By T. D. Thornton
Now that the GI Kentucky Derby has been run on the first Saturday in September and we found out the world didn’t tilt off its axis because of the pandemic’s blow to tradition, it’s time to start leveraging the scheduling chaos caused by COVID-19 so it serves as a way to propel the sport forward instead of back to the perceived comforts of normalcy.
This year’s June 20 GI Belmont S., although shortened to nine furlongs as a nod to pandemic practicality, served its purpose as a fine “welcome back to big-time racing” event just as the sport was gearing back up after months of closure. The Sept. 5 Derby, although out of order as the second jewel of the Triple Crown instead of the first, unfolded in satisfying fashion with an intriguing, summer-long lead-up and an exciting finish that featured a stretch duel between two stars of the sophomore division. The GI Preakness S. on Oct. 3 now looms as the pivotal deciding race for the 3-year-old championship, and having four weeks of rest instead of the usual two could mean that more contenders from the Derby are likely to contest it.
For 2021, going back to what has been the traditional Triple Crown spacing for the last five decades (Derby first Saturday in May, two weeks to the Preakness, then three weeks to the Belmont) would be the easy thing to do. But positive change is rarely easy. Why not instead take advantage of the disorder imposed upon the sport’s showcase racing series in 2020 and use it as a springboard for creating a new Triple Crown template that better aligns with the realities of 21st Century racing in America?
The time has come for the Derby to be run on the first Saturday in May, the Preakness on the first Saturday in June, and the Belmont on the first Saturday in July. And the time to do it is now, with the bizarre pandemic scheduling of this season serving as a bridge to the transition.
This suggestion for spacing the races differently is neither new nor original. But it does make new sense in an era that is increasingly defined by equine welfare and a less-is-more approach to racing at the elite level.
You might recall that this May-June-July format was exactly what former Maryland Jockey Club president and CEO Tom Chuckas lobbied for in 2014. His idea was met with derision from those who perceived it as an attempt to make the Triple Crown easier to win. Chuckas was out of a job six months later, and the very next spring, American Pharoah finally broke the 37-year Triple Crown drought, lending an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” aspect to the argument about tinkering with the series.
But the Triple Crown chase has taken on a formulaic flavor. Top-level prospects have winter/spring campaigns mapped out that call for just two prep races prior to the Derby (maybe three if a horse is chasing qualifying points). The Derby winner is practically obligated to attempt the Preakness two weeks later, but many other top contenders sit it out. If the Derby winner wins the Preakness in strong fashion, that scares away even more competition for the Belmont. If the Derby winner doesn’t win the Preakness, there is practically zero shot he comes back in three weeks to try the Belmont.
Yes, there are myriad other factors (race-day medication usage and breeding trends that favor speed over stamina to name just two) that contribute to why the Triple Crown is a different beast today than it was in, say, 1948. But simply put, the five-week series of races for 3-year-olds at distances that are not the norm in U.S. racing is a potential stressor for the modern Thoroughbred. Few elite-level horses of any age are pointed toward campaigns based on that type of race spacing. The three entities that host the series–Churchill Downs, Inc., The Stronach Group (TSG), and the New York Racing Association (NYRA)–like to portray themselves as industry leaders when it comes to equine safety. Can they honestly say that asking horses to conform to a tradition that features such unorthodox race spacing is in everyone’s best interest?
But mitigating safety risk is only one component of the change. Think of the other plusses: The field for the Preakness is likely to get stronger, not weaker, with more time in between races. And if the Derby winner scores in the Preakness, the sport will enjoy an entire month of Triple Crown publicity leading into the Belmont, which theoretically would also feature a fresher, deeper field. The composition of undercard races on the day of each Triple Crown event would improve, as the supporting cast of horses that compete in other divisions would also benefit from the elongated spacing of those graded stakes.
One quirk of spreading the races out over 10 weeks is that depending on how the calendar falls each year, the gaps between the first Saturdays in May, June, and July will fluctuate between either four or five weeks. But is that really such a big deal?
The Triple Crown already tolerates changes that are beyond anyone’s control. When a huge downpour muddies the track and completely alters the complexion of one of the Classics, no one says the race wasn’t legitimate and shouldn’t count when compared to historical norms. Under the new proposal, in some years there will be five weeks between the Derby and Preakness; in others the five-week gap will fall between the Preakness and Belmont. In the championships of almost every other American sport, some teams routinely get more time off between playoff series than others. Yet no one claims that isn’t fair when comparing champions from one era to the next. The important thing is that even though the spacing will fluctuate in a small way from year to year, it will be the same for every Triple Crown aspirant in any given year.
Setting an anchor point for the first Saturday in each month could serve as the basis for a marketing campaign that underscores to even casual racing fans that that is when to expect the best racing the sport has to offer.
If other racetracks were cooperative, other important late-summer stakes for 3-year-olds could align with the revamped Triple Crown: The GI Haskell S. could shift several weeks later so Monmouth Park “owned” the first Saturday in August, and the GI Travers S. could be repositioned on the first Saturday of September as part of a blockbuster closing weekend at Saratoga. The result could be a May-through-September “first Saturday” showcase for sophomores that leads into the Breeders’ Cup Championships on the first weekend of November.
Pimlico is slated for a massive rebuild in the next few years and major upgrades to Belmont could be in the not-too-distant future. A rebranding of the premier races at each venue would be fitting.
By running the Preakness on the first Saturday in June, TSG would still steer clear of Memorial Day weekend. NYRA might not be crazy about carding the Belmont S. in years where the first Saturday in July coincides with Independence Day. But July 4 is traditionally an otherwise quiet time on the American sporting scene, and if a Triple Crown were on the line, horse racing would enjoy expanded media coverage without competition from the basketball and hockey championships that are generally going full-tilt in June.