Updated on 09/18/2011 12:04AM

Spacing of Crown races part of test


WASHINGTON - When Barbaro came into Saturday's Preakness, there were no doubts that he possessed superior talent. Skeptics could raise only one legitimate question about his ability to win. The colt had had at least five weeks' rest between all of his previous starts. Could he withstand the stress of racing with only two weeks' rest?

The trainers of the second-, third-, and fourth-place finishers in the Kentucky Derby elected to skip the Preakness, saying they preferred to wait for the Belmont Stakes and give their colts more time to recuperate. Like all members of their profession, they recognize that contemporary American Thoroughbreds cannot endure the arduous campaigns that were routine for horses of the past. Michael Matz was confident that he had Barbaro in peak condition for the second leg of the Triple Crown, but even he acknowledged that the two-week layoff was the X factor.

After Barbaro shattered his right hind leg racing to the first turn at Pimlico, shocking 118,402 spectators and a nationwide TV audience, experts were at a loss to explain why it had happened.

"Why does a football player turn his ankle, break his tibia?" said veterinarian Larry Bramlage. "Why does a basketball player blow out his knee?"

But in light of the prerace speculation about Barbaro's two-week layoff, many people in the sport are sure to wonder if the timing of the Triple Crown races has become too stressful for modern Thoroughbreds. For years, the series has taken an apparent toll on the 3-year-olds who compete in it: Four of the last eight Preakness winners never raced after the Belmont Stakes.

The notion that two weeks' rest might be inadequate would have been laughable to trainers in the 1960's and earlier. The orthodox way to prepare a colt for the Kentucky Derby in that era was to run in the Derby Trial four days before the main event. Horses raced hard and often before the Derby, and the Triple Crown didn't necessarily have any adverse effects. After completing his sweep of the three classics in 1941, Whirlaway raced nine more times as a 3-year-old. Nine races is a career for many modern-day horses.

"They don't make them like they used to," lamented trainer Nick Zito, who has won each of the Triple Crown races and can remember the iron horses of yore. "The sport has been turned upside down."

While athletes in most sports improve as the result of advanced training techniques, why are Thoroughbreds more frail than they used to be? Theories abound to explain the phenomenon. Inbreeding may have weakened the species. The proliferation of legal and illegal drugs may have harmed the breed by allowing infirm horses to excel, go to stud, and pass on their infirmities to a new generation. The export of top breeding stock to Europe in the 1980's weakened the gene pool in the U.S.

Perhaps the most important effects on the species are the result of changes in the breeding business. In the past, dominant stables bred and raced their own horses, and they strove to produce athletes who were sound and durable. But now most breeders sell their horses at auction, and they want young horses who are fast and precocious, with pedigrees that look good on a catalog page. Soundness isn't part of the equation.

If the fragility of the animals is a fact of life, should the Triple Crown schedule be altered to accommodate them? It might make sense for the horses and their trainers, but the tracks and television networks have their own scheduling issues. (The Maryland Jockey Club, for example, would not want the Preakness pushed back to Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the beach season in Maryland.)

Allowing more time between races wouldn't be as easy as it sounds. Although the Triple Crown schedule has undergone many changes over the years, racing purists would surely recoil at the idea of changing the series to accommodate the frailties of modern Thoroughbreds. The Triple Crown has become the sport's greatest attraction precisely because it is so difficult. To add his name to the list of racing's all-time greats, a horse ought to do what Secretariat, Affirmed, and Seattle Slew did. Changing the schedule would cheapen the accomplishment of any horse who swept the series.

It may be inaccurate to blame the rigors of the Triple Crown for the defection rate among the leading 3-year-olds. Many of the horses who have been retired early - Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, and Point Given - didn't have injuries that were necessarily career-ending. They merely were hustled into retirement to cash in on their enormous value at stud.

And it will never be known if the two-week layoff between the Derby and Preakness had anything to do with Barbaro's breakdown. This was a colt who had been bred for durability. Matz had planned the colt's racing schedule with painstaking care so that he would be ready to withstand the Triple Crown grind. Barbaro may have been at the mercy of the force that can affect any horse of any era under any circumstances: random, horrible luck.

(c) 2006 The Washington Post