Updated on 09/17/2011 11:29AM

Show them the money

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WASHINGTON - When entries were to be taken Wednesday for the 128th Preakness, the expected field of 11 or 12 horses was not going to be deep in talent. Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide will have only one formidable challenger, Peace Rules, who finished third at Churchill Downs.

Yet the Preakness would have been a compelling rematch if all of the top Derby finishers had come to Pimlico. Second-place Empire Maker - still the most glamorous colt of his generation - probably would have been favored to turn the tables on Funny Cide. Fourth-place Atswhatimtalknbout would have been a strong contender, too; he rallied powerfully in the Derby after being blocked on the final turn.

Trainer Bobby Frankel - who prefers to give his horses plenty of time between races - fretted about running Empire Maker with only two weeks' rest between the Derby and Preakness. So he decided to await the Belmont Stakes, allowing his colt to have a five-week breather. "There's no use burying your horse at this time of year," he said. Empire Maker thus became the third Derby runner-up in four years to bypass Pimlico.

Ron Ellis, trainer of Atswhatimtalknbout, felt as Frankel did. "I don't think that to come back in two weeks . . . would be best," he said. "I'm leaning toward spacing his races." Ellis, too, chose to skip the Preakness and go to the Belmont.

In the past, the top finishers in the Derby came to Pimlico almost automatically. But as American Thoroughbreds have become less durable and trainers have been forced to manage them more cautiously, the schedule of the Triple Crown series has become an anachronism.

In almost no other situation do horses go into an important race two weeks after their last start. The major prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic is run four weeks before the main event. And the horses in the Classic are seasoned runners. Yet the Preakness demands that lightly raced 3-year-olds run with minimal rest.

Does the Triple Crown schedule need to be altered?

Pimlico president Joe De Francis said there are many obstacles to a change. Both NBC and the other Triple Crown tracks would have to agree. Moreover, he pointed out, pushing the Preakness back to Memorial Day weekend would conflict with the start of the Maryland beach season and have a negative impact on attendance.

Changing the schedule would pit pragmatism against tradition. "You can make convincing cases on both sides of the issue," De Francis said. "The methods and philosophies of training have changed since the 1970's, and if we did change the spacing it would result in larger fields for the Preakness. On the other hand, the Triple Crown is one of the most difficult things to achieve in sports, and monkeying with it should be done for only the most compelling of reasons."

Indeed, most purists will recoil at the thought of tampering with the Triple Crown. The four horses who have swept the series in the last 55 years - Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed - rank among the greatest Thorough-breds. The Triple Crown has relentlessly defeated the less-than-great, and its demanding schedule is one of the reasons why. Making the Triple Crown less challenging would tarnish the accomplishment of any future winner.

While trainers such Frankel and Ellis cite the two-week gap between the Derby and the Preakness, there is another, tacit consideration involved in their decision not to run: money. If Empire Maker had won the Derby, Frankel would have brought him to Pimlico without hesitation, because he would be alive to earn the $5 million bonus that Visa pays to any horse who sweeps the Triple Crown. But there is no compelling economic incentive for Derby losers to run in the Preakness.

The $1 million purse of the Preakness and the other Triple Crown events is not remotely commensurate with the races' importance or the profits that the tracks generate from them. It is out of line with races of lesser significance. The Florida Derby was worth $1 million when Empire Maker won it in a cakewalk against six rivals. Even obscure prep races for 3-year-old such as the Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs in Louisiana are worth $500,000.

The one event in American racing comparable in importance to the Triple Crown is the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic. The purses for Triple Crown races should be doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled. Unfortunately, Pimlico - the track that most needs a purse boost to attract top horses - is the one that can least afford to pay more money.

Because trainers are becoming increasingly reluctant to run horses on short rest, the lack of depth in this year's Preakness is not an aberration. The race will be similarly affected in future years. The greatest moments in its past have been rematches of the Derby: Affirmed vs. Alydar, Easy Goer vs. Sunday Silence. It is a dismal prospect that the Alydars and Easy Goers of the future will skip a Preakness showdown to rest for some other objective.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post