Updated on 06/16/2014 10:12AM

Lines are drawn in Triple Crown debate

Tom Keyser
Tonalist broke up a bid for the Triple Crown for the 12th time since Affirmed last swept the series in 1978.

Talk about changing the Triple Crown typically peaks during the week leading up to the Belmont Stakes and then usually fades quickly and quietly into the sunset, to be forgotten until a high-profile injury or dropout the next year. But this year, supporters of changing the series are vowing to keep the perennial discussion alive throughout the summer, adding some new ammunition in the debate.

Leading the charge will be Pimlico Race Course, the site of the second leg, the Preakness Stakes. Tom Chuckas, the track’s president, said this week that he remains committed to talking this month with Churchill Downs and Belmont Park about lengthening the amount of time between the races, a notion that is supported by some in the industry but downright sacrilegious to others. Specifically, Chuckas wants four weeks between each of the races, a spacing that he says more closely accommodates breeding and training trends of the modern Thoroughbred era.

Though the spacing of the three races has varied throughout its first five decades, the Triple Crown has been run in its current form since 1969: The Preakness follows the Kentucky Derby by two weeks, and the Belmont Stakes is three weeks later. The last three winners of the Triple Crown – Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, and Affirmed in 1978 – won under that format, and all other bids since 1969 have taken place under those conditions, including those by the 12 horses who have failed since Affirmed’s triumph, some by heartbreakingly narrow margins.

No matter the scheduling, almost all of the bids that have taken place since the first “Triple Crown” in 1919 (the series wasn’t known as the Triple Crown at the time) have taken place with approximately 35 days between the first and last race. Chuckas’s plan would put 56 days between the Derby and Belmont.

To Chuckas, putting four weeks between each of the three races has nothing to do with “making more Triple Crown winners,” as he said this week. Instead, he thinks extending the Triple Crown over two months, instead of the current five weeks, would allow racing to leverage the publicity surrounding the Triple Crown into broader exposure for the sport.

With four weeks between the Derby and Preakness, Chuckas said, more Derby horses would run back in the Preakness, and the track could build up its undercard, in cooperation with Churchill and Belmont, to put together pseudo-triple crowns for 3-year-old fillies and turf horses using races that are already run on the Triple Crown undercards.

That schedule is a lot more appealing to Pimlico than Churchill or Belmont because, unfortunately for Pimlico, the Preakness is pretty much a stepping-stone, and always will be. In a recent editorial in Thoroughbred Daily News, NBC analyst Randy Moss called the race’s spot between the two races a “scheduling misfortune.” The Preakness will never have the enormous cachet of the Derby, and neither will it ever have the possibility of being the focus of the entire sporting world, as Belmont was last Saturday, when a horse shows up with one race left to take home a trophy that’s gone unclaimed since 1978. For Pimlico, a change to the schedule only has upside, but Chuckas also maintains it will help the industry at large.

“Extending that series gives us a lot more opportunity to market racing and get more viewership,” Chuckas said. “That’s with the proviso that the industry would have to work together on a collaborative plan to keep racing out front and center [for the entire two months]. It’s going to take a lot of work and effort.”

But what would the cost be to the Triple Crown itself? Detractors fear that changing the spacing of the races will not only weaken the profile of the series by making it more difficult to keep the three races prominent in the minds of the public, but also dramatically alter the conception of the test itself. By changing the spacing so significantly, will casual fans, whom the racing industry needs to rebuild its rapidly eroding fan base, be as intrigued by a test with the tag line, “Come see a horse make history – for the first time”?

Plainly stated, is it worth it for the racing industry to risk the significance of the one event that the entire sporting world rallies around when there is no evidence that the public is clamoring for change? The television ratings were sky-high for the Belmont Stakes last Saturday – the NBC broadcast of California Chrome’s bid was the highest-rated sporting event since the Winter Olympics.

Todd Pletcher, the Hall of Fame trainer who has started 40 horses in the Derby in his career, far more than any other trainer, said he is “torn” by the idea of changing the series. For purely professional reasons, Pletcher said he could support a change because he thinks it would favor his horses, who typically are given at least three weeks between races. But he also said he is concerned that “there’d be some intrigue lost if we do spread it out, and there’s also that it might not be as significant an accomplishment under a different format.”

Pletcher pointed out that changing the spacing between the Derby and the Preakness would have the most dramatic impact on the series. The Derby is already the hardest race on the brunt of the horses pursuing the Triple Crown, due to the 20-horse field, he said, and by putting more distance between the Derby and Preakness, the Preakness could take on the same rough-run character. That would actually detract from a Triple Crown bid because now all those vagaries of fate in the Derby’s large field will come into play in the Preakness, Pletcher said.

“This year, hardly any of the top horses in the Derby ran in the Preakness,” said Pletcher, in reference to the Derby’s second through fifth finishers skipping the second leg, a phenomenon that has occurred in three of the last five runnings of the Preakness. “We could find ourselves in the position where it’s even harder to get a horse going into the Belmont with a Triple Crown chance. Is that in the best interests of the series?”

In an e-mailed response, Churchill Downs spokeswoman Courtney Norris said the track is willing to entertain notions to change the series as long as the changes are “considered carefully and deliberatively” because “all three races just had some of their most successful events in some time.”

That still leaves Belmont, which may be most at risk from a change. Though they did not respond to requests for comment this week, Belmont officials have privately expressed a deep reluctance to change the scheduling, in large part because the current format, which has produced a Triple Crown bid roughly every three years, works very well for the track. Furthermore, Belmont just revamped its entire stakes schedule to make the Belmont Stakes undercard a blockbuster, and this year, a record $150 million was wagered on the 13-race card, far surpassing the previous record of $111 million.

NBC, which has a contract to televise the Kentucky Derby through 2025 and separate contracts with the other two Triple Crown tracks, declined to answer specific questions about whether the network would support a change in the schedule or whether any change would have an impact on the popularity of the series or the value of the television rights.“We are obviously huge fans of all the Triple Crown events, and whenever they run the races, we will be there to cover them,” a spokesperson said.

If anyone would have a legitimate hands-on opinion about whether the Triple Crown should be changed, it would be Bob Baffert, the Southern California-based trainer. He’s had three horses lose in the final leg since 1997 – Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem – but his best Triple Crown horse wasn’t any of those. It was Point Given, who ran a puzzling fifth in the 2001 Kentucky Derby but was wheeled back to completely dominate in the Preakness and Belmont, which the horse won by 12 1/4 lengths.

Asked if any of those horses would have won the Triple Crown if there was additional time between the races, Baffert was emphatic. “No, absolutely not,” he said. He added that if the series was changed, “It would lose all of its appeal” as a measuring stick against the other great horses of the past 50 years.

“This is what bothers me when I hear people say that it’s too hard on horses,” Baffert said. “It can be done. Point Given was only getting stronger when he won the Belmont. Silver Charm had a great run. Real Quiet had a great run ... It takes a special horse. It takes a superior horse. That’s what people want to see. They want to see a superior horse, and that’s what makes the Triple Crown special. We’ll know it when we see it, because that horse will win the Belmont like Point Given did.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of Kentucky Derby starters Todd Pletcher has sent out. He has started 40 horses in the Derby, not 36.