BALTIMORE – Graham Motion has always wondered what it would be like to show up at Preakness with the Kentucky Derby winner, and when that happened with Animal Kingdom in 2011, it was everything he hoped for and then some.
“Nobody else can win the Triple Crown,” Motion said. “Everyone wants to see you win the Preakness except for the trainers and connections of the nine other horses. Everyone wants to see a Triple Crown winner.”
There will be no Triple Crown winner for the 42nd time in 44 years after owner Rick Dawson changed tack and opted not to compete in Rich Strike in the Preakness after an 80-1 win in the Derby. That decision, which follows several odd years without a Derby champion aspiring to the second jewel in the Preakness, reignited the old debate that the three Triple Crown races should be spaced further apart.
Dawson cited extra rest as a reason Rich Strike didn’t run in the 1 3/16 mile preakness at Pimlico Race Course this Saturday, a race now worth $1.65 million. Proponents of pushing back the preakness — and with it the Belmont Stakes, which follow three weeks later — argue that it’s better for modern Thoroughbreds unaccustomed to racing on those short turnarounds and stronger fields in Baltimore and New York would produce.
Supporters of the status quo point to the sport’s tradition and say that winning the Triple Crown should be difficult. They are also quick to say that this happened twice recently with American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.
“That’s what makes the Triple Crown so interesting and difficult,” said trainer Saffie Joseph, who saddles Skippylongstocking in the Preakness. “You just want to make it easier for a good horse? You need a great horse to win the Triple Crown. I think it means a lot to have it the way it was.”
Hall of Fame coach D. Wayne Lukas, 86, doesn’t expect the current spacing of races in the row of sheds in the corner of the stilt barn in Pimlico to change. They’ve followed the same schedule since 1969, except in 2020 when the pandemic disrupted the order of the Triple Crown.
But he’s not totally opposed to allowing a little more time between such important races.
“[The Preakness] would probably fit Memorial Day or something and then go to the Belmont on July 4th,” said Lukas, who is aiming for a record-breaking seventh Preakness win with Kentucky Oaks-winning filly Secret Oath. “That makes perfect sense from a horse trainer’s perspective.”
Four weeks each between Derby, Preakness and Belmont is the suggestion from NBC Sports analyst Randy Moss, who believes the current rotation is not fulfilling its intended purpose of bringing together the best 3-year-olds at the track three times a year in spring.
“It was about beating the best of your generation in three straight races,” Moss said. “That’s the whole point, and it’s not happening. Often it doesn’t happen.”
In the past 10 years, only 14 horses have run all three stages of the Triple Crown, including three who have won the first two. Now, with Rich Strike’s absence, the virtual guarantee that the preakness is truly at stake with a triple crown opportunity hasn’t materialized since 2018: Medina Spirit ran last year after scoring positively at the derby on one substance tested that was not permitted on race day and was eventually disqualified; The 2020 races have been out of order, with the Preakness last; and in 2018 neither DQ winner Maximum Security nor upscale Country House went to Pimlico.
A representative from 1/ST Racing, which runs the Preakness, said officials had discussed internally the possibility of pushing the race back and plan to talk to Triple Crown partners about it.
President and CEO Dave O’Rourke said the New York Racing Association is always ready to have thoughtful conversations about important issues that will affect the future of racing, adding that any fundamental changes require “careful and considered consideration of all relevant parties would require”.
“To win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, it takes an exceptionally talented horse to perform heroically at three different circuits in just five weeks,” said O’Rourke. “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.”
Moss believes the preakness becomes a weak link in the series because so few horses are running two weeks after the Derby. This year’s field of nine has three returnees from the Derby that started at 20: Epicenter, Simplification and Happy Jack.
Trainer Mark Casse, who started War of Will in all three Triple Crown races in 2019 – the colt won the Preakness and Sir Winston, also from his stable, took the Belmont – doesn’t want to change anything.
“You would take away everything that the Triple Crown is if you change the timing,” Casse said. “It has to stay the way it is. If you start staggering the races, you take away from us the greatest tradition we have in horse racing in North America.”
Motion agrees with Casse because of tradition and the difficulty of sustaining public attention over an extended period of time. Nor is he worried about another long Triple Crown drought like that from Affirmed 1978 to American Pharoah 2015 and thinks horse racing should stick.
“It’s not meant to be easy, and a good horse will come along and do it again,” said Motion. “Maybe it takes a really good horse. It might take a year if there aren’t that many good horses for him to win the Triple Crown. But whatever it is, it will happen again. There is no doubt.”
Stephen Whyno of The Associated Press wrote this story.
Follow AP sports writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhynoHorses
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