This Saturday is the Preakness, a thoroughbred horse race that is the second in a series of three races that make up the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont; all run within May and June every year. The Triple Crown is the epitome of horse racing — no other race or series of races comes close to the media coverage and hype each year.


The winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby was American Pharoah. Although I must admit I did not have a favorite in the Derby, I’m now rooting feverishly for American Pharoah to take the Triple Crown. There hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since 1978. We’re sorely overdue.


In fact, it almost seems like the horses are mocking us. Since 2000, there have been six horses that have been “near misses” — those who win both the Derby and the Preakness, only to lose at the Belmont. Even as close as last year: Remember California Chrome?


Although Chrome’s co-owner was criticized for his outburst at the Belmont loss, I sympathized with him. A practical man with a tan cowboy hat, Steve Coburn accused the Belmont winner (a horse named Tonalist) of taking the coward’s way out by not running in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, thereby ensuring he was fresh for the Belmont.


Although citing cowardice is harsh, to be sure, I completely understand Coburn’s frustration. Folks have suggested in the past that only horses who have run the Derby and the Preakness both should be allowed to run the Belmont, that way ensuring an even playing field. Would that help usher in the next Triple Crown winner? I think it would certainly make it more likely (this is coming from a person who believes with all her heart that she will not see a Triple Crown winner in her lifetime). But that doesn’t negate the fact that all previous Triple Crown winners (11 in total) have also faced the same challenge.


Many have wondered why we are waiting so long to see another Triple Crown winner. The theories are interesting. Some argue that thoroughbreds today simply don’t run races much longer than one mile and the Belmont is a beast at one and a half miles. Add on top of this the fact that today’s racehorses usually have four weeks of rest before each race, while the schedule of the Triple Crown demands two races only two weeks apart, followed by the Belmont three weeks later. No rest for the wicked.


Others blame today’s breeding, stating that most breeders now select for speed at the shorter distances instead of endurance. Many winners of the Belmont aren’t popular as studs because, I suspect, the Belmont is unique in its length nowadays.


The most intriguing theories to me are the medical ones. Horse racing regulations are tighter than ever regarding drug testing up to and the day of the races. Steroids were banned in 2008 from thoroughbred racing and the practicing of milkshaking was banned in 2005.


To “milkshake” a racehorse is to give him a large oral dose of bicarbonate on the day of the race. While bicarbonate itself is not considered a pharmaceutical — after all, it’s baking soda — this practice gives its users an edge: Bicarb helps neutralize the build up of lactic acid in the muscles. This is especially beneficial during longer races when muscle fatigue is more likely to affect performance.


I’m not sure about the use of steroids in the early 20th century, but I’ll bet those Triple Crown winners in the 1970s took advantage of a little bicarb — not that I want to drag Secretariat’s name through the mud. This 1973 winner, affectionately known as “Big Red,” is my all-time favorite racehorse. It was discovered at his death that he had an exceptionally large heart, estimated near twenty pounds. Large hearts in racehorses have been genetically linked, this trait being called the “x-factor,” as it filters down through the female’s side of the family tree.


Could it be that all we’re really searching for is another Triple Crown great with “heart?” Possibly. Let’s see if American Pharoah’s got what it takes.



Dr. Anna O'Brien



Image: ksb / Shutterstock