The Preakness Stakes would be run four weeks after the Kentucky Derby, instead of the traditional two, under a plan being floated by the CEO of 1/ST Racing, which owns and operates Pimlico Race Course, home to the second jewel in the Triple Crown series.
The proposal by Aidan Butler could fundamentally change the most important annual stretch in American horse racing and even threaten the existence of the Triple Crown if officials in Maryland and New York cannot agree on a coordinated calendar.
“Discussion around spacing out the schedule of the Triple Crown is nothing new, and we believe the time has come to advance those discussions to the next step,” Butler said in a statement Thursday. “Allowing additional time between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes would give horses a greater opportunity to prepare and be ready between the Derby and the second leg of the Triple Crown.”
Butler initially outlined his proposed change in a Wednesday interview with Thoroughbred Daily News, saying it would be “in the best interests of horses and horse safety.”
But the New York Racing Association has shown no inclination to push back the Belmont Stakes, currently run five weeks after the Derby and three weeks after the Preakness. If anything, fields for the third jewel of the Triple Crown have benefited from trainers’ increasing preference to skip the Preakness.
“NYRA has concerns about fundamental changes to the structure of the Triple Crown,” spokesman Patrick McKenna said Thursday. “We have no plans to move the date of the Belmont Stakes.”
That could mean Maryland and New York racing officials are headed for a stare-down if Butler is serious about pushing his plan.
“We recognize that modifying the schedule for the Preakness Stakes could have implications, and we look forward to engaging with all stakeholders to work through questions and concerns,” Butler said Thursday. “The future of the Triple Crown is best decided collectively, but we are committed to seeing this conversation through to a positive result.”
Racing officials, analysts and horsemen have long debated whether the Triple Crown schedule is out of step with modern training practices, with reform advocates saying the Preakness field would be more robust if the race were to be pushed back from its traditional place on the third Saturday in May. Others, including some top trainers, say the Triple Crown series is special precisely because the turnaround is so demanding.
The debate picked up steam after Rick Dawson, the owner of 2022 Derby winner Rich Strike opted to skip the Preakness in favor of resting up for the Belmont. The 2023 Preakness featured Derby winner Mage, but no other horse from the Derby was in the field, and Mage finished third behind a pair of fresher horses. No horse has won both the Preakness and Derby since Justify won the Triple Crown in 2018.
“This would give horses more time to recover between races to be able to run in the Preakness,” Butler told Thoroughbred Daily News. “Horse safety is more important than tradition. NYRA is aware and considering how this would impact the Belmont. Stay tuned.”
The problem, say those who’ve worked with racing officials in both states, is that there’s no overarching authority to force discussion of a compromise and little incentive for New York to budge.
“The best option would be for the [1/ST-owned] Maryland Jockey Club and NYRA to agree on a change,” said Alan Foreman, longtime general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, who also has worked extensively in New York. “Otherwise, other than the pressure of ending the Triple Crown, there is [no incentive].”
If the Preakness were moved back two weeks without a corresponding shift for the Belmont, the chances of any horse running in all three Triple Crown races would be remote. Because of the threat to the historic series, Foreman said, 1/ST Racing should consult with a cross-section of Maryland racing stakeholders before making such an aggressive change.
“Horsemen, breeders, even fans should be part of the discussion,” he said. “The value of the Preakness, in part, is that it is the second leg of the Triple Crown, one of the most celebrated and difficult feats in sports.”
Greg Cross, chairman of the new Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority, declined to comment on the proposed date change for the Preakness, the state’s signature racing event.
NBC might have been the entity best positioned to negotiate a schedule change with 1/ST and NYRA when the network broadcast all three Triple Crown races, but Fox now owns the broadcast rights for the Belmont.
As Butler suggested, animal wellness advocates have said longer breaks between Triple Crown races would be healthier for horses.
PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo suggested one-month breaks in a 2022 interview, referring to the current setup as “inhumane.”
Those who support a schedule change have noted that the current spacing of the races dates only to the late 1960s. For example, when Assault and War Admiral won their Triple Crowns in 1946 and 1937, respectively, the Preakness was run just a week after the Derby. When Citation won his in 1948, the Belmont was run four weeks after the Preakness.
Some top trainers, including Todd Pletcher, Shug McGaughey and Brad Cox, have said the schedule should be reexamined.
Nonetheless, the current format, under which Justify, American Pharoah, Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat won their Triple Crowns, holds great importance for some of the horsemen who try to win these races.
Trainer Bob Baffert, who won Triple Crowns with Justify and American Pharoah, has said the Triple Crown would “lose its meaning” if the calendar were extended.
“We have a lot of issues in horse racing, the Triple Crown is not one of them,” wrote Graham Motion, a Maryland-based trainer who won the 2011 Derby with Animal Kingdom, on Twitter on Thursday morning.