5 myths about horse racing’s Triple Crown

John Scheinman Special to The Washington Post. It’s been 36 years since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. California Chrome will be the 12th winner of the first two legs of the series since then to try to close the deal. If Stubhub.com prices are an indication — $250 for a grandstand seat, more than $7,000 for a box seat in the clubhouse — expectations are high. Here are five myths to keep in mind when watching the big race June 7.

1. A horse who wins the Kentucky Derby and Preakness is a deserving betting favorite to win the Belmont.

California Chrome, like the other 11 horses since 1978 that have run in the Belmont after winning both the Derby and Preakness, will be treated as practically invincible at the betting windows. He probably will race at odds of 3-5, which return a paltry $3.20 for every $2 win bet. Charismatic had the highest odds of the 11 runners at 3-2, while Spectacular Bid was crushed down to 1-5.

Of the 14 horses who went off at odds-on, 1-1 or lower, in the Belmont after winning the Derby and Preakness between 1940 and 1978, eight won — 57 percent. Since 1978, however, eight of the Derby and Preakness winners were odds-on, and all lost.

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Bettors are going to have to weigh the talent of California Chrome against the overwhelming evidence that the Triple Crown is really, really hard to win.

Eight of the Derby/Preakness winners since 1978 have ended up second or third in the Belmont. Isn’t California Chrome more of a deserving betting favorite to finish in one of those spots? Yes, in a rational world, which horse racing certainly is not.

2. Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown.

Only if you can win something before it has been created. Sir Barton, the 1919 winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, captured the series before anyone called it the Triple Crown. According to racing scholar Bennett Liebman, the deputy secretary for racing and gaming in New York, the term was used to describe other American races as far back as 1894.

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The legendary Morning Telegraph scribe Charles Hatton is credited with popularizing the term “Triple Crown,” beginning in 1930 when Gallant Fox swept the series. Yet the New York Times, Liebman discovered, called it that in 1923, when the Derby was contested after the Preakness. Nobody called Sir Barton’s Triple Crown the Triple Crown until well after the fact.

3. Doping has tarnished the Triple Crown series.

The racing world at times has been awash in scandal and derision over medication and doping issues.

Yet elaborate security protocols were developed by state racing commissions for horses running in the Triple Crown following the death of the filly Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

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These days, the Triple Crown horses practically live in maximum-security prisons. State racing commission security at their stalls runs around the clock. Multiple blood samples are taken in the days leading up to the races and are examined in specialized labs. Vet records are monitored. Commission investigators or vets oversee the administration of all medications. Vials and syringes are taken by the commissions for possible testing. Entry and exit logs are kept to follow who goes in and out of the barns. Security cameras are in place. Post-race testing is also conducted. If anyone is cheating under such heavy scrutiny, they’re doing a damn good job of it.

4. Longer breaks between the races would improve the series.

Pimlico President Tom Chuckas wants to stretch out the Triple Crown across two months, with the Derby remaining on the first Saturday in May, while the Preakness is moved to the first Saturday in June and the Belmont to the first Saturday in July. “The philosophy of the trainers has drastically changed over the years,” Chuckas said. “It is hard for them to bring a horse back from the Derby in two weeks and run a horse three times in a five-week period. Most of them will not do it.”

I sympathize with Chuckas’ plight. Many horses that run at Churchill Downs on Derby day skip the Preakness day races at Pimlico and rest up for the $8 million in purses being thrown at them at Belmont Park. Chuckas’ real problem is that he doesn’t have enough money to compete at that level and make his races — including the Preakness — financially irresistible to horsemen. If he could do that, the horses just might race on two weeks’ rest.

Putting a month between each race would dilute interest in the Triple Crown. Did any college football fans really like the fact that Auburn won last season’s SEC championship game on Dec. 7 and then didn’t suit up until Jan. 6 for the BCS national championship? America is football crazy. Horse racing? Not so much. The sport would lose average fans.

As for the Triple Crown, the Derby winner is always going to come to the Preakness, and, honestly, that’s the only horse the race has to have. The rest are just window dressing. The five-week schedule of the Triple Crown has been in place since 1969, not forever. But it works. It’s a true test of greatness.

5. Getting rid of “Sidewalks of New York” as the official Belmont song cursed the Triple Crown.

“The myth of Mamie O’Rourke,” New York Racing Association spokeswoman Jenny Kellner said when I asked her about Triple Crown myths. She was referring to the 1894 song “Sidewalks of New York,” which was sung during the Belmont Stakes post parade from misty times until 1997, when it was replaced with a recording of Frank Sinatra doing “New York, New York.”

Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” played for one year, in 2010, and then “New York, New York” was brought back. Frank Sinatra Jr. will sing it live this Saturday at the track. Horses won the Triple Crown when “Sidewalks” was the serenade (“Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke/ We tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York”), but none has to “New York, New York.”

Liebman wrote in a 2008 New York Times column: “It was the theme song of New York Governor Alfred E. Smith. If it was good enough for Smith, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, it ought to be good for today’s Belmont.”

Liebman is romantic but misguided. Mamie O’Rourke’s magic ran out with Affirmed. From 1979 until Sinatra showed up in the starting gate, she finished off the board in the Triple Crown.

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John Scheinman, a former horse racing reporter for The Washington Post, is a freelance writer and editor. He contributes to the Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, Bleacher Report and other publications