By Bill Finley
There's no easy fix for the Triple Crown or one that satisfies all three tracks. But a fix is needed. With most trainers reluctant to run their horses back on just two weeks' rest, the GI Preakness S. is reeling. The connections of Rich Strike (Keen Ice), the
GI Kentucky Derby winner, committed what would have been considered blasphemy 20 years ago and skipped the Preakness to rest up for the GI Belmont S. This year, Derby winner Mage (Good Magic) was the only Derby starter to run back in the second leg of the Triple Crown, which had a field of just seven.
The Preakness has become a shell of its former self, which is a problem. The Triple Crown is not the Triple Crown unless all three races are top-class events featuring the best 3-year-olds in training.
It didn't make sense for The Stronach Group (TSG), which owns Pimlico, to keep sitting back and do nothing and let one of its most valuable assets grow more irrelevant by the year. Which is why it was no surprise when TSG floated out a trial balloon in the media last week, saying that it was serious about pushing back the date of the Preakness so that it would be run four week after the Kentucky Derby.
TSG's Aidan Butler said the move was being considered for safety reasons, that it wasn't in the best interests of the Triple Crown horses to have so little time between races. That was just spin. There's no evidence that racing horses on two weeks' rest is more dangerous than running them back in four weeks. The real reason is that the two-week gap all but guarantees a lot of good horses, and maybe even the Derby winner, will pass the Preakness, which isn't good for the race or business.
Moving the Preakness will help the Preakness, but doing so raises a new problem. The current spacing of the Triple Crown races-two weeks from the Derby to the Preakness and three weeks from the Preakness to the Belmont-works very nicely for the New York Racing Association and the Belmont Stakes. The Belmont field always gets six or seven top horses out of the Derby from trainers who wouldn't run them back in two weeks in the Preakness. That makes for a good race. It gets even better if the Derby winner wins the Preakness and heads to Long Island with a Triple Crown on the line. The chances of that happening is made easier when the competition in the Preakness is subpar. Then there's the Belmont Day card. Everything has fallen into place and the stakes-loaded Belmont day program is the best non-Breeders' Cup Day card run in the U.S. The handle is astronomical.
Moving the Belmont would also likely affect the graded races in the summer for the 3-year-olds, like Saratoga's GII Jim Dandy and the GI Travers S. With less time between the Belmont and those two races, two highlights of the Saratoga meet could be weakened.
It's easy to see why NYRA wants to keep the status quo, and that was the message the organization sent out within minutes of TSG saying that the Preakness could be on the move. “NYRA has concerns about fundamental changes to the structure of the Triple Crown. We have no plans to move the date of the Belmont Stakes,” said NYRA spokesperson Pat McKenna.
What was left unsaid is that NYRA has a weapon that TSG probably doesn't. NYRA has the assets to throw money into the Belmont. Make it a $5 million race, something I can't see TSG being able to match with the Preakness, which has a purse of $1.5 million. That sort of purse discrepancy would all but guarantee that the Belmont, and not the Preakness, would get all the big-name horses out of the Derby.
Which leaves us where?
If the Preakness is moved to four weeks after the Derby and the Belmont stays right where it is then we will have four weeks between the Derby and Preakness and one week between the Preakness and the Belmont. You would have to run in one race or the other but not both. No trainer would ever run his or her horse back on one weeks' rest if that were what was required between the Preakness and the Belmont. You probably wouldn't even get a Derby-Preakness winner to run back in a week with a possible Triple Crown on the line. The bottom line: this would be a disaster, the destruction of the Triple Crown.
This can't happen. The Triple Crown is racing's greatest asset and its demise would do irreparable harm to a sport that gets little attention from the public or the mainstream media outside of the Triple Crown. For that not to happen, something has to give. Yes, TSG could relent and recommit to the two-week break. But that leaves us right where we started, with a weak Preakness, which means a weakened Triple Crown.
The best thing for the Triple Crown, the best thing for horse racing, is for NYRA to fall in line, swallow a bitter pill, and push the Belmont back so that it is run four weeks after the Preakness. The four weeks-four weeks spacing would help reinvigorate the Triple Crown and save it from what is now floating out there, a possible Triple Crown schedule that no one should want.
In any other the sport, this would be handled by a commissioner's office, whose mission is to make decisions that benefit the league and not necessarily individual teams. A racing czar would never let the Triple Crown hang on a thread like it is. But, of course, racing doesn't have a commissioner and never will. That's why tracks get away with acting in their best interests, the interests of the sport be damned.
It's not in NYRA's best interests to move the date of the Belmont. Everyone gets that. But, realistically, only NYRA fan fix this. It needs to step up and do the right thing for the Triple Crown, which will be better and stronger with the changes. Put the sport first.
NYRA and the Pick-5 Fiasco
Bettors had every right to complain last week when the Sunday late Pick 5 at Saratoga was turned upside down by a decision to take three races in the segment off of the turf. As the horses were being loaded into the starting gate for the sixth race, the first in the Pick 5 segment, it was announced that the races were being moved to the main track. That was the result of Ever Summer (Summer Front)breaking down in the fourth race, which was run on the turf, which resulted in the horse having to be euthanized. The jockeys went to NYRA and expressed concerns about the condition of the turf course, so NYRA played it safe and took the rest of the day's race off of the grass.
For safety reasons, that was probably the right call, but it left a bitter taste in the mouth's of many a bettor. They had little chance to adjust their plays and/or cancel their bets. The Pick 5 turned into a daily double, one that paid $25.
TO NYRA's credit, CEO and President Dave O'Rourke came out publicly later in the week, apologized and said that NYRA “dropped the ball.” As a concession to the bettors, NYRA seeded Saturday's Late Pick 5 with $100,000. Tracks executives usually run and hide when something goes wrong like this. That O'Rourke was accessible and accountable was admirable.
It should also be noted that he was left to apologize for some things that were not NYRA's fault. Yes, NYRA should have gotten the word out more quickly regarding the surface changes. But it had no control over some other issues. It wanted the Pick 5 to be canceled, which absolutely would have been the right call, and asked the stewards to allow them to refund all Pick 5 wagers. But state racing regulations don't allow for that to happen. Instead, the off-the-turf races were considered “all” races when it came to the Pick 5. NYRA also asked the stewards to delay the sixth race for a few minutes, which would have given players a chance to regroup and, if they wanted to, cancel their tickets. The stewards again said no.
The rules need to be changed so that a horizontal wager can be canceled whenever a situation likes this comes up. And, if it will help matters, there's no reason why a race can't be delayed to help the player adjust their bets.