By John Scheinman
With only three horses from the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) contesting the Preakness Stakes (gr. 1) May 17, Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas said he will initiate discussions with his counterparts at Churchill Downs and the New York Racing Association in an effort to change the spacing between the Triple Crown races.
"I think the schedule of two weeks between the Derby and three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont is passé; it's done," said Chuckas May 15, adding that he will seek to open a dialogue after the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) June 7. "I'm all about tradition. I respect everything that's happened, but when I sit here today, it doesn't work anymore."
While professing to be satisfied with the quality of the field for the Preakness and the accompanying undercard stakes races, Chuckas said racing fans and bettors are being shortchanged by not having the opportunity to see horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby and its associated races two weeks later at Pimlico Race Course.
Of the 19 runners that contested the Derby May 3, only winner California Chrome, seventh-place finisher Ride On Curlin, and 11th-place finisher General a Rod entered the Preakness.
"My view is the Triple Crown is, besides the Breeders' Cup, the time you get the most public attention, and we cram it in in a few weeks," Chuckas said. "If we spread it out, we'll get more public attention.
"I think also from a horseman's perspective, most of these horsemen will not race their horses back in two weeks. Not only do these tracks lose the opportunity of seeing these horses, the public loses the opportunity of seeing these horses. And it's not just the Triple Crown races; it's also the undercards for all these high-level stakes races. If you take a look from a guest's perspective, or a wagerer's perspective, he obviously wants full fields, the most competition and so on, and it's just not happening right now."
Chuckas said he will work toward a schedule that has the Kentucky Derby retain its position on the first Saturday in May, while the Preakness would be moved to the first weekend in June and the Belmont Stakes to the first weekend in July.
The Pimlico racing office faced added pressure this year to ensure quality fields after NYRA announced in February that this year's Belmont Stakes card would total $8 million in purses and feature 10 stakes races, making it the second-richest race day of the year in the country.
Five stakes not previously run on the Belmont Stakes card were added, including the historic $1.25 million Metropolitan Handicap (gr. IT), the $1 million Ogden Phipps (gr. I) and the $750,000 Acorn (gr. I).
Pimlico enhanced its purses this year, bumping the Preakness to $1.5 million among others, and figures to do so again once the new Horseshoe Casino opens later this year in downtown Baltimore. The gaming industry in the state contributes 7% of revenues to racing purse accounts and breeder supplements.
Chuckas said purses in Maryland are competitive but the best horses need to be available to run on the biggest race days of the year.
"I'm happy with what I have this weekend," Chuckas said. "My race office has done a great job, but I think it can be better."
In any reconfiguration of Triple Crown race dates, Churchill Downs likely would not have to move at all, while the Maryland Jockey Club and NYRA would have to reach some sort of accommodation.
"We would be willing to sit down with industry people and talk about it," said Martin Panza, the senior vice president of racing at NYRA. "It's such a major move that affects a lot of people. Do we want to run the Belmont on the July 4th weekend? There are so many variables to look at."
Churchill Downs President Kevin Flannery declined to comment.
"As of right now, no one from the Maryland Jockey Club or the New York Racing Association has reached out to us to converse about the repositioning of any of the Triple Crown races," said Darren Rogers, Churchill's senior director of communications and media services, in a prepared statement. "However, we're also happy to discuss the subject."
There have been 11 Triple Crown winners, beginning with Sir Barton in 1919. Affirmed was the most recent in 1978.
Throughout the week leading up to the Preakness, California Chrome trainer Art Sherman has continually expressed concerns about running back in the race off a two-week turnaround.
"I'm not one to run back in two weeks," he said. "I know it's tradition but it's hard on the horses. I can see why they have a lot of fresh shooters; they miss the Derby and then they come for you in the Preakness."
Trainer Wesley Ward, who is running outsider Pablo del Monte in the Preakness, said he would not want to see the Preakness and Belmont schedule moved.
"(I'm for) the tradition...that's what makes those types of horses so special and I don't think they should change it," Ward said. "There are a lot of horses that fall off (the Triple Crown trail) right after the first one because they don't want to go back in two weeks off a defeat, so, you'll get a new set of challengers.
"If California Chrome is good enough to fend us off and then is given three weeks to the Belmont, where it's another grueling test of an added distance, I think that's what really sets the Triple Crown winners apart."