We in the United States aren’t the only ones looking forward to the first leg of a Triple Crown this weekend. On Saturday at Newmarket, the 2,000 Guineas will be run at the distance of one mile, kicking off Britain’s Triple Crown season. The other two legs are the Epsom Derby, at Epsom Downs on June 2 at 1 mile, 4 furlongs and 10 yards, and the St. Leger, at Doncaster on September 15, at a mile and six furlongs.
The last winner of the British Triple Crown was Nijinsky in 1970, and while the Triple Crown drought is longer in England than it is in the United States, the hope for another winner is also more muted there, at least according to Nicholas Clee.
Clee is the author of Eclipse: The Horse That Changed Racing History Forever, and he’s followed racing for much of his life, going to the races for the first time as a child. According to him, when it comes to the Triple Crown, we here in the States are much better off than our neighbors across the Atlantic.
“We are rather envious of your Triple Crown because ours no longer has much meaning,” he said from his home in England. “Achieving a U.S. Triple Crown is much more feasible than an English one.”
Part of it is due to the calendar, he said, noting that the St. Leger, the longest of the three races, comes months after the other two, diminishing the narrative arc of the races.
“It’s a shame that we’ve lost that,” he said. “There have been various attempts to build a narrative into the season, but the Triple Crown isn’t going to be it.”
In addition, he said, “Increasingly horses are specialists. In fact, since Sea The Stars won the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby, it had been quite a long time since a horse had won both of those races.” The last had been Nashwan in 1989; prior to that, no horse since Nijinsky had won both.
And even if a horse wins the first two legs, he pointed out, it’s unlikely that a horse would go on to run in the St. Leger. “The St. Leger has lost a lot of luster,” he said, “partly because breeders are looking for speed much more these days.
“The Triple Crown hasn’t worked for anyone for a long time, and I can’t see a Triple Crown winner happening again.”
Even the Epsom Derby, he said, doesn’t get the attention is used to.
“It doesn’t stop the nation as it used to,” he said. “It’s revived a bit, but it certainly doesn’t have the luster of the Kentucky Derby.”
Clee is not alone in his opinion; in 2006, Charlie Brooks wrote in The Telegraph,
A good number of you may not even know the Derby is the second leg and even fewer will be aware or care that the St Leger is the third leg. Because the concept of a Triple Crown winner is obsolete in this country.
Brooks advocated that the distance of the St. Leger be cut back to a mile and quarter, noting that traditionalists would “howl” at the idea.
In 2009, an article in The Mirror compared the English Triple Crown to the dead parrot in a Monty Python sketch.
The Triple Crown is like the ‘Norwegian Blue’ Parrot in the Monty Python sketch, where John Cleese enters the pet shop to register a complaint about the dead bird, but pet-shop owner Graham Chapman insists that it is alive.
(“The Triple Crown? It’s not dead, it’s resting.”) The last time a horse had the chance of winning the Triple Crown was 20 years ago, when Nashwan won the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby, but Major Dick Hern decided against it.
(“You stunned it, just as it was waking up! Triple Crowns stun easily, major!”) Of course, we would have been amazed if John Oxx had given Sea The Stars the go-ahead to run at Doncaster, rather than plan for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and possibly the Breeders’ Cup.
On these shores, we regularly hear criticism of our Triple Crown: Space out the races more. Shorten the Belmont. Restrict the series to 4-year-olds. Nonetheless, each spring, racing fans in particular and sporting fans in general turn their eyes to Louisville and then to Baltimore, hoping that this year will be the one that we get to see the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.
“If you want racing to regain its status,” said Clee, “you should probably be grateful that there is Derby fever.
“We don’t quite have that, and it would be good if we did.”
Last week at Forbes.com, I wrote about why I’m not a huge fan of our Derby, and my feelings haven’t changed. But Clee certainly has a point: whatever is wrong with our Derby and Triple Crown, it’s not, at least, a dead parrot.
Note: I’m working on a post-Derby post on Clee’s terrific book, which will appear at Forbes.com in the next couple of weeks.