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THOROUGHBRED RACING : Amid a Spirit of Cooperation, $5-Million Bonus Is Unclaimed


It was 1987 and the Triple Crown tracks had to do something. Two years before, Spend A Buck, the Kentucky Derby winner, was pulled out of the second Triple Crown race, the Preakness, because he was eligible for a $2.6-million payday--purse and bonus, which he won--in the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park.

Three years before Spend A Buck's defection, the Preakness received another slap in the face when Gato Del Sol, the Derby winner, didn't run in the Pimlico race because Eddie Gregson, his trainer, knew the plodding colt didn't stand a chance over a track that would crimp his style.

This was an era when front-runners ruled at Pimlico. In 1982, Aloma's Ruler, who might have been the third- or fourth-best horse in the field, was taken to the front by Cowboy Jack Kaenel and proved uncatchable. Had Gato Del Sol run in 1984, he probably would have been beaten by the length of Pimlico's stretch.

So in 1987, in self-defense, the Triple Crown tracks--Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park--made a pact. They began marketing the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes as a true triple--with a common nominating process, one television network covering the races, a $5-million payoff for any horse that swept the series and, short of that, a minimum $1-million bonus for the horse that did best in the races.

There had been little harmony among the Triple Crown tracks before the bonus years. Harvey Pack, who does in-house television for Belmont Park, used to refer to the Preakness as "the Belmont prep." The tracks' alliance was considered revolutionary, and for racing, perhaps it was. But it never would have happened had it not been for the collision of circumstances involving Spend A Buck and Garden State Park, which announced Wednesday it was going out of business on Dec. 4.

The $5-million Triple Crown bonanza is still waiting to be won. The $1-million bonus, which requires that a horse run in all the races to be eligible, might have accounted for a few extra horses hanging around to run after the Derby, but it has had little impact on the series. The truly exciting moments in the last six years have been the Belmonts in which horses had shots at a Triple Crown sweep. Alysheba finished fourth in 1987 and Sunday Silence ran second in 1989 after winning in Kentucky and Maryland. With no Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978, those Belmonts didn't need a $5-million bonus to hype the occasion.

The bonus has resulted in a dramatic increase in horses completing the Triple Crown circuit. In the six years before the bonus--1981-86--only 10 horses ran in all the races. In 1982 and 1983, none of the 3-year-olds completed the series, and in 1986 Ferdinand was the only one to run three times.

Since the bonus, and not counting this year's Triple Crown, 20 horses have run in all the races. Some would have been better off had their trainers forsaken the lure of the extra money and given them a rest. The Triple Crown--three races at distances between 1 3/16 miles and 1 1/2 miles over five weeks--is a grind that few young horses are up to.

Risen Star, winner of the Preakness and Belmont in 1988 after a troubled third-place run in the Derby, couldn't finish the season. Strike The Gold, winner of the 1991 Derby, sixth in the Preakness and then second by a head in a tremendous Belmont effort, has won three of 20 starts since and was an embarrassing last in Saturday's Pimlico Special.

Hansel, who beat Strike The Gold in the Belmont, winning the $1-million bonus; and Pine Bluff, winner of the bonus last year, were history by the time the Breeders' Cup Classic was run. Except for Sunday Silence, who danced all of the dances and was voted horse of the year in 1989, the only 3-year-old who has been national champion since the start of the Triple Crown bonus has been A.P. Indy, last year. And had A.P. Indy's foot problems not flared up on Derby eve, forcing him to miss the Derby and the Preakness, he might have been another long-term victim of the bonus.

When the gates open for the 125th Belmont Stakes two weeks from Saturday, Derby winner Sea Hero and Preakness victor Prairie Bayou will probably be joined by only one horse, El Bakan, who has gone the Triple Crown distance.

Tom Bohannan trained Pine Bluff, and this year he has Prairie Bayou. "The bonus hasn't entered my mind at all," Bohannan said at Pimlico last Sunday, the morning after Prairie Bayou's Preakness victory. "You know it's there, but it has had no bearing on what we're doing. We'll worry about cutting it up if we win it."

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