Owners may bag small-purse stakes

PREAKNESS STAKES : Saturday, Pimlico Race Course, 6:04 p.m. post time TV: Chs. 11, 4

May 15, 2007|By JOHN EISENBERG

It is indisputable that money dictates much of what happens in sports, and that is especially true in horse racing. The high cost of feeding, training and caring for a horse forces owners to run for as much money as possible whenever they send their animals to the starting gate.

Owners follow money like the sun rises - without fail. That's why Maryland racing is slumping as neighboring states offer purses jacked up on proceeds from slots, and that's also why the Preakness finds itself playing an increasingly dangerous game of chance.

The second jewel of the Triple Crown counts on the presence of the Kentucky Derby winner for importance, attention and all the things that make a sporting event successful. But to get the horse here, the Preakness now relies more on its history than its money outlay, and, make no mistake, that could eventually lead to the unthinkable: a Derby winner skipping Baltimore.

It won't happen this year. Street Sense, the 2007 Derby winner, is flying in tomorrow and will race at Pimlico on Saturday, probably as the betting favorite.

But the horse's owner, Jim Tafel, gave an answer with subtly ominous overtones last week when asked why he was adhering to tradition, coming to Baltimore and trying to achieve racing's first Triple Crown since 1978.

"I think we're obligated to go on," Tafel said. "I think our business needs new heroes, and it may be fleeting, but I think Street Sense is the current hero."

You could almost sense his hesitation. He feels obligated to go for the Triple Crown? Isn't that borderline heresy?

Not when you consider the relatively modest financial inducements attached to the Triple Crown in the wake of Visa's decision to discontinue its $5 million bonus.

From 1987 through 2005, a horse that swept all three jewels would earn an extra $5 million courtesy of Chrysler at first and later Visa. That bonus gave owners of Derby winners more than enough incentive to take a shot at the Preakness and, if warranted, the Belmont.

But now that Visa has opted out and no company has stepped in with a similar bonus, the only money on the line at the Preakness is the $1 million purse, which, frankly, is a disappointing figure and not a reflection of the race's importance.

Races worth $1 million are common enough that the list includes two Kentucky Derby prep races - the Florida Derby and Arkansas Derby - as well as the Haskell Invitational, Travers Stakes, Arlington Million and Virginia Derby - a July turf race at Colonial Downs.

The Kentucky Derby is worth twice as much. Not that American racing's most prestigious event needs extra financial oomph. But it sure helps.

Lacking that oomph, the Preakness is reduced to hoping the Derby winner's owner has a sense of history and wants to do right by the sport, which desperately needs a superstar. Fortunately, Tafel, 83, has all the right instincts - or, at least, those that benefit the Preakness. So did Barbaro's owners in 2006, the first year without the $5 million bonus.

But what if someone with different instincts wins the Derby? What if the owner decides the potential earnings aren't enough to risk running the horse again just two weeks after the Derby?

A case can be made for bypassing the quick turnaround, which already scares off most of the owners and trainers who run in the Derby, and saving the horse for $1 million races later in the year. The horse would be more rested, the money is the same, and if the owner chooses to view the situation that way and not consider the Triple Crown's tradition, well, there could be a problem.

It has happened before. Spend A Buck won the 1985 Kentucky Derby and passed up the Preakness to run in the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park because track owner Robert Brennan put up a $2 million bonus for a horse to win two prep races in April, the Kentucky Derby and the Jersey Derby.

The racing industry shivered as Spend A Buck collected the bonus by winning the Jersey Derby, but the snub encouraged the Triple Crown races to find a sponsor and offer the $5 million bonus. That idea worked. The only Kentucky Derby winner to miss the second jewel since then was Grindstone, who was injured in 1996.

It could be that every Derby-winning owner has a sense of history and feels compelled to come to Baltimore. But the Preakness has left itself vulnerable to an owner with different priorities, an owner who simply follows the money, as many owners do.

Until it raises its purse (cough, cough, hello?) or until the Triple Crown comes up with a new bonus, the Preakness will be holding its breath and hoping the Derby winner wants to come - a somewhat precarious position.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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