When Rick Dawson decided his Kentucky Derby winner, Rich Strike, would skip the preakness, he reignited a decades-old debate about Triple Crown series spacing that many riders and race analysts see as inconsistent with modern practices.
Dawson and coach Eric Reed have said that if they had a month instead of the traditional two weeks to prepare for the second jewel of the Triple Crown, Rich Strike would be on his way to Baltimore. Instead, they opted to give him five weeks off from the Belmont Stakes.
With a 94-word statement, Dawson ruled out the possibility of a Triple Crown winner in 2022.
Healthy derby winners don’t usually bypass preakness. It hadn’t happened since 1985, when Spend a Buck avoided racing in favor of the greater fortunes available on the New Jersey racetrack of the time.
But modern racing students said it was only a matter of time before an owner and trainer decided two weeks wasn’t enough preparation time for the Preakness.
“Inevitable,” said NBC race analyst Randy Moss, noting that most current coaches prefer to wait a month or more between races.
Animal welfare advocates welcomed Dawson and Reed’s decision.
“Hopefully this will prompt the racing industry to modernize the demanding Triple Crown schedule by increasing the time between the three races to less inhuman intervals of one month each,” said Kathy Guillermo, PETA senior vice president.
That would mean Preakness in early June and Belmont Stakes closer to July 4th. But without a higher authority to mandate reform, such a change is easier said than done, and many people in the sport are reluctant to change a tradition that has produced some of history’s greatest champions, from Citation to Secretariat to American Pharoah.
A change to the Triple Crown calendar would require those in charge of 1/ST Racing, the forward arm of the Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico Race Course, and the New York Racing Association, which operates the Belmont Stakes, to agree on one new timeline.
Preakness organizers have an incentive; The preakness field suffers each year because coaches are reluctant to let their Kentucky Derby contenders run on a two-week break. But the appeal is less obvious to New York race officials, who annually welcome talented horses who have skipped a trip to Pimlico to rest for the Belmont Stakes.
Although 1/ST Racing made no formal comment on a potential calendar change, a representative said the company is “reviewing this internally and intend to speak to our other Triple Crown partners once we wrap up Preakness 147.”
Dave O’Rourke, President and CEO of the New York Racing Association, nodded to tradition in his statement on the matter: “The Triple Crown has caught the sporting world’s attention precisely because of its difficulty. To win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, an exceptionally talented horse must produce heroic performances at three different circuits in just five weeks.
“This compressed schedule helps maintain the excitement and enthusiasm that surrounds a Triple Crown mission and plays a role in the enduring success of each installment in the series. NYRA is always ready to engage in thoughtful conversations on topics that will impact the future of horse racing. However, fundamental changes to sport’s most successful and important institution would require careful and considered consideration of all relevant parties.”
Debate over the schedule — three races in five weeks, beginning with the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May — intensified during the 37-year gap between Affirmed’s Triple Crown in 1978 and American Pharoah’s Triple Crown in 2015 As Affirmed’s dominance in the 1970s, Seattle Slew and Secretariat faded deeper into the past, fans wondered if modern Thoroughbreds were predestined for the test.
Secretariat had raced 12 times – four of them with a break of two weeks or less – before reaching the Triple Crown series in 1973. Affirmed had raced 13 times – five of them with a break of two weeks or less – before stepping onto the starting gate for the 1978 Kentucky Derby.
Such early workloads are unheard of for today’s best 3-year-olds. (Rich Strike had driven seven times, usually with at least a month’s rest before going to the Derby.) As such, many see the Triple Crown schedule as a relic from a bygone era.
In 2014, former Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas tried unsuccessfully to force discussion of a new calendar.
“I respect tradition,” he said at the time, “but I also think that tradition cannot hinder the growth or improvement of the industry.”
American Pharoah and Justify put that conversation on hold when they won Triple Crowns in 2015 and 2018 respectively, proving that super gifted horses can still make it.
But Rich Strike’s withdrawal from the Preakness reignited the same issues in a slightly different context, as Dawson and Reed said they were uncomfortable bringing their Derby champion back to the starting gate two weeks after the greatest exertion of his life .
It’s a caveat that other Derby winners like Todd Pletcher have expressed in recent years, despite bucking tradition and still competing their horses at Preakness.
Coaches who have competed in the Triple Crown series are just as divided over the merits of the traditional schedule as are fans and track operators.
At the age of 86, D. Wayne Lukas has won the Kentucky Derby four times and the Preakness six times. Although he didn’t mind bringing his Derby champions to Pimlico on a two-week break – “As old school, I think we can handle that” – he said the Preakness would benefit from more lead time.
“I think it would make a better field here,” Lukas said Tuesday morning as he prepared his filly Secret Oath to compete in Preakness this year. “More trainers would participate because the two-week processing time prevents some horses from making it. You’d get more Derby horses in the field if you stretched it out to say Memorial Day and then maybe headline the Belmont on July 4th. I think it would work.”
On the other hand, trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., who was born a year before Lukas won his first Kentucky Derby in 1988, said he would prefer the schedule to remain the same.
“The reason the Triple Crown is like this is because it’s not meant to be easy,” Joseph said. “Are we going to lower the bar to make it easier for the horses? no There is a reason that is and it takes a special horse to do it.”
If his Derby contender White Abarrio had done well in Kentucky (he finished 16th), Joseph said he wouldn’t have hesitated to take him to the Preakness.
Maryland-based trainer Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Derby with Animal Kingdom, also said “it would be a shame” if the Triple Crown calendar were extended.
“It’s not meant to be easy,” Motion wrote on Twitter, adding that he was surprised at how much energy Animal Kingdom put into the Preakness 11 years ago.
Notwithstanding such arguments for the old way, Moss, the NBC analyst, said that if the schedule stays the same, the preakness as an event will continue to suffer. He hopes the New York Racing Association will think long-term and consider a change that may not help the Belmont Stakes immediately. Otherwise, he anticipates more cases similar to Rich Strike.
“There’s no good reason other than the antiquated desire to stick with history,” Moss said. “Hopefully this will spur Pimlico to aggressively change the Preakness date and spur NYRA to go along with the Belmont date change. Then things like that might just be a historical flash on the radar.”
147. Preakness inserts
TV: Chs. 11, 4 (broadcast starts at 4 p.m.)