When Rick Dawson decided his Kentucky Derby winner, Rich Strike, would skip the Preakness, he reignited a decades-old debate about the spacing of the Triple Crown series, which many horsemen and racing analysts see as out of step with modern practices.
Dawson and trainer Eric Reed have said that if they had a month to prepare for the second jewel of the Triple Crown instead of the traditional two weeks, Rich Strike would be on his way to Baltimore. Instead, they opted to give him five weeks to rest for the Belmont Stakes.
With a 94-word statement, Dawson eliminated the possibility for a Triple Crown winner in 2022.
Healthy Derby winners typically don’t bypass the Preakness. It had not happened since 1985, when Spend a Buck eschewed the race in favor of the greater riches available on the New Jersey racing circuit of that era.
But students of modern racing said it was only a matter of time until an owner and trainer decided that two weeks was not enough prep time for the Preakness.
“Inevitable,” NBC racing analyst Randy Moss said, noting that most current trainers prefer to wait a month or more between races.
Animal wellness advocates applauded Dawson and Reed’s decision.
“Hopefully, this will prompt the racing industry to modernize the demanding Triple Crown schedule by extending the time between the three races to less-inhumane intervals of one month each,” said PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo.
That would mean an early-June Preakness and a Belmont Stakes run closer to July 4. But with no overarching authority to mandate reform, such change is easier said than done, and plenty of people in the sport are reluctant to alter a tradition that has elevated some of the greatest champions in history, from Citation to Secretariat to American Pharoah.
For the Triple Crown calendar to change, officials from 1/ST Racing, the forward-facing arm of The Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico Race Course, and the New York Racing Association, which operates the Belmont Stakes, would have to agree on a new timeline.
Preakness organizers have an incentive; the Preakness field suffers every year because trainers are reluctant to run their Kentucky Derby contenders on two weeks’ rest. But the allure is less obvious for New York racing officials, who annually welcome talented horses that have skipped a trip to Pimlico in favor of resting up for the Belmont Stakes.
Though 1/ST Racing offered no formal comment on a possible calendar change, a representative said the company “is looking at this internally and intends to speak with our other Triple Crown partners once we are through Preakness 147.”
Dave O’Rourke, president and CEO of the New York Racing Association, nodded to tradition in his statement on the issue: “The Triple Crown galvanizes the attention of the sports world precisely because of its difficulty. To sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes requires an extraordinarily talented horse to perform heroically at three different racetracks over a period of just five weeks.
“This condensed schedule helps to sustain the excitement and enthusiasm that surrounds a Triple Crown quest and plays a role in the lasting success of each leg of the series. NYRA is always willing to engage in thoughtful conversation around issues that will impact the future of horse racing. Fundamental changes to the sport’s most successful and important institution, however, would demand careful and deliberate consideration among all relevant parties.”
Debate around the schedule — three races in five weeks, starting 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 the 1970s dominance of Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat faded deeper into the past, fans wondered if modern thoroughbreds were cut out for the test.
Secretariat had raced 12 times — four of those on two weeks’ rest or less — before he reached the Triple Crown series in 1973. Affirmed had raced 13 times — five of those on two weeks’ rest or less — before he entered the starting gate for the 1978 Kentucky Derby.
Such early workloads are unheard of for today’s top 3-year-olds. (Rich Strike had raced seven times, usually on at least a month’s rest, going into the Derby.) Thus, 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 tradition cannot impede the growth or betterment of the industry.”
American Pharoah and Justify put this conversation on hold when they won Triple Crowns in 2015 and 2018, respectively, proving supremely gifted horses still could pull it off.
But Rich Strike’s withdrawal from the Preakness revived the same issues in a slightly different context, as Dawson and Reed said they would be uncomfortable rushing their Derby champion back to the starting gate two weeks after the greatest effort of his life.
It’s a reservation other Derby-winning trainers such as Todd Pletcher have expressed in recent years, though they bowed to tradition and raced their horses in the Preakness anyway.
Trainers who have participated in the Triple Crown series are as divided as fans and track operators on the merits of the traditional schedule.
At age 86, D. Wayne Lukas has won the Kentucky Derby four times and the Preakness six times. Though he never minded bringing his Derby champions to Pimlico on two weeks’ rest — “Being old school, I think we can handle it” — he said the Preakness would benefit from a longer lead-up time.
“I think it would make for a better field here,” Lukas said Tuesday morning, as he prepared his filly, Secret Oath, to run in this year’s Preakness. “More trainers would participate because the two-week turnaround limits some horses making it. You’d get more of the Derby horses in the field if you stretch it out to say, Memorial Day, and then maybe run the Belmont on the Fourth of July. I think it would work.”
On the other side, trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., who was born the year before Lukas won his first Kentucky Derby in 1988, said he’d prefer to see the schedule remain the same.
“The reason the Triple Crown is what it is, it’s not supposed to be easy,” Joseph said. “Are we going to lower the bar to make it easier for the horses? No. There’s a reason it’s that way, and it takes a special horse to do it.”
If his Derby contender, White Abarrio, had run well in Kentucky (he finished 16th), Joseph said he would not have felt reluctant to take him on 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 was extended.
“It’s not meant to be easy,” Motion wrote on Twitter, adding that he was surprised how much energy Animal Kingdom had going into the Preakness 11 years ago.
Regardless of such arguments for the old way, Moss, the NBC analyst, said the Preakness will continue to suffer as an event if the schedule remains the same. He hopes the New York Racing Association will take a long view and consider a change that might not immediately help the Belmont Stakes. Otherwise, he expects to see more cases akin to Rich Strike.
“There’s no good reason other than an antiquated desire to cling to history,” Moss said. “Hopefully, this will spur Pimlico to be aggressive about changing the date of the Preakness and spur NYRA to go along with changing the date of the Belmont. Then, things like this could be just a historical blip on the radar.”
147th Preakness Stakes
Pimlico Race Course
TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 4 p.m.)