Extra week makes sense for horses, fans

May 11, 2008|By RICK MAESE

At some point, tradition must cede to sensibility. A long and storied history cannot take precedence over an endangered and uncertain future, not when so much is on the line.

While The Jockey Club has admirably convened a committee to study the health and safety of its racehorses, there's something the Maryland Jockey Club could push for immediately: It's past time the Triple Crown calendar was tweaked to move the Preakness Stakes, slated for Saturday at Pimlico, back at least one week.

Triple Crown Productions, which oversees one of the most exciting pursuits in sports, could improve its series considerably while making an important concession to the safety of its participants by simply adding a week of intrigue and pushing back the second and third races.

This proposal isn't new, of course, nor are the supporting arguments and evidence. But the circumstances have changed and the move makes more sense now than ever.

The second jewel of the Triple Crown takes place just two weeks after the Kentucky Derby. There's no good explanation for this, just that it has been done like this for a long time. That reasoning is no longer good enough - not while horses are breaking down in major races, and not while we watch the Preakness field become weaker each spring.

Not many are going to argue that it's safer to run horses on two weeks' rest than three. It's a big reason a lot of the top 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs skip the Preakness. Two weeks simply isn't enough recovery time for most.

Now, adding an extra week probably won't significantly impact racing's death rate. Most major problems - whether it be Barbaro or Eight Belles - are freak occurrences. Maybe a bad step, maybe bad genes. As long as there is racing, there are going to be horses that break down. The goal is to decrease the likelihood.

As it stands, we make a beeline from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness, barely catching our breath in between. In horse racing, two weeks is just enough time for owners to conclude: No way I'm running my horse in Baltimore. The short break between the first two jewels isn't only too taxing for horses, it also usually makes for a less interesting Preakness for fans.

As Derby horses pass on the Preakness, the doors swing open for fresh horses, many that simply weren't good enough to run two weeks earlier. In the past five years, half of the horses in the Preakness field - 26 of 52 - were fresh runners. These new horses are rarely the caliber of those from the Derby's starting gates.

This year, it looks as though not a single Derby loser will opt to even challenge Big Brown at the Preakness. Sure, it's a testament to the abilities of the Derby winner, but also to the ridiculously quick turnaround between starts.

It has been 60 years since every single Derby horse - except the winner, of course - skipped out on the Preakness.

You can no longer argue that the Preakness attracts the best of the best. Since Deputed Testamony won the Preakness in 1983, 107 horses missed the Derby but raced the Preakness. Only two of those won here.

And should we really buy the tradition argument? The Preakness has been run 132 times. Plenty has changed over the years - the distances, the dates, even the track.

From 1890 to 1908, the Preakness wasn't even run in Baltimore. The race was staged at six different distances before organizers settled on 1 3/16 miles. And there have been 11 instances when the Preakness was actually run before the Derby. Twice, the races were run on the same day.

It wasn't consistently run on the third Saturday of May until the mid-1950s. As late as the 80th running of the Preakness, Nashua's win in 1955, the race was held May 28, three weeks after the Kentucky Derby. (And let's not forget that when Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown in 1919 - 11 years before the term Triple Crown was even coined - he ran the Preakness just four days after winning the Derby.)

So tradition is flexible. When you have something great and special, like the Preakness, you make the necessary changes over time to keep it relevant and to keep it interesting.

While moving the Preakness would benefit future horses, it understandably would shortchange those who came before.

"I'd love them to space them out, but it wouldn't be fair to the past horses, all those past horses who had a chance," said Rick Dutrow, trainer of Big Brown. "I have thought about it and I'd say, `Why two weeks?' But others had to do it."

But is that reason enough? For some, the calendar gauntlet is part of the Triple Crown's allure. An added week would invite a tougher field, though, which would perhaps offset a less-taxing schedule. (And it's not like anyone's going to suggest that three races in six weeks is like a leisurely trot through the meadow.)

Other sports have made fundamental modifications to their schedules and their rules, and they've survived. Horse racing runs the risk of riding its traditions right into the grave, figuratively and literally.

It's not easy, but sometimes you have to change. It's not about forsaking the past. It's about protecting the future - for the horses and for the Preakness Stakes.


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