05/11/2010 11:00PM

What a difference a week could make


Right on cue, the question of retooling the Triple Crown dates and distances was being raised again over the past few weeks, both before and after Super Saver won the Kentucky Derby.

What always lurks behind the issue is the lament that there has been no Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, in 1978. To put that date in chilling perspective, Ashton Kutcher, Katie Holmes, and Kobe Bryant were born in 1978, and it seems like they've been around forever.

Super Saver's victory established the odds of a 2010 Triple Crown winner at one in [pick a number], which is always the case. At the same time, the spectre of the Triple Crown's great difficulty presumes that the WinStar colt has no shot to win three straight. This is unfair, unless you want to dwell on the fact that Super Saver has never even won two straight. But that's nitpicking.

In the end, rearranging the deck chairs of the Triple Crown will not necessarily make it easier to win. There is, however, a way to make it better.

The Triple Crown should be changed to save the Preakness.

The Preakness needs to be saved because it is no longer a significant part of the Triple Crown, or of the racing season at large, except as it pertains to a single horse - the Derby winner.

Each year, the pursuit of the Derby sucks the marrow out of the 3-year-old generation, and each year, the Preakness suffers. Go ahead, take a look at the horses who will not be running in the Preakness on Saturday. The list includes the winners of the 2010 Wood Memorial, Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass Stakes, Sunland Park Derby, Lane's End Stakes, and the Tampa Bay Derby.

The passion with which horsemen attack the Kentucky Derby evaporates within seconds of losing at Churchill Downs, making the Preakness too easy to pass. One more week between the races would go a long way toward balancing the scales. And if Chick Lang were still alive, he'd probably agree.

They called Chick "Mr. Preakness" for good cause. Besides holding every job the track could muster, Lang was Pimlico's general manager from 1969 to 1987. After half a century at the heart of Maryland racing, Chick Lang died on March 18 at the age of 83. His ashes were strewn in the Pimlico winner's circle, and on Preakness Day, the undercard will feature the new Chick Lang Stakes.

Lang dedicated a large amount of his considerable passion to making sure the Preakness did not languish idly in the Derby's shadow. The Derby had the name, but Lang had the imagination.

"Chick loved the Preakness and everything about it," said Nancy Lang, his widow. "He even wanted to make sure the Preakness had its own drink, like the Derby, though I'm not sure anyone remembers the original recipe for the Black-Eyed Susan anymore."

With guerrilla cunning, Lang would show up at Churchill Downs laden with "Next Stop Preakness" paraphernalia. One year he had hundreds of yellow and black Preakness balloons dumped on Louisville's Derby Parade. Another time he rented a plane towing a "Next Stop Pimlico" banner to fly over the track on Derby Day.

"One year I took counterfeit $10 bills to Louisville," Lang told Snowden Carter of the Maryland Horse magazine. "They looked amazingly real, except that on the reverse side they said 'Come to Pimlico where the real money is.' The Treasury Department grabbed me on that one and seemed quite upset."

An extra week between the Derby and the Preakness would have given Lang seven more days to bang the drum. Anyone concerned by a break with tradition only need be reminded that there is nothing sacrosanct about the two-week spacing. Times change.

Sir Barton won the 1919 Derby and then the Preakness on three days' rest. Gallant Fox won the 1930 Derby eight days after he had already won the Preakness. His son Omaha won the Preakness one week after the Derby, as did War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, and Assault.

That's seven of the 11 Triple Crown winners right there. So much for tradition. Citation was the first Triple Crown winner to get two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness, the same gap later enjoyed by Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. As I recall, those four colts were held in fairly high esteem even though they had seven extra days to recover from the Derby.

Handcuffed by modern horsemanship, a Preakness run just 14 days after the Derby undergoes a dramatic cast change and squanders any name recognition - beyond the Derby winner - that might have been generated by the Derby prerace coverage and marathon Derby telecast.

Furthermore, any lingering questions raised by troubled Derby trips go unanswered when the aggrieved colts fail to show up at Pimlico. One more week, that's all it would take, and most of them would be right back in the gate.

Understandably, it is in the best interests of the proprietors of the Belmont Stakes that the Preakness be as easy as possible for the Derby winner to win. Don't look for any encouragement from the New York Racing Association when it comes to increasing the competitive depth of the middle jewel.

But that is to be expected. Survival, being the name of the game, has meant that the whole idea of a unitary Triple Crown has gone pretty much the way of the dodo. After years of playing semi-nice together as part of Triple Crown Productions, the alliance among Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and the New York Racing Association has been badly frayed.

Pimlico has been wracked by ownership turbulence. New York has gone its own way with a separate Belmont television deal. Churchill Downs, which lives or dies by the success of the Derby - not the Triple Crown - just left the National Thoroughbred Racing Association reservation, making its corporate lone wolf status official.

In such a climate, no one could ever blame Pimlico for enhancing the chances for a better Preakness. One week is all it would take. And if Mr. Preakness were still around, he'd jump at the chance.