EVEN THOUGH nobody suggested Barbaro's catastrophic injury in the first few hundred yards of the 2006 Preakness Stakes had anything to do with the 2-week gap between the Kentucky Derby and the second leg of the Triple Crown, it did bring the spacing debate into focus again.
For decades, it has been Derby, Preakness in 2 weeks, Belmont Stakes 3 weeks after that. In recent decades, the entire sport has undergone a radical change. Horses do not race nearly as much as they once did. And top stakes horses never race more than seven or eight times in a year. And when they do race, they almost never race back in 2 weeks. Often, they go months between races.
The only time top horses are asked to race three times in 5 weeks is during the Triple Crown, by far America's most-watched series of races. So, the debate goes: Why not adjust for changing conditions?
Pimlico officials said last year they would discuss it, saying everything was on the table. The Preakness is Saturday, 2 weeks after the Derby.
"After discussions, it was decided we wouldn't deal with the issue right now," said Lou Raffetto Jr., the president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs Pimlico. "There was enough disagreement about it to where it wasn't worth getting into at this point in time. There were definitely some mixed feelings about it, differing opinions."
Some think the Preakness should be moved to the first week in June and the Belmont the first week in July, giving the horses at least a month between races. Others think it should stay exactly how it has been, regardless of changing conditions.
Raffetto was a longtime racing secretary. He knows the game from the ground up. He has seen how much it has changed.
"Personally, I think it's something we should consider doing," Raffetto said. "But that's my personal opinion. I think it's something we should continue to look at and consider.
"There are negatives to it. Obviously, one of the big negatives is everything peaks with the Derby, do you lose interest, does it wane [with a longer period between races] as opposed to the way it is now. I think that's a legitimate argument.
"But on the flip side, does it make the race a better race because guys are more willing to come back in 3 weeks, rather than 2? I'd like to think that the extra week would help some horses. On the other hand, some guys just like to run in the Derby and, after that they don't care where they run. That's the truth. People spend $50,000 [to enter and start in the Derby] to get a saddle towel."
How hard is the Triple Crown on the modern thoroughbred? Well, beyond the fact that it hasn't been won since 1978, it takes a real toll on still young, developing horses. Consider that neither Smarty Jones nor Afleet Alex raced again after the Belmont Stakes. Now, cynics would suggest it was because both horses were worth so much at stud. But the cynics did not see Smarty try to gallop a month after the Belmont when it was obvious something was wrong. And if the Afleet Alex people had just wanted to retire the horse, they certainly would have done it much earlier than they did when they had to scramble late in the year to find a home for their horse.
"There's plenty of room for disagreement and differing opinions on the issue," Raffetto said. "It just wasn't something worth taking on right now."
Any change should not be about making it easier for a horse to win the Triple Crown. It should be because it might keep the stars of the game around longer.
"The game definitely has changed," Raffetto said. "There was a time they ran good horses back in a week. Now, you need 4, 5 or 6. Without naming certain trainers, some of them want 10."
Well, it won't ever be 10. It wasn't always 2 weeks and then 3 weeks, either. There is probably some middle ground that would be more suitable to the changing conditions. But this is horse racing where everything changes slowly, if it ever changes at all. *