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.