Change the Triple Crown? Let's Not Start That Nonsense Again


Owner Rick Dawson (second from right) with (l to r) jockey Sonny Leon, trainer Eric Reed and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear | Coady


I suppose it wasn't a complete surprise that the connections of Rich Strike (Keen Ice) announced Thursday that their GI Kentucky Derby winner will not run in the GI Preakness S. and will instead point for the GI Belmont S., forgoing any chance he might have had to win the Triple Crown. Owners and trainers have grown so frightened by the idea of running their horses back on two-weeks' rest that something like this was inevitable.

So this year's Preakness, missing the feel-good 80-1 winner of the Derby will not be as good as it could have been. Does that mean it's time to change the structure of the Triple Crown and put more time between the Derby and the Preakness? No.

By all accounts, Rich Strike is in the best form of his life and came out of the Derby in good order. But that wasn't good enough for owner Rick Dawson and trainer Eric Reed.

The last Derby winner to skip the Preakness was, actually, last year's winner Mandaloun (Into Mischief). But he wasn't declared the winner of the Derby until well after the race, when Medina Spirit (Protonico) was officially disqualified. Before that, there was Country House (Lookin at Lucky), who also picked up the win thanks to a disqualification. But he came out of the Derby with a problem and never raced again. Before that, there was Grindstone in 1996, who suffered an injury and was retired after the Derby. In 1985, Spend a Buck won the Derby and passed on the Preakness to shoot instead for a $2.6 million payday he was eligible for if he were to win the Jersey Derby.

You have to go all the way back to 1982 and Gato Del Sol when a Derby winner passed the Preakness fo no other reason than the connections didn't think running back so quickly was the right move. Gato Del Sol finished second in the Belmont.

I disagree with the decision made by Dawson and Reed. There's no reason why a healthy, fit horse can't run back in two weeks. There's that and they have a chance to make history by winning the Triple Crown. That's not something anyone should just toss away. But I understand where they are coming from. They genuinely believe that they are doing the right thing by the horse and there's never anything wrong with that.

Their horse. Their decision. It happens. Let's move on.

But some aren't willing to do that. Within minutes of the announcement out of Pimlico that Rich Strike would not run in the Preakness, there was the expected hue and cry that it's time to change the Triple Crown. Maybe four weeks between races. Or maybe more. Some even want to change the distances of the races, shorten them and end with the mile-and-a-quarter Belmont S. Call it the Triple Crown Lite.

Coming into the 2015 Triple Crown, the clamor to alter the Triple Crown was at a fever pitch because it had been 37 years since a horse had swept all three races and the pundits were saying winning three very tough Grade I races in a five-week span was impossible. Except it wasn't. American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) proved it could be done. Three years later, Justify (Scat Daddy) did it again. That was two Triple Crown winners over a 4-year span and the “let's change the Triple Crown” crowd went quiet.

The reason why the Triple Crown should never be changed is simple and, I would think, obvious. One of the reasons it is so hard to win is because the spacing of the races does indeed present a huge challenge. But that's exactly the way it should be. This is very hard and that's why it has only been done 13 times and every horse who has pulled it off is, rightly, considered an immortal. Putting more time between races would cheapen the accomplishment and all future Triple Crown winners would deserve to have an asterisk next to their names. That just can't be.

Yes, a Preakness with Rich Strike is a better, more compelling race that one without him. But this year's Preakness has a lot to offer. Trainer Wayne Lukas, who would rather have his right and left arm cut off than skip the Preakness with a Derby winner, has all but taken care of that. The filly Secret Oath (Arrogate) is a terrific story and her quest to pull a Rachel Alexandra (Medaglia d'Oro) and beat the boys in the Preakness makes this a fascinating race.  Derby runner-up Epicenter (Not This Time) is coming back for round two and is a very good horse who would have been the favorite whether Rich Strike ran or not.

On Preakness afternoon, Rich Strike will spend his afternoon resting and relaxing in his stall at trainer Eric Reed's Mercury Equine Center. Jockey Sonny Leon will ride a couple of $5,000 claimers at Belterra Park. It's OK. The Triple Crown will be just fine.

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