And they’re (not all of them) off…
This is about thoroughbred racing. So play your hunches.
Would the sport be better off — for the horses’ health, for wider popularity, for more compelling matchups — if the Triple Crown series altered its schedule to provide more time between races? Or would discarding the demanding format devalue the accomplishment of a three-peat champion?
It’s an old discussion, revived because the handlers of Rich Strike, the darkest of horses before he won the Kentucky Derby, chose to bypass the Preakness on the not-uncommon intuition that their suddenly valuable steed needed at least a month of recovery time.
For decades, the Derby has been followed just two weeks later by the Preakness and, three weeks after that, by the Belmont Stakes. Plenty of the industry’s principals — trainers, owners, bettors — routinely argue that the galloping five-week campaign sets the standard for greatness. Even while acknowledging that it might not be thoroughly sound horse sense.
Handicap this: In the 147 years that all three races have existed, only 13 horses have won the Triple Crown, clear evidence of the difficulty involved. There is a yearning to maintain tradition, but it must be noted that the Triple Crown order has moved around a bit, with the Preakness run before the Derby 11 times — and twice on the same day.
More relevant to this question of whether the Crown’s current schedule is too taxing is the Jockey Club statistic that thoroughbreds, on average, race only about half as often as they did 46 years ago — 5.95 times throughout 2021, 10.23 times in 1975.
The Baltimore Sun last week quoted Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of the animal rights organization PETA, expressing hope that Rich Strike’s absence from the Preakness “will prompt the racing industry to modernize the demanding Triple Crown schedule by extending the time between the three races to less-inhuman intervals of one-month each.”
Rather than the horses’ well-being, though, what keeps resurrecting debate about the taxingly compressed Derby-Preakness-Belmont schedule are the long gaps between Triple Crown champs — 25 years from 1948 (Citation) to ’73 (Secretariat), 37 years from ’78 (Affirmed) to 2015 (American Pharoah).
Long-time Newsday colleague Ed McNamara, a true racing connoisseur who has visited 116 tracks on four continents, noted that Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas is among several horse people who long ago suggested the Preakness be pushed back from the third Saturday of May to Memorial Day and the Belmont moved from early June to July 4. Still, such a change never has been taken under advisement by any of racing’s officials, and McNamara envisions no benefit would result to any of the three races.
That includes the Preakness. Still run in the fairly decrepit, 152-year-old Pimlico Race Course, and so often left with a small field in the wake of the Derby spectacle, the Preakness has faced hints of being relocated and, in the mid-1980s, of being replaced on the Triple Crown calendar.
In 1985, a swaggering New Jersey builder named Robert Brennan lured Derby champion Spend a Buck away from the Preakness with a $2.6 million bonus to run his Jersey Derby at the rebuilt Garden State Park in Cherry Hill. Brennan strongly suggested his race would become a permanent stand-in for the Preakness — “I do believe there will some adjustments made in the industry in relation to the Triple Crown series,” he said.
On the contrary, no Derby winner ever tried the Jersey Derby again, Garden State Park closed in 2001 and Brennan that year was found guilty of money-laundering and bankruptcy fraud, winding up in prison for a decade.
Meanwhile, the Preakness persists, as well as contentions that the middle race could be better served if it weren’t so closely tailgated by the Derby. A Plan B putting at least three weeks between the races theoretically would guarantee not only the presence of the Derby winner at Pimlico but also that winner’s most obvious challengers, horses that had introduced themselves to the hard-core and casual fan in the Derby. And therefore the potential for Triple Crown rivalries that could endure through the series.
Might all that ramp up bigger crowds, increased TV audiences, massive wagering? More clout for the sport? Or does the Triple Crown’s traditional appreciation for abbreviation — three races in five weeks — prevail, a folkloric commitment to the superhorse crucible?
OK. Here’s $2 on the status quo. Just a feeling.