Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that each of the three Triple Crown races is slightly longer than the one preceding it. In fact, the Kentucky Derby is 1-1/4 miles; the Preakness is 1-3/16 miles, and the Belmont is 1 1/2 miles.
No trainer has won more Triple Crown races than D. Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Famer with the white cowboy hat, crackling wit and weather-beaten skin. But when it comes to the Triple Crown schedule, there’s nothing hidebound about the opinions of the 77-year-old Lukas, whose horses have claimed the Kentucky Derby four times, the Preakness Stakes five times and the Belmont Stakes four.
Given the chance, Lukas would lengthen the time between the three classics, which are contested in a grueling five-week span.
While the argument isn’t new in horse racing circles, the eve of the 138th Preakness Stakes is a compelling time to raise it again. Just nine horses will compete in Saturday’s Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown. That’s the fewest since 2007 and less than half the field for the May 4 Kentucky Derby. Of the 19 Derby starters, only six will run in the Preakness, including the victorious Orb, who has been installed as an even-money favorite.
“Time is your ally if you’re a trainer,” said Lukas, who favors a three- or four-week break (rather than two) between the Derby and the Preakness. He would also push back the Belmont Stakes, the final and most taxing leg of the Triple Crown, until the July 4 weekend. And he would shave one-eighth of a mile off the Derby (making it 11 / 8 miles) and one-quarter mile off the Belmont (making it 1¼ miles).
“It’ll never happen because the sport is too tradition bound,” Lukas conceded in an interview this week. But he firmly believes that such tweaks would be better for the horses and, in turn, better for the sport.
“Instead of losing so many horses from the Derby to the Preakness, we would hold the field together and get most of them [to Pimlico Race Course], which would build the fan base,” Lukas said. “Take NASCAR or the PGA: If you go from one tournament or one race and lose 80 percent of the stars, people don’t know how to identify with it.”
Lukas-trained horses account for fully one-third the Preakness field, increasing his chance of a sixth victory in the Pimlico classic should Orb break poorly from the No. 1 post.
The Derby’s second-, third- and fourth-place finishers aren’t competing, their owners possibly eyeing a return in the June 8 Belmont Stakes.
Nonetheless, most trainers oppose any tweaking of the Triple Crown calendar.
“I’m an advocate of the way the Triple Crown is set up,” said Shug McGaughey, 62, Orb’s Hall of Fame trainer. “I know a lot of people try to question it and spread it out and this and that, but I think that’s what makes it difficult — the difficulty in it — the same as the 20-horse field in the Derby.”
Former jockey Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat to the 1973 Triple Crown, agrees, calling any discussion of modifying the schedule “crazy talk.”
“It’s not a thing that you can change,” said Turcotte, 71. “All history was made on that schedule.”
No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 — a drought of 35 years.
Still, this isn’t the first time the question of tweaking the schedule or structure has been raised with an eye toward making the feat more manageable. It was debated amid the 25-year drought that followed Citation’s 1948 Triple Crown.
Then along came Secretariat, the massive chestnut colt whose 1973 heroics captivated the nation. Big Red won the 1-1 / 4 mile Kentucky Derby in a record 1 minute 59.40 seconds. Then, after being eased to the rear by Turcotte in the early going of the Preakness, Secretariat stormed to the front rounding the first turn and cruised to a two-and-a-half lengths victory in record time. And he made a mockery of talk that the Triple Crown was an impossible quest by winning the 1.5-mile Belmont by a staggering 31 lengths, setting another record (2:24) in the process.
“The Triple Crown is not meant to be easy,” Turcotte noted. “You need a superior horse to win the Triple Crown.”
I’ll Have Another appeared poised to become just the 12th in history to achieve the feat last season. But the day before the Belmont, trainer Doug O’Neill withdrew the colt, citing tendinitis.
Asked whether I’ll Have Another could have competed with a few weeks more rest, assistant trainer Jack Sisterson said this week that there was no way of knowing.
“It’s like a professional athlete on Sunday going out and playing a football game; they can sprain an ankle at any point,” Sisterson said. I’ll Have Another “could have done that in his debut. That’s horseracing; that’s the name of the game. Fortunately he’s fit and healthy right now, enjoying life after his racing career is over.”
That said, Sisterson conceded that the Triple Crown turnaround is difficult.
“Typically you see the average thoroughbred run about four to five weeks in between races, and you’re trying to squeeze three into five weeks when they’re still babies — three-year-olds, still maturing,” he said. “Hence the Triple Crown is a very prestigious title. It really does take a champion to do it.
According to Dean W. Richardson, chief of large animal surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, there is no valid, scientific evidence to suggest that modern-day thoroughbreds aren’t as able to withstand the rigor of the Triple Crown schedule as their predecessors were decades ago, as some argue.
“There is a widely held belief that horses are less sound today than they were 30 to 50 years ago because horses back then raced more frequently and more horses had longer visible careers,” said Richardson, who performed the complex surgery on Barbaro after the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner shattered his right hind leg early in the Preakness two weeks later.
“The problem I have with that interpretation is that I believe trainers actually are more tuned in to their horses’ problems today and are less inclined to race a horse with a known musculoskeletal lesion that increases risk of further injury. Better diagnostics result in our recognizing more problems sooner, and there is a strong incentive not to endanger a high- profile horse if you know there is an increased risk.”
Such caution may explain, in part, why so many of this year’s Derby runners are skipping the Preakness.
Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, isn’t convinced the schedule has anything to do with the lean field for Saturday’s race. And he, for one, has no interest in tinkering with Triple Crown tradition.
“Horses through the generations have run under this schedule,” Chuckas said. “I’m cognizant that it is an arduous and difficult task, but it was set up that way. If you’re a horseman, an owner, a trainer, and you want to compete, you craft your schedule accordingly to have the horse in the best possible condition. It separates true champions.”