By Dick Jerardi
I love the Preakness. It is my favorite race because it is in Baltimore, my hometown. It is also the first Triple Crown race I ever attended. It just happened to be 1973 when Secretariat was in the midst of setting time records for each of the Triple Crown races, records that still stand.
The last injury-free-official-at-the-time Kentucky Derby winner not to run in the Preakness was Spend a Buck in 1985. That will be updated this Saturday when 80-1 Derby winner Rich Strike does not run in the Preakness.
I absolutely understand why trainer Eric Reed and owner Rick Dawson said they will await the Belmont Stakes. Rich Strike has always had his races well spaced and they think 5 weeks rather than 2 weeks between races gives the colt an optimum opportunity to deliver his best performance.
It is good for the horse, bad for horse racing.
Last year, the second, third and fourth horses across the wire in the Derby did not run in the Preakness. Fortunately, the second (Epicenter) and fourth (Simplification) from this Derby will run in the Preakness. We are also getting the Kentucky Oaks (Secret Oath) winner But that is a bit of an aberration.
The reality is that in the 2000s, horsemen rarely start their top stakes horses more than six or seven times a year and never run them back in two weeks, except from the Derby to the Preakness.
The Preakness deserves the best field of 3-year-olds imaginable. It rarely gets that anymore because of the two weeks. And that is unfortunate.
Traditionalists do not want to move the Preakness back to 4 weeks after the Derby because they say it would devalue any future Triple Crown winner because that horse did not do in the same time frame as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. That is a reasonable argument. I understand it and respect it.
I just think the sport has changed so much in the last 20 years, with horses racing so much less, that it makes sense to alter the sport’s marquee event to reflect those changes.
And it’s not like this has always been the Triple Crown schedule. When Sir Barton won the races in 1919 (it wasn’t called the Triple Crown until the 1930s), the Derby was May10, the Preakness May 14, the Belmont June 11. By the way, Sir Barton won the Withers (May 24) between the Preakness and Belmont. Different times.
When Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown in 1930, the Preakness was run eight days before the Derby, with the Belmont 3 weeks after that. Omaha (1935 TC winner) actually lost the Withers between the Preakness and Belmont. The Preakness was a week after the Derby, the Belmont a month after the Preakness. War Admiral (1937 TC winner) won the Derby on May 8, the Preakness May 15 and the Belmont June 5.
Citation won the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park in 1948 between the Preakness and Belmont when those races were 4 weeks apart. Whirlaway (1941 TC winner) ran 23 times before he won the Derby. Like I said, different times.
So I would advocate for the Derby on the first Saturday of May, the Preakness the first Saturday of June, the Belmont Stakes the first Saturday of July to reflect the changing times.
Do I get any sense this is going to happen? No.
But the Rich Strike connections have done the sport a service by making it, at least, a topic of discussion. It is one thing for good horses that ran well in the Derby not to run in the Preakness, but when the Derby winner does not run in the Preakness, that is a problem.
The storyline of the impossible underdog that so captured the public? Well, that just disappears. Again, not blaming the connections at all, but who didn’t want to read more about Rich Strike and Sonny Leon and see if this horse could do it again and head to New York as the most unlikely potential Triple Crown winner ever?
My first year at the “Philadelphia Daily News’’ was in 1985 which just happened to be the Year of Spend a Buck.
Why did Spend a Buck pass the Preakness?
That was a unique situation as Spend a Buck had two prep races at the new Garden State Park. Track owner Robert Brennan had promised a $2 million bonus for any horse that could win the two Garden State Derby prep races (Cherry Hill Mile, Garden State Stakes), the Ky. Derby and the $1 million Jersey Derby on Memorial Day. Owner Dennis Diaz passed on the Preakness. Spend a Buck won the Jersey Derby and his owner got a then-record $2.6 million.
The Preakness purse that year was $550,000. The winner got $423,000. Right after that, the Triple Crown tracks raised their purses and instituted a bonus program of their own, with $5 million to any horse that could sweep the Triple Crown. The bonus system no longer exists, but the bigger purses and the prestige of the Triple Crown races were enough to avoid Derby winner defections – until now.
Given that in 2023, each of the Triple Crown races will no longer be televised on the same network, this actually could be a time to consider a schedule change. NBC will retain the Derby and Preakness, but the Belmont Stakes is moving to Fox. The Derby isn’t going anywhere. It will always be run on the first Saturday of May. Pimlico management could just make the change to June and then NYRA management would have to make a decision about the Belmont Stakes. Or nothing will change and the Preakness, a race that deserves the best possible field, won’t be getting that. And, some years, won’t even be getting the Derby winner.