Updated on 09/18/2011 12:02AM

Crown horses deserve payday, not just prestige

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BALTIMORE - If Barbaro wins the Preakness, he will be cheered by more than 120,000 people at Pimlico and millions watching on television. He will be the most celebrated racehorse in America. On the brink of sweeping the Triple Crown, he will elicit comparisons to the greatest Thoroughbreds of all time.

Most of the distinctions he will gain from a victory at Pimlico have something in common: You couldn't take them to the bank. The tangible rewards that will go to owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson are relatively modest: They will receive the winner's share of $650,000 from a total purse of $1 million.

To put this number in perspective, compare the Preakness with the Virginia Derby, a mere Grade 2 stakes race. When it is run on July 15, fewer than 9,000 customers will be watching it at Colonial Downs. Yet the Virginia Derby offers the same purse as both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes: $1 million.

Or put it in perspective this way: If Barbaro captures the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown, he will have earned a total of $2.7 million for a historic feat that spanned five weeks. That sum is less than a horse named David Junior collected on one night in March by winning the Dubai Duty Free Stakes at Nad Al Sheba racecourse.

No racetracks earn the profits that Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont do from their big events. Yet the Triple Crown tracks pay peanuts to the winners.

Why? Because they can.

But they won't get away with it indefinitely.

Most people involved in horse racing dream of winning the Kentucky Derby, and they would pursue that dream if they collected only a blanket of roses. Churchill Downs did boost the Derby's value in 2005, but its $2.2 million purse barely makes the top 20 list of the world's richest races this year.

The Preakness isn't even in the top 80 on that list, but the struggling Maryland Jockey Club at least has a good explanation for the purse of the Preakness.

"We'd love to raise it," said Joe De Francis, the track's chief executive officer. "But we have to use the revenue from the Preakness to sustain racing for the other 364 days of the year."

The New York Racing Association has financial problems of its own, and it has found the $1 million Belmont stakes purse sufficient to attract good fields.

"The Belmont is known as the true classic race," said NYRA vice president Bill Nader, "and winning it looks terrific on a horse's resume."

The operators of the Triple Crown tracks have long believed that purse money isn't crucial because winners will be compensated by a multimillion-dollar boost in their value when they go to stud. But this notion is a myth.

Winners of the 3-year-old classics haven't had great success at stud in the last two decades. No Preakness winner has gone on to be an influential stallion since Sunday Silence in 1989. As breeders increasingly value speed over stamina, they are less impressed by horses' victories in classic distance races.

"It's almost a liability for a horse to win the Belmont," said pedigree consultant Bill Oppenheim.

When Birdstone was retired after winning the 2004 Belmont (as well as the Travers Stakes), his stud fee was a paltry $10,000.

In the early 1980's, purses for the Triple Crown events were as inadequate as they are today. And then, in 1985, Garden State Park offered a $2 million bonus to a horse who won a series of races culminating with the Garden State Stakes. After Spend a Buck won the Kentucky Derby and became eligible for the bonus, owner Dennis Diaz faced the choice of running for a $500,000 purse in the Preakness or the windfall at Garden State. He concluded that the prestige of the Preakness didn't count for much and sent his horse to New Jersey. This snub jolted the Triple Crown tracks into attaching a financial bonus to the series. However, there is no bonus this year; Visa discontinued its sponsorship of the series and the $5 million reward to a horse who sweeps the Triple Crown.

Sooner or later, the Triple Crown tracks are going to be shocked, as they were in 1985, that they must make their purses commensurate with their races' importance. It could happen this spring. If Barbaro loses the Preakness, he could conceivably bypass the Belmont and run in the $1 million Colonial Turf Cup in Virginia, the first leg in a series of grass races that offers a $5 million bonus.

Not only should the Triple Crown tracks raise their purses for the sake of self-preservation, but they should also do it for the overall good of the sport. Thoroughbred racing's greatest single problem is the fact that expenses are too high and purses too low, causing most owners to lose money and deterring would-be owners from getting into the sport. Owners at the top echelon of the game usually have to invest millions and millions of dollars in order to get one top-class horse. If an owner manages to buy or breed a horse who wins a race such as the Preakness, and he still doesn't reap a big return on his investment, what's the point of playing the game at all?

Little chance for an upset

Horses pursuing the Triple Crown have been the victims of some jolting upsets in recent years, but no such surprise is likely to occur in the Preakness. After his 6 1/2-length runaway in the Kentucky Derby, Barbaro figures to win decisively again.

Some skeptics argue that Barbaro is unlikely to run well with only two weeks between starts, after having at least five weeks' rest before all of his previous races. But the schedule was always part of trainer Michael Matz's long-range plan, and Barbaro may be sharper than ever after the short rest. Other Derby winners, such as Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, ran the races of their lives in the second leg of the Triple Crown.

The only colt with a plausible chance to spring an upset is Brother Derek, who had a disastrously wide trip from post 18 at Churchill Downs. But it's unlikely that he can make up all 9 1/2 lengths by which he was beaten in the Derby. Sweetnorthernsaint had some trouble in the Derby, too, but he ran out of gas in the stretch. The rest of the nine-horse field is overmatched. A Barbaro-Brother Derek exacta appears inevitable.

(c) 2006 The Washington Post