Over 400 horses were nominated to this year's Triple Crown, a number that, though fluctuating from year to year, remains comparable each year. Once two-years begin racing, that number gradually begins to shrink. Some emerge as legitimate contenders for the G1 Kentucky Derby while others fall short for a variety of reasons. Some show class limitations while others show distance limitations. As the crop progresses from their 2-year old season to their 3-year old season, still others fail to progress, unable to keep up with their peers at 3 after winning graded stakes at 2. Injuries kick in, and all of a sudden that 400+ group is down to about 30-40, a number that is still much too large for all to fit in the starting gate.
The Kentucky Derby is the race everyone wants to win, hence the 400+ nominations to the Triple Crown each year. Because that is the goal for practically everyone with a 3-year old colt, some sort of system had to be implemented to decide in as fair a manner as possible who makes the final 20 and who gets cut. Prior to the 2013 Triple Crown series, that system was based on graded stakes earnings. People became disenchanted with that system as time went on, realizing that 2-year old stakes victories were allowing horses in that hadn't lifted a hoof at all during their 3-year old season while barring slower maturing horses. A points system was then put in place, and while perhaps not perfect, it's puts more emphasis on the 3-year old season, allowing current form to trump out-dated 2-year old form.
Immediately after his colt California Chrome lost the G1 Belmont Stakes and his chance to enter history books as the 12th Triple Crown winner, owner Steven Coburn had a microphone stuck in his face. In what was at least halfway a knee-jerk reaction in the heat of the moment, Coburn called the connections of Belmont winner Tonalist and runner-up Commissioner "cowards" for "taking the easy way out" by jumping into the Triple Crown fray in the last leg after sitting out the first two legs. He went on to grumble about the situation being "unfair" and to opine that if you have to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, then you should have to qualify for the Preakness and Belmont, too. In other words, only the 20 that ran in the Derby should be allowed to run in the Preakness and Belmont.
Steven Coburn fired up the industry with those remarks. Reactions ranged from Camp Sore Loser, those that felt he was ungrateful and bitter, to Camp Valid Points, those that felt he made sense and had a right to say the things that he did. As for myself, I completely disagreed with everything Coburn had to say and felt that he could have done the same thing the other 12 connections of those that lost the Triple Crown since Affirmed won it did, namely tamp down on the knee-jerk reactions and be gracious to the winner. As for his logic concerning who should and should not be be able to race in each leg of the Triple Crown, I find it highly flawed.
Circling back to what I stated earlier, the Kentucky Derby is the race that everyone wants to win. Those that don't win the Derby have no reason to run in 3 hard races in 5 weeks, aside from money or to play spoiler, and so their connections opt to skip one or both races. Historically speaking, the Preakness and Belmont don't draw the same size fields that the Derby does, therefore there's no reason to have a system to decide who runs in those races and who doesn't. Also historically speaking, there have always been fresh horses running, just as there have always been those that run all 3 legs. For every Sham and Alydar, you have a Tonalist and a Summing.
Under Coburn's logic, the Preakness and Belmont fields would only have 3-5 horses running in them, and there's no thrills nor betting opportunities in fields of that size. Additionally, changing the format in any way, whether it be the timing of the races or disallowing fresh horses, would detract from what the first 11 Triple Crown winners accomplished. The Triple Crown is not meant to be easy, and it should take a truly special horse to accomplish the feat, not one that is just average but is capitalizing on designs that make the achievement easier. Life isn't fair, and neither is the Triple Crown. That's the way it's always been, and that's the way it should continue to be. Anything else, and winning the Triple Crown is just like winning 3 consecutive races: special, but not uncommon.