It’s time to revamp the Triple Crown

Justify never raced again after becoming the most recent winner of the Triple Crown with this Belmont Stakes victory two years ago. Photo: Jasko

That the world is no longer the same place should be obvious to most inhabitants of the planet. It is axiomatic that things change. Everybody is aware of that. We are all going through a period of adjustment like never before in our lifetime.

In the world of horse racing, we have seen all of the norms temporarily shattered by the virus. Race meetings, Classic races, traditions — all have gone by the boards. In this year like no other, change has been thrust upon us. And we have learned that we not only can survive, but we are flexible enough to roll with the changes.

Even though our lives have been interrupted and we can no longer count on certain benchmarks and touchstones to keep us balanced and grounded, this forced change can serve as an agent for good in racing.

The coronavirus outbreak has made us take a fresh look at our options for race meets and races. It has made us focus on what makes sense, what is important and what we might be able to do going forward.

Today’s horses are not as tough

It is in this fresh atmosphere of scrambling to stay relevant that I would like to suggest that the time may finally have arrived for American racing participants to take a new look at the Triple Crown.

Hey, when it comes to racing’s traditions and history, I have always been a staunch defender of maintaining our glorious past and honoring our predecessors. However, so much has changed since the Triple Crown dates were set in stone 51 years ago, I think it is finally worth talking about seriously.

Let’s start off with the equine athlete itself. Based on my own personal experience, which involves more than 50 years as a professional in the industry (more than 25 as a journalist and more than 40 as an owner/manager), I can say without a single doubt in my mind that today’s racehorse is not as tough and rugged as it was when I first began watching horses race in 1950.

This is not the best forum to discuss the pros and cons of what has caused this change in the modern-day racehorse, but any seasoned horseman who is old enough to remember the launching of Sputnik will confirm this notion. And statistics relating to the number of starts made by today’s racehorses versus their predecessors will further back up this contention.

Not only are horses not the same, neither is the manner in which today’s horsemen and women train them. Like it or not, modern-day American horse conditioners owe at least some part of their daily training routine to D Wayne Lukas. The influence in American racing of Lukas extends not only to how today’s equine athlete is bred and conformed, but to the Quarter Horse influence he brought to the game.

Today’s Classic pretenders are no longer as sturdy or trained in the same manner as their forebears. Horses of an earlier era received lengthy and rigorous foundations designed to properly prepare them for the demands of top-class racing. And the horses were bred, raised and prepared to handle what the trainers threw at them. This is no longer the case.

So, here we are in the year 2020, with the current racing calendar for all practical purposes null and void. Oh sure, there will be races named the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, but because of the scrambling nature of the current climate, they may be Classics in name only and treated by fans as such.

But this, I suggest to you, is not all bad. It gives us a unique opportunity to take a sober look at our equine product, our races and our race schedule to redesign a Triple Crown that is better suited to what we have available to deal with.

Here is a possible revised Classic schedule going forward:

  • KENTUCKY DERBY The first Saturday in June.
  • PREAKNESS STAKES The first Saturday in July.
  • BELMONT STAKES The first Saturday in August.

The added month from May to June is a very big one in the development of an American racehorse. The timing coincides with the Epsom Derby and this is not a coincidence, because that extra month will allow for prospects not to be rushed so much in their preparations and physically to be just that much more ready for the hard-fought Run for the Roses and the grueling races to follow.

Not having the Derby run until June would have additional benefits. Horses that contested the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, for example, would have an extra month to be let down for a break after their final juvenile contest. Horses would not be rushed to get fit or qualified for a Derby run during a time of year when weather can wreak havoc with racing surfaces from coast to coast. And a more spread-out Triple Crown Trail series of trial races could be accomplished with fewer conflicts of interest on the calendar.

In summary, the horse would be given a saner and, hopefully, safer path to the Kentucky Derby. 

Also, quite importantly, less of an emphasis on earlier developing types of Classic horses would result from the lengthening of the calendar by one month. Horses that developed a bit later or suffered a setback would be afforded a fairer opportunity to run up to their talent level the first Saturday of June.

The risks of winter racing

Another side benefit would be to have less emphasis placed on winter racing in North America. Winter racing has its place, but its impact on the modern-day Triple Crown is too great. When horses have to be rushed in their training and racing during unsettled weather, it puts too great a risk on their well-being. Do we really need to be hammering and testing our Derby candidates the first week of February? Would they not be better off starting off the first week of March instead?

As for the Preakness, a change in schedule would end the insanity of bringing back in two weeks horses that had given their all in the Kentucky Derby. On a personal level, Captain Bodgit was the toughest horse my stable ever raced. He was an absolute brute. He would end every day’s gallop with a solid open gallop that might as well have been a breeze. I will never forget the morning after the Derby when he walked out of his stall. My heart went out to him. He looked like the loser from the day before in a heavyweight boxing match.

Sacrificing a horse by returning him to high-class racing on a hard dirt surface manicured to allow for the fastest times possible in order to honor tradition, or TV opportunities or whatever else is on the table makes absolutely no sense and there is not a horseman who has done it who prefers to do it this way. It is an arcane and villainous act whose time has surely now come to an end. It is a luxury in which the sport of racing can no longer indulge itself.

The Belmont Stakes would very likely benefit from the Derby being run a month later and the Preakness run a month after the Derby instead of two weeks. Theoretically they would attract more horses as the attrition rate should be less.

Obviously, the racing associations involved in presenting the three Triple Crown races likely would not be jumping up and down to adopt these changes. And I fully understand and appreciate the reasons, almost all of which are financial in nature.

Protecting the horses should be top priority

The biggest gripe one would imagine has to do with scheduling vis a vis other major sporting events and TV time. I understand the impact that national television has on the Triple Crown. But in real life sports fans have not cared about the Preakness or Belmont Stakes in a very long time unless there is a Triple Crown prospect involved.

Racing must first and foremost take care of its own and, by ‘own’, I reference the horses, the owners and the fans. So what if the races have to be carried on a cable channel or a racing channel. It is high time we thought more about protecting our sport, our horses and nurturing our loyal fans.

These would be bold steps if adopted. And I would never have suggested any of this plan were it not for this opportunistic climate that makes consideration of steps as I have outlined even possible. Let’s take advantage of this temporary break in the action and reinvent our Triple Crown for the betterment of the athletes and the people who love them.

Barry Irwin is CEO of Team Valor International. His racing stable won and ran second and fourth in the Kentucky Derby and second and third in both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

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