Purses are strings that tie Crown together

June 14, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Calls to change horse racing's Triple Crown format occasionally arise, and they're being heard again in the wake of Barbaro's injury and the way this year's series petered to a close, with a Belmont lacking the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has long suggested more top horses would run in all three events if they were more spaced out - say, from the first Saturday in May to the first Saturday in June to the first Saturday in July. Lou Raffetto, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, recently made a similar suggestion to The Sun.

It's an interesting idea, and the format is hardly set in concrete, having undergone many changes over the years; the 11 Triple Crown winners have taken anywhere from 29 to 43 days to sweep the three races. (In 1930, Gallant Fox won the Preakness before the Kentucky Derby.)

But as a card-carrying racing traditionalist, I think spreading them out this far (it's 56 days from the first Saturday in May to the first Saturday in July) would water down the accomplishment too much. I'd be against it.

It would still be a spectacular feat, but not nearly as daunting. And isn't degree of difficulty supposedly what makes the accomplishment so special?

I wouldn't be opposed to adding an extra week somewhere, but if the people running the series really want to do something substantive to make it better, they should focus on increasing purses, not on altering the schedule.

Horse owners and trainers are like a lot of people: They go where the money is, doggedly following its scent. They want as much as possible in return for what they're doing, which is why Maryland racing is struggling to compete with slots-rich tracks in Delaware and West Virginia. The money is better there.

Likewise, some owners and trainers are skipping the last two jewels of the Triple Crown because the purses aren't commensurate with the prestige of the races. There was $2 million on the line at the 2006 Kentucky Derby, but only $1 million at both the Preakness and Belmont.

A $1 million race is hardly shabby, mind you - few American races are more lucrative - yet the money isn't always enough to convince waffling horsemen to run. A handful of other races for 3-year-olds are just as valuable.

The Haskell Invitational, held at New Jersey's Monmouth Park in early August, is a $1 million race. So is the Travers Stakes, highlight of Saratoga's August meeting.

For crying out loud, a pair of Kentucky Derby prep races, the Florida Derby and Arkansas Derby, are worth $1 million apiece - as much as the Preakness.

Actually, there's a fairly long list of summer races that might deter horsemen from running in the Preakness or Belmont. Chicago's Arlington Million is worth $1 million, as are the Virginia Derby, a July turf race for 3-year-olds at Colonial Downs, and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. I could go on.

With all due respect to those swell races, the Triple Crown is a cut above them in terms of history and prestige. But you wouldn't know it from the purses. And that's a problem. Make that the problem.

Sorry to have to report this, but horsemen are going to look to make money before they look to make history. They're going to wonder why they should run a Kentucky Derby horse back in the Preakness in two weeks when they can save him and run for just as much money in a handful of other races later. You can't blame them.

To rise above those other races and attract superior fields that befit their stature, the Preakness and Belmont need to ante up, as the Kentucky Derby did when it doubled its purse to $2 million in 2005. The Preakness and Belmont need to start offering at least $1.5 million, if not more. Two million would be nice.

Each of the eight Breeders' Cup events is worth at least $2 million, and the Breeders' Cup Classic, with its $5 million purse, is worth more than the entire Triple Crown. (The series used to try to make up for the shortfall by offering a $5 million bonus from Visa for a Triple Crown winner, but that plan was scotched last year.)

Raffetto conceded last year the Maryland Jockey Club is "in a tough spot" endeavoring to raise the Preakness purse at a time when it is cutting racing days and overall purses to remain competitive with Delaware and West Virginia tracks. But the MJC and the New York Racing Association, which runs Belmont, need to find a way (state subsidies? TV deals?) to put more money into their signature events. That's the one sure way to get more top horses into Triple Crown starting gates, and ensure that the races remain special.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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