HARRIS: Next Triple Crown winner could be long time coming

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

My son turns 30 in two months, a fact he hates being reminded of when just the two of us are in the room. He’ll be thrilled that I’m sharing it with dozens now.

But there is a reason his age is important to this discussion. Being the son of a sports writer isn’t quite as neat as it might sound, particularly being the son of this particular sports writer. It has, though, given him an appreciation of a variety of sports and an interest in most of them.

He likes horse racing, as does his dad. Unlike his dad, he hasn’t seen a horse win a Triple Crown since he’s been alive.

My guess is he likely never will see one, even if he lives to 100 as I hope he does.

The Kentucky Derby is Saturday in Louisville, Ky., the start of a wonderful five-week period. In two weeks, the Preakness Stakes will be contested at Pimlico in Baltimore. Three weeks after that, the Belmont Stakes takes place in Elmont, N.Y.

A horse that sweeps all three of those wins the Triple Crown.

The last time that happened? It was 1978, when Affirmed pulled it off. It capped a great period in horse racing, following the marvelous Secretariat’s 1973 Crown and Seattle Slew’s in 1977. It should have been three in a row. Spectacular Bid, maybe the best of the bunch, was beaten in the Belmont Stakes in 1979.

“Bid” was first of many horses to win the first two legs and falter in the Belmont, the longest and most daunting of the races at 1 ½ miles.

Most disappointing in our house was Big Brown in 2008. The horse looked powerful in winning the Derby and Preakness. The Derby victory provided a nice dinner for my family, thanks to an off-track betting parlor being located near my office at the time. We had a chocolate lab at the time we affectionately called Big Brown, long before the horse was born.

Finally, I thought, my kids are going to see a Triple Crown winner. Nope. We watched on a television at Nationals Park as Big Brown eased up and finished last. That’s when my son asked, “Will I ever see one?”

Last year, we thought it might happen again. But I’ll Have Another never even made it to the Belmont starting gate as he was scratched with an injury the day before the race. He has since been retired, never running again after the Preakness.

I don’t follow the sport nearly as closely anymore, which puts me in the majority. Casual fans will watch Saturday’s race and pay attention to the Preakness. If the Derby winner triumphs again, the Belmont will get a lot of attention. If the Derby winner loses, the Belmont will pass pretty much unnoticed.

Until Wednesday’s draw for positions and the installment of a horse named Orb as the early favorite, I couldn’t have named one Derby starter. I know trainer Todd Pletcher has a bunch of horses in the field. I know Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino is a part-owner of one of the entrants. I know if I do place a wager, it will be on the totally unscientific method of picking numbers out of the blue (2-5-7) and not based on any actual handicapping.

That said, I’m willing to bet whichever horse does win Saturday doesn’t win the next two in the series.

The Triple Crown has never been easy to win. Why has it become so much more difficult? People who know a lot more than I do have debated this for years and no one has come up with a strong answer. I do have some theories, though they’re no more viable than anything else.

● The Derby has become a crapshoot. It pays $1.4 million to the winner and allows 20 horses to enter. Secretariat won against a field of 13, Affirmed against 11. Twenty is too many horses for one race and, frankly, a disaster waiting to happen. You get a bad post position draw, get boxed in, get bumped and your chances are gone. Luck becomes more of a factor than it should be and you get some Derby winners who aren’t really Derby-winning caliber.

● Breeding. Have horses become softer over the years? Race horses are fragile to begin with and a 3-year-old horse is still developing. It’s about at the late teen years in human terms. Three races in five weeks is exceptionally difficult.

● Pressure. Horses are very perceptive animals, or so I’m told, and perhaps they feel it as the big day arrives. This is a huge reach, I know. I’m just trying to find some way to explain how Big Brown could look so strong for two races and so out of sorts for one in 2008. He won the Derby by 4 ¾ lengths and the Preakness by 5 ¼. Big Brown ran and won twice more after the Belmont, which was the only time he didn’t finish first in eight career races.

I hope I’m way wrong on this. I hope my son does get to see a Triple Crown winner. I just don’t think so. But, hey, Big Brown was a 1-4 favorite in the 2008 Belmont and lost. The only safe bet is knowing there’s no such thing as a safe bet.

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