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Chance for Triple Crown makes Belmont most exciting race in world

The most exciting race in horse racing is when a Triple Crown is on the line in the Belmont Stakes. We will have that this year thanks to California Chrome. His victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness again have put us on the precipice of sports history.

The last Triple Crown champion was Affirmed in 1978. In the 36 years since, 12 horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Eleven horses lost in the Belmont, and one, I’ll Have Another in 2012, was injured and scratched on the eve of the race.

There has been talk of changing the timing of the Triple Crown, adding more time between the races.

The Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday in May. The Preakness follows in two weeks, with the Belmont three weeks later. It’s a grueling test, for sure, to win three classic races within five weeks.

That’s especially true with the schedule that top racehorses have nowadays. A Grade 1 animal will normally rest a month, maybe more, between stakes starts.

I would vote against change. What is built into the Triple Crown is its degree of difficulty. I think the next horse that wins the Triple Crown will be revered, similar to the way Secretariat was.

People have forgotten that there was a dry spell from 1948 to 1973 until Secretariat came along. It helped make what “Big Red” did so special to sports fans.

In fact, from 1948 to now, there have been only three Triple Crown champions, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed. There have been just 11 overall. To gain a spot on this “Mount Rushmore” of racing, it should be hard-earned.

Among the 11 near misses, a few were clearly worthy of joining the select group. The upset of Spectacular Bid in 1979 was a real shocker. But he proved in an undefeated 4-year-old season that he is among the greatest racehorses of all time.

Trainer Bob Baffert came within a photo finish twice of the Triple Crown with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998. Smarty Jones in 2004 looked like the nuts until he was passed late by Birdstone.

It has been extremely frustrating for racing fans. But I like to compare two Triple Crowns — horse racing and baseball. When Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown in 2012, baseball hadn’t had one since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. It was a special achievement. And that was with a lowered pitcher’s mound and the designated hitter to help the offense.

This could be the most popular Triple Crown chase of all time. The growth of social media makes it a perfect outlet for a horse racing audience. There is much more buzz about California Chrome because of Facebook, Twitter and the like.

And the issue of nasal strip usage in New York by California Chrome provided untold amounts of free publicity for the Belmont Stakes.

The next two weeks will go by at the speed of water torture. Drip by drip. The hope and prayers are that California Chrome, and all the Belmont Stakes horses, have a good two weeks. And the race itself, called the “Test of a Champion,” goes off without a hitch.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.

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