Triple Crown hype machine has devoured the best of them

awincze@herald-leader.comMay 31, 2014 

Belmont California Chrome

Assistant trainer Alan Sherman led exercise rider Willie Delgado and California Chrome onto the track at Belmont Park. The last couple weeks have been "a little stressful," Sherman admitted.

SETH WENIG — AP

  • Belmont Stakes

    What: Final leg of Triple Crown

    When: Saturday, June 7

    Where: Elmont, N.Y.

Chris McCarron was just trying to do his job. The job that had put him in the position to begin with aboard his mount Alysheba, the one that would earn him induction into Racing's Hall of Fame two years later.

But 27 years ago, every 15 minutes or so, the phone in the jockeys' room at Hollywood Park would ring and the voice on the other end would be seeking out the veteran rider. They all wanted the same thing — his thoughts, his analysis and, most of all, to know what it felt like to have history dangling before him like the proverbial carrot.

"If I ever had the opportunity to do it again I would hire a publicist to manage my time for me because it eventually became very taxing and distracting," McCarron recalled. "Not necessarily as far as the Belmont was concerned but as far my daily riding at Hollywood Park. It would have been helpful to have someone help coordinate interviews so that my time was put to better use."

In 2004, trainer John Servis gratefully had his wife, Sherry, become the lead blocker for the onslaught that came due to his charge Smarty Jones. She was able to carve out rare moments of peace in the face of insanity, not that it stopped the frenetic churning inside her husband's head.

"I will tell you for me, there was zero pressure for the Kentucky Derby and really zero pressure for the Preakness," John Servis said this past week. "But for the Belmont, it was unbelievable."

Servis and McCarron are among those who can attest that there ain't no pressure like Triple Crown pressure because Triple Crown pressure doesn't stop.

As the years stretched into decades since Affirmed became the 11th and final Triple Crown winner in 1978, the fever at which the Thoroughbred racing community and fans long to see the classic trio conquered again has risen to levels not quite summed by your everyday adjective.

For the 13th time in this current 36-year drought, hope is again catching in the throats of many as brilliant Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes victor California Chrome heads into Saturday's 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes with history on the line and a nation full of self-proclaimed "Chromies" hanging on his every stride.

The equine athletes in question may be oblivious to the fact they figuratively carry more than the weight of 126 pounds on their backs when they reach this stage. For their human counterparts, the extensive outside obligations combined with the knowledge their sport's landscape could shift based on their success or failure can be mentally crushing.

"It gets intense. It's the old statement where you're in the glass house and everything you do becomes magnified and more intense," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had his media savvy and multitasking tested when he had Charismatic going for the Triple Crown in 1999. "The secret is to try and divorce yourself and stay away from the hoopla and concentrate on what got you there.

"And it's not just the media, it's the general fans and everything else. I told another trainer that was in it a few years ago, 'You will be so glad when the day finally comes when you can just run the horse, you'll be amazed.'"

That Lukas in 1999 was already established as a legend accustomed to media scrutiny, and had two of racing's great ambassadors in owners Bob and Beverly Lewis going through the fire with him, made the three-week boiler between Charismatic's Preakness and Belmont outings infinitely easier to endure.

"It never got to me, I don't think, as much as someone who hadn't been there before," he stated.

But like trainer Barclay Tagg with Funny Cide before him in 2003, Servis was still getting fully initiated to the three-ring circus when Smarty Jones looked like a Triple Crown lock after his sublime victories in the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

"When we first got back (to Pennsylvania) from Kentucky (after the Derby), the first day was terrible. I had no idea what to expect," Servis said. "I got to the barn the next morning and there were tents outside the barn and I was like, 'What the hell is this?'

"Within an hour there were 20 media people there pulling me every which way and thank God my wife was there to see it. That was the day she said, 'You can't do this. They are not letting you do your job.' That is when she took over and from then on it was great. She would make sure from 11-3 p.m. we did everything we could do and after that or before that, I was untouchable."

As the years since Affirmed's crowning glory have increased, racing's presence in mainstream media has fallen off because of struggles within both the game and the journalism industry.

Thus, at a time like the present when media outlets around the world are actually willing to zero in on the drama and pageantry the Thoroughbred community can create, a fine balance must be struck between satiating such desired demand while maintaining one's sanity.

"It's hard because I want the fans to be a part of this because without the fans, none of us would be here," said Alan Sherman, son and assistant to trainer Art Sherman, who conditions California Chrome. "People come and ask to take pictures of the horse and stuff and some of it just gets to a point where the horse needs to be left alone and relax. It's been a little stressful but we're getting through it."

Added Penny Chenery, owner of the immortal 1973 Triple Crown hero Secretariat, "I loved it. I love people, I loved the attention, and my trainer and I both felt that we had an obligation to accommodate the fans, accommodate uninformed questions from the media."

An added wrinkle team California Chrome is dealing with that many before them didn't is the social media-fueled, 24-hour news cycle. As has been demonstrated the last couple weeks, one Twitter post about a cough or use of an equine nasal strip can become headline news before a horse can finish cooling out.

"I think it would have been much more difficult for me (in the current media landscape), I really do," said McCarron, who guided eventual Hall of Famer Alysheba to wins in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness before finishing fourth in the Belmont. "I might have had the inclination to just block out the media. I might have been so overwhelmed as much as I was already overwhelmed at the time after 21/2 weeks of answering the same questions over and over again and getting phone calls in the jocks room at Hollywood Park.

"What really became challenging for me is writers would call that know nothing about racing and they would ask me questions that had nothing to do with the Triple Crown. It became very challenging for me to answer them without being sarcastic. Today, it would have been more difficult for sure."

The toll of a Triple Crown run can be irreparable even when successful. After Seattle Slew became the first unbeaten Triple Crown winner in 1977, repeated rifts between trainer Billy Turner and the horse's owners on how he should be subsequently campaigned resulted in Turner being dismissed by year's end.

The stress that comes with trying to gain immortality can be a nasty animal in its own right. But try finding one who has been there who regrets having been singed by the pressure cooker.

"Hell no, I'd love to go through that again," Servis laughed. "Are you kidding me?"

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.

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