We'll know a lot more about the leading Kentucky Derby contenders next week than we do today, with a pair of important Grade 2 prep races, the Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Saturday and the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park on Sunday.
This past holiday weekend's results knocked beaten San Vicente favorite Creative Cause out of my top 10 and ascended the Bob Baffert-trained Castaway to No. 6 on the strength of his impressive victory in the first (and admittedly slower division) of the G3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park going a mile.
Union Rags makes his highly anticipated return in the Fountain of Youth, but this is not going to be an easy spot for the Michael Matz-trained son of Dixie Union, whose only loss came after a troubled trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile behind Hansen. Todd Pletcher has the formidable duo of G3 Holy Bull Stakes winner Algorithms and unbeaten Discreet Dancer, who will make his stakes debut after breaking his maiden at Gulfstream in December and winning an allowance race there the following month.
Until Super Saver gave Pletcher his first Kentucky Derby win in 2010, the former D. Wayne Lukas assistant had compiled a dubious record of 24 starters with no wins in America's most famous horserace. But the number of Pletcher starters in the Triple Crown's middle leg, the Preakness, is a small fraction of what he's sent to the starting gate at Churchill Downs. During the same period that he ran 24 in the Derby, Pletcher only started a grand total of four at Pimlico in the Preakness. (With Super Saver's victory in 2010, Pletcher is now 1-for-29 in the Derby and his three starters at Pimlico the past two years bring his record to 0-for-7 in the Preakness.)
All of that, in a roundabout way, brings me to the point, that perhaps the Triple Crown would be better off with more time between each of the three races. As many people know (and if you don't, Jeff Lowe's excellent 2011 article in Thoroughbred Times explains it well), the current schedule of two weeks from the Derby to the Preakness and three weeks from the Preakness to the Belmont has been in place only since 1969. Thus, eight of the 11 Triple Crown winners won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes under a different schedule: some years there was just a week from the Derby to the Preakness; some years there was four weeks from the Preakness to the Belmont. It wasn't set in stone.
In other words, changing the schedule of the races is not going to end some century-old tradition or somehow cheapen the achievement of a Triple Crown sweep. In some ways, what I would prefer for a Triple Crown schedule conceivably could make it even more difficult to win.
All of this was discussed last Friday night on the TVG Racing Roundtable, where among those weighing in were Billy Turner, trainer of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew; Wayne Lukas, who's won 13 Triple Crown races; Bob Baffert, with nine Triple Crown race wins, including Triple Crown near-misses with Derby-Preakness winners Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem; and two-time Derby-winning owner Arthur B. Hancock III.
Lowe's article quoted Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud saying the Triple Crown series is a “war of attrition.” Lukas pointed out on TVG that it's really a four- or five-race series because of the pressure put on horses to qualify them for the Derby starting gate by American Graded Stakes earnings.
Not many horses compete in all three races anymore, especially since there is no longer the financial incentive that Chrysler created in the 1980s for the horse with the best finishes in the three. Baffert thinks the bonus helped as an incentive and would like to see it restored. Turner and Hancock think the diuretic, Lasix, used by just about every horse in the series, now extends the recovery time from each race and limits participation. Lukas wants to shorten the distances and widen the gap between races.
In my view, the distances (mile and a quarter for the Derby, mile and three-sixteenths for the Preakness, and mile and a half for the Belmont) are a longstanding tradition that needs to be preserved. But adding time between races does make sense in this era of lightly raced horses who take more time between starts. I suggest, if the television scheduling permits, let's consider a four-week gap from the Derby to the Preakness and another four weeks to the Belmont.
And while we are making those changes, let's install stricter medication rules that prohibit Lasix on race-day, and require longer withdrawal times for some other commonly used drugs, including Bute, Clenbuterol and corticosteroids. Finally, let's keep private veterinarians out of a Triple Crown horse's stall for a specified period of time before the races (would a week be too draconian?).
The Triple Crown is American racing's biggest stage. We should do everything possible to encourage the best horses to compete in it, without the crutch of medication, so that when our next Triple Crown winner is enshrined in the pantheon of great horses, there will be no question that he will have earned that distinction.
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