By Tom Rooney
Since the advent of professional sports, change has been a necessary part of the game. Adjustments have been made to make sports more safe, more practical, and more entertaining for the audiences. While change is never easy, sometimes it's necessary. From adding the three-point line in basketball, to implementing more stringent concussion protocols in football, to adding the pitch clock in baseball, making changes in sports doesn't mean taking away from the sport. Instead, change helps the sport evolve with the times, and make the experience as positive as possible for the athletes, teams, enthusiasts, and owners. The time has come in Thoroughbred racing for our own change, to modernize the timeline of the Triple Crown.
The current timeline was created in a different era in racing, back in 1932, 13 years after Sir Barton was the first to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes in 1919. In fact, the term Triple Crown wasn't even used until Gallant Fox won the three races in 1930. In the 91 years since the five-week timeline was created, a lot has changed in racing and there are many benefits worth considering to potentially change the structure we have today. Instead of these condensed five weeks, what if the Kentucky Derby stayed the first Saturday in May, the Preakness was the first Saturday in June, and the Belmont was the first Saturday in July. Leaving multiple weeks in between three of the industry's most high-profile races, racing the top three-year-olds, would lend to a smoother transition between events and a more competitive, robust field to compete for the coveted Triple Crown. Incidentally, this new plan leaves about a month before the start of Del Mar and Saratoga which should satisfy the same cadence.
Trainers today have different philosophies than those in the past, and normally allow several weeks between races for top horses. For example, the 128 horses that competed in the Triple Crown races from 1979 to1983 made 3,769 starts in their career; 1,585 of those starts came within 14 days or fewer of their last start. By contrast, the 96 horses that competed in the Triple Crown races from 2007 to 2011 made 1,870 starts in their career and just 98 of those starts came within 14 days or fewer of their last start. Because of this change in training philosophy, many of the top horses from the Kentucky Derby that do not win skip the Preakness, solely because of the quick turnaround between races. What's more, as the industry continues to focus on improving safety and welfare standards for the horses and jockeys, you would be hard-pressed to find a trainer or owner who would choose to race at any level after two weeks. So why take that risk on the biggest stage? Tradition? As stated, other sports have evolved and adapted to the times. The tradition argument presumes all tradition is good, which is not necessarily true.
This year's Kentucky Derby was the second-most watched sporting event in this country, second only to the Super Bowl. Millions of viewers tuned in, picked their horses, and wished for the best. A lot of people spend a great deal of time getting to know the Derby contenders to place their bets. Imagine the increased interest there would be if more Derby contenders ran in the Preakness and the Belmont. I believe this would lead to even more excitement and rivalries throughout the Triple Crown season to see who really is the top 3-year-old in the country. Even a horse that ends up being scratched in the Derby like 2-year-old champion Forte gets a lot of coverage. Under a better separation of races, it's very conceivable that Forte could have run in the Preakness. But because of the existing rules and timing of his scratch, a quick turnaround to the Preakness was impossible. Under a more pragmatic Triple Crown schedule that might not be the case.
Of course, the three races are the property of Churchill Downs, the Maryland Jockey Club and the New York Racing Association. Ultimately, any change to an individual leg would be made solely by the respective organization. But this is a decades-old debate that is worth bringing to the forefront of public mind.
We all know winning a Triple Crown is an elusive goal. Twenty-five years separated the victories of Citation (1948) and Secretariat (1973), and nearly 40 years separated the victories of Affirmed (1978) and American Pharoah (2015). There's no saying if a change to the racing schedule would make any difference in this. But it is possible that by adjusting the schedule, Thoroughbred racing could see increased competition among the best horses and an expanded window of heightened mainstream interest. For those reasons alone, it's worth the discussion.
Tom Rooney is the president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. He is a former member of the US House of Representatives, serving Florida's 17th Congressional District. He and his family own and operate Shamrock Farm, a Thoroughbred breeding farm in Carroll County, Maryland.