport.” The race kicked off Nyquist’s Triple Crown quest, which will absorb millions of Americans in the coming month.
Triple Crown fever is an incomparable asset to the thoroughbred game, and it’s one that harness racing simply cannot match for several reasons. One story illustrates why.
About five years ago, I was with two longtime friends who share my passion for harness racing. Between the three of us, we had more than a century of experience in following the sport.
One question arose during our conversation: when and where was the Messenger Stake that year?
It was astonishing that none of us knew when it would be raced. Even worse is that none of us really cared.
The Messenger Stake, of course, is one of the jewels in the pacing Triple Crown. It was the first $100,000 single dash race in harness history and for many years was the richest jackpot for pacers.
(In fact, when Thor Hanover won the 1962 Messenger at 71-1 odds, the purse was higher than the Kentucky Derby purse that year).
But after Roosevelt Raceway closed in 1988, the Messenger became a virtual vagabond, moving to Yonkers for a year to Freestate to Rosecroft to The Meadows to Harrington and then back to Yonkers.
The plight of the Messenger Stakes illustrates why the Triple Crowns in harness racing have lost their significance. The Triple Crown events have lost their continuity on the map and on the calendar.
Contrast that with the thoroughbred Triple Crown. Every year when spring arrives, you know that the first Saturday in May will be Kentucky Derby Day. You can sip a mint julep, sing “My Old Kentucky Home,” and watch the “Run for the Roses” beneath the towering twin spires of Churchill Downs.
Two weeks later you’ll be singing “Maryland, My Maryland” as the colts race for the blanket of black-eyed Susans at Pimlico.
Three weeks after the Preakness, it will be “New York, New York” as the Triple Crown hopefuls try to win the test of champions in the marathon Belmont Stakes.
The thoroughbred Triple Crowns have fixed places on the racing map and continuity on the calendar — two assets that harness racing’s crown jewels lack.
Everyone had long recognized this, of course, but fixing the problem hasn’t been so easy. Who controls the Triple Crown?
Twenty years ago a USTA director introduced a rule change that would make the Meadowlands Pace, North American Cup, and Little Brown Jug the Triple Crown for pacers.
Great idea — and others had said the same previously — but the USTA had no control whatsoever over the Triple Crown. All the rule changes in the world could not alter it. (It was also amusing that this USTA director made no proposal to alter the Triple Crown for trotters, and this was at a time when top sophomore trotters regularly skipped the Yonkers Trot).
Yes, harness racing has far greater challenges than reconfiguring its Triple Crowns to give them some real meaning. But just think of the enormous benefits that thoroughbred racing enjoyed last year when American Pharoah ended the drought of almost four decades and won the Triple Crown.
(By the way, can you think of the last trotter and last pacer to win a Triple Crown in harness racing? Can you?)
The standardbred Triple Crowns were formed in the mid-1950s in an attempt to emulate the thoroughbred business.
For trotters, two time-tested classics — the Kentucky Futurity and Hambletonian — were paired with the new and lucrative Yonkers Futurity.
For pacers, the Little Brown Jug, then less than a decade old, was paired with the jackpot purses of the Messenger and Cane Futurity. (The futurity format was later dropped and the two Yonkers events became the simply the Yonkers Trot and Cane Pace).
Scott Frost was the first Triple Crown winner in 1955, but the lack of consistency in the trotting Triple Crown soon became evident. Scott Frost won the Hambletonian in Goshen, but two years later the Hambletonian was raced about a thousand miles to the west in DuQuoin, IL.
Another problem was that the New York-based Triple Crown events had no fixed dates on the calendar. They were raced according to the dictates of racing schedules. One year, the Messenger Stake might be contested in the spring and the next year it might be raced in chilly autumn weather.
As harness racing enjoyed its greatest boom years in the 1950s and 60s, the locations remained consistent, but upstart events wanted to elbow their way into the Triple Crown.
Roosevelt Raceway started the Dexter Cup for sophomore trotters and by the late 1960s it offered higher purses than the Hambletonian, Kentucky Futurity, or Yonkers Futurity. How could it be ignored?
It couldn’t be ignored, so the Triple Crown became the Grand Slam with the addition of the Dexter Cup. When Liberty Bell created the Colonial with $100,000+ purses, the Grand Slam became the Big Five. Nevele Pride and Lindy’s Pride swept the Big Five in 1968 and 1969.
When the Adios was first contested in 1967, it became an instant classic because of the Midas touch of Delvin Miller and it was added to the Triple Crown to become a pacing Grand Slam. Later the L.K. Shapiro at Hollywood Park became part of the Big Five for pacers.
The prestige of the Triple Crown remained intact, however, until Big Apple racing declined seriously in the 1980s. Roosevelt closed in 1988 and Yonkers was swamped by the popularity of the Meadowlands. The Triple Crown didn’t seem so important when the Meadowlands Pace started offering $1 million purses in 1980.
Also, many trainers of the best sophomore trotters consciously refused to race their horses in the Yonkers Trot because of questionable track conditions on the half-mile oval.
I distinctly remember a lively debate at Breeders Crown time in 1999 over Horse of the Year honors. My choice was clearly Moni Maker based on her international success. A friend said that it simply had to be Self Possessed because of his heroics in the Hambletonian and Kentucky Futurity and his speed records.
The third person, who had a thoroughbred background, “No, idiots, it’s got to Blissfull Hall. He won the Triple Crown. End of story.”
Moni Maker got the title. I didn’t think winning the Triple Crown would mean that much for Blissfull Hall. After all, two years earlier, Western Dreamer had won the Triple Crown and yet it was Malabar Man who claimed the 1997 Horse of the Year crown.
It was much the same scenario in 2004. Windsong’s Legacy became the first trotting Triple Crown winner since Super Bowl in 1972 and yet the pacing filly Rainbow Blue was voted Horse of the Year.
How can harness racing “fix” the Triple Crown? Or can it be fixed?
Many ideas have been put forward over the years, but that nagging problem of control remains. Who calls the shots?
What track official wants to say, “Yes, our event was once very prominent, but times have changed and it’s no longer relevant or important. So we’ll gladly drop our Triple Crown affiliation.”
But let’s hope that yesterday you took the time to sit back, sip a julep, and watch Nyquist win the Derby. Regardless of the breed, nothing beats a good horse race.