Schedule Change Can Make Triple Crown Even Tougher

by | 05.27.2014 | 12:37pm
The original Triple Crown trophy

Jeff Lowe is a former staff writer for Thoroughbred Times who currently handles media for Team Valor International

If California Chrome succeeds in ending the 36-year Triple Crown drought with a victory in the Belmont Stakes, he might be viewed as silencing the notion that the series could be improved with more time in between the three classics. Tom Chuckas of the Maryland Jockey Club was smart to raise the topic when his voice was heard by the most people in the days leading up to the Preakness and before the focus shifted to the possibility that California Chrome can prevail where 12 other horses have famously failed since 1978, at Belmont with the Triple Crown on the line.

Yet the idea that the American classics would be better races with a month in between the Derby and Preakness and another month in between the Preakness and Belmont does not just hinge on when and if another name is finally added to the list of 11 Triple Crown winners. The depth of the competition in the second and third legs is just as important.

When I wrote a story on this subject in 2011 for Thoroughbred Times, I asked a lot of people in the industry whether adding time in between the Triple Crown races would diminish the series. Trainer Steve Asmussen's answer really stood out: “If you make it easier, you make it less.”

I agree wholeheartedly. But I am not so sure that the task would be easier for a horse in California Chrome's position if the Triple Crown was spread out over eight weeks instead of five. Actually, I suspect it would be just the opposite: a longer series would lead to more horses from the Kentucky Derby participating in both the Preakness and Belmont, making the final two jewels just as elusive, if not more. Why? The opposing horses would be better.

Retention of horses from the Kentucky Derby is the key ingredient for a stronger series. A review of the last 35 Triple Crowns confirms, as one would expect, that horses that ran in the Derby are more successful in the Preakness and Belmont than the “new shooters.”

Simply put, the best 3-year-olds usually turn up for the first classic, but not enough of them continue on through the entire series. Since the last sweep in 1978, horses from the Derby have made up 51% of Preakness fields but accounted for 71% of the top three finishes and 83% of the winners — and that includes recent years when the Preakness often was the only time those horses ever raced back in two weeks.

This year, just three Derby runners came back in the Preakness, and they finished first, second and fourth. Similarly, horses who ran in the Derby have also been key factors in the final leg — they only represent 47% of Belmont runners in the last 35 editions, but they have delivered 66% of the placings and 57% of the wins.

Lately, Derby runners have been even more “live” in the Belmont, accounting for 11 winners since 1998 (69 percent). The problem is that seven of them did it after skipping the Preakness. Since 2000 when Commendable became the first horse in history to run in the Derby and then win the Belmont with no race in between, that route has been well traveled, most notably producing Triple Crown spoilers Empire Maker and Birdstone. During that same period, only Point Given and Afleet Alex have won the Belmont after participating in both the Derby and Preakness. Twice since 2000, no horses raced in all three legs, and three times only one horse has gone through the entire series, while the biggest group to compete in all three legs was four runners in 2001.

The tradition of the current Triple Crown schedule can only mean so much, considering it dates back to 1969, not 1869, and encompasses just three of the 11 Triple Crown winners. Since 1969, major league baseball has added a designated hitter and three playoff rounds, the NFL has instituted wild cards and umpteen overtime formats, and the NBA not only absorbed the rival ABA, but also adopted its three-point line.

Who is to say horse racing should be uniquely bound to “tradition”?

Triple Crown Winners and Their Schedule

Only the three most recent Triple Crown winners completed the sweep under the series' current schedule of three races in five weeks:

Preakness two weeks after Kentucky Derby, Belmont three weeks after Preakness:
Affirmed, 1978; Seattle Slew, 1977; Secretariat, 1973.

Preakness two weeks after Kentucky Derby, Belmont four weeks after Preakness:
Citation, 1948.

Preakness one week after Kentucky Derby, Belmont three weeks after Preakness:
Assault, 1946; War Admiral, 1937.

Preakness one week after Kentucky Derby, Belmont four weeks after Preakness:
Count Fleet, 1943; Whirlaway, 1941; Omaha, 1935.

Preakness on a Friday, eight days before Kentucky Derby, Belmont three weeks after Derby:
Gallant Fox, 1930.

Preakness on a Wednesday, four days after Kentucky Derby, Belmont four weeks after Preakness:
Sir Barton, 1919.

  • Karen Gogue

    mmmm, NO! Sorry …

  • Tinky

    How many times must I say this? The schedule isn’t the problem – it’s the degradation of the breed, both in terms of soundness and stamina. This would be a complete non-issue if sounder horses suited to the distances were racing today.

    Another way to put it is that if the goal is to create more Triple Crown winners, it would be more effective to shorten all three races than to adjust the schedule. Come to think of it, given how NYRA has truncated some of its most iconic stakes in recent years, a 10f. Belmont would, sadly, fit right in.

    • Bellwether

      They need to leave it like it is and they aren’t about to change it…U have hit the ole nail on the head about the breeding…ty…

    • dominic

      You may be right and I believe you are. However, what hard evidence can you cite for your theory?

      • Tinky

        The hard evidence in terms of soundness can be encapsulated this way:

        number of average starts per runner per year in 1970: 10.22

        number of average starts per runner per year in 2013: 6.32

        number of average career starts/starter in 1970: roughly 30

        number of average career starts/starter in 2013: roughly 16

        The degradation of stamina is quite obvious, and can be illustrated in many ways.

        • LauraS

          Add to that that the average distance of a race in the US in 1970 was 1m 70 yds and it’s now 6-1/2f and dropping…

          • Tinky

            Good point. Thanks.

        • Figless

          This reflects a change in training patterns, not soundness. Trainers used to race their horses into shape, now they breeze them multiple times between starts.
          Same thing in most other sports, training patters have resulted in less time on the actual playing field. Football players used to play both offense and defense, baseball pitchers used to pitch complete games and basketball players used to play 48 minutes.
          Comparing 1970 with 2013 is apples and oranges, in sporting or real life. Things change, move on, get over it, stop harping on the negative you might enjoy an occasional smile.

          • Tinky

            Nonsense. There is ZERO evidence to support your theory. Allen Jerkens, to use just one example, didn’t just suddenly stop training the way that he had in the ’50s and ’60s – he was forced to adapt to a more fragile racehorse as the trend shifted from breeding to race, to breeding to sell.

            Furthermore, it is ludicrous to imagine that horses today would prove more durable if only much greater pressure were put on them in training.

  • Cgriff

    Excellent facts, Mr. Lowe – so if the 1969 and forward version doesn’t suit you – let’s take it back to the only other grouping with at least 3 champions – the 1935/1941/1943 version. That will no doubt please Mr. Chukus at Pimlico – even less time between the Derby and Preakness.

    I speak fluent sarcasm, BTW.

    Bottom line – the fact that the TC schedule has constantly varied within the last century and a half is actually the only “constant.” So to follow your logic – we should mix it up every year. Sometimes a five week schedule, sometimes six, sometimes four….and sometimes let’s throw the Preakness in 4 days prior to Derby day.

    So silly to be debating this – let the horse that earns it win it and silence those who would love to dumb down the series.

    • Change to “Influent sarcasm.”
      The “sarc” runs out of steam before the end of the retort.

      • Cgriff

        Don Reed – LOL – that made me smile. Well said.

        • I am delighted that you took that in the innocuous spirit in which it was intended.

    • south florida tom

      Obviously the essential part of the article did not penetrate your brain.

  • “Even” tougher?
    We are inundated with useless, pointless comparisons.

  • Rachel

    Well, at least a month in between would give them enough time to recover from the effects of lasix, from what I understand it takes 4-6 weeks for most horses?
    PS I do NOT want the time frame changed, but then, I have seen 3 Triple Crown winners in my life so maybe I’m just being old-fashioned and greedy…;-0

  • Richard C

    The question is easy — does the Triple Crown quickly evolve into a sensible series or does it remain bogged down in a stupid debate on “tradition”.

    • Ruffian31

      Well it could turn into what the 3yof did, nothing. The TC for fillies is no more and no just a dumb series no one cares about anymore. That’s where the 3yos TC will head as well if it’s changed.

  • Ray

    Lame lame lame… The one thing that works in racing is the triple crown public has very short attn span. All this will do is make the Derby a bigger even and the last two legs more meaningless. There is way to much that needs to be worked on in racing to be messing with this. I don’t want these people using the triple crown as a way to advance themselves. If change is made i will simply play the derby as normal and basically ignore the other two races and I think more than a few will do the same. Time to move on from this STUPID idea.

    • betterthannothing

      Absolutely right! Racing has problem areas which need serious reforms but the near misses like Real Quiet’s prove that the TC should be left alone.

    • Ruffian31

      I plan to do that too. I won’t care one lick for the other two jewels at all.

      • I wouldn’t touch this inadvertently phrased comment with a ten-foot you-know-what.

        • Ruffian31

          And what are we referring to? I was commenting on betting on the Derby and forgetting the other two legs since they won’t be as important anymore as addressed by Ray.

          • Tinky

            Apparently Don is NOT a gelding.

          • I wouldn’t touch this maliciously phrased…

          • It is not what you were referring to. It’s the way “it came out.”
            Aw nuts. Now we’re involved in the NFL Draft.

  • jttf

    very simple problem to correct. lasix users require more recovery time. so give them 4 or 5 weeks in between races. this will cut down on the carer ending injuries to our star horses.
    if you want to keep tradition. discourage the use of lasix for horses who dont bleed. add weight to the saddles of lasix users to even the playing field created by performance enhancers. this will enourage breeders to breed non bleeders once again.
    lasix users havent won a triple crown, yet.

  • Bellwether

    Frankie loves to stir the POT…He ought to try smoking it for a change…

  • Stuart H.

    Adjusting the schedule would also be problematic from the Preakness standpoint. Push that race back one more week and all of those college aged kids on the infield are doing spring break at Ocean City, MD, VA Beach, or the Delaware beaches. Tell the Preakness to kiss these kids goodbye, because I used to live in Maryland, and the Preakness is something the younger crowd did BEFORE spring break.

    I think the lack of T/C winners is a combination of more (good) horses skipping the Preakness after the Derby, resting, and taking their shot in the Belmont Stakes. This helps with today’s breed that has declined in terms of stamina and overall soundness, and works against most that run in all 3 races due to the two issues above with today’s breed. Want proof of that? The last two T/C candidates could not either finish the race or even get to the starting gate at Belmont Park!

    Having said all of that, when you have a horse like CC that is obviously the best of this generation so far at 2 turns, spacing the races further apart would in no way make it harder for a horse like that to win each race because he is getting the same amount of rest as the others who go to all 3 races. And lastly, we just saw what happened to the Pletcher colt when he was working 4 furlongs the other day in company (Intense Holiday). How is spacing the races going to prevent that from occurring? There has to be a colt that comes along eventually that is sound and seems to thrive in this environment. Perhaps it is CC, perhaps not. But he certainly has the foundation for it. I still think if we space the races we will still have issues with soundness and horses generally staggering home in the Belmont Stakes at 2:30 and change (some 3 seconds behind a horse like Bold Forbes).

  • reinsman

    Do you really think the breed has become more fragile or do you think training practices and race spacing practices of modern day trainers has led to more fragile horses? I think it’s the latter, you don’t become less fragile in a race by racing less frequently, you build up your tolerances by racing more frequently. Since we don’t use “interval” training to build up the tolerance to lactic acid buildup or improved cardiac output, the only way to build this is through racing. Sure a morning breeze can address it a bit, but it’s not the same as a race…. The only way to have a less fragile breed is through running horses more frequently. Once every 2-3 weeks (I’d say 10-14 days but I don’t think the racing world is ready to hear that). Give them 2 months off once a year to refresh, but when you are training and racing them, make it more about racing and less about training…. why do we not do that today like we used to? Because trainers are concerned with getting more day money and don’t want to have an injured horse to lose that income, they think racing less will make that last longer….

    • Hoops and Horses

      I agree it’s the latter. VERY similar to pitchers in baseball having WAY more arm injuries because they are “babied” WAY too much.

    • lawrence

      more seasoning as two year olds….you have to build up that bone density ..that happens by galloping…lots and lots… come harness horses race as many times as they did years ago ? they put unheard of miles before they even race !..bone density I think the training has changed…or at least the strategy

      • reinsman

        I think you make a good point on bone density in 2 year olds, but you don’t build that with lots and lots of gallops, well I should say you do build bone density with lots and lots of gallops, but you build the correct bone density to support the trauma of a race by breezing more frequently as a two year old. When galloping the leg is near a 45 degree angle upon impact, when running it is near a 90 degree angle upon impact, the bone density required for soundness while racing is built by the continuous impact of breezing. I am not saying long works, I am saying shorter more frequent works earlier in their training, with gallops in between. I am not saying to rush them to race either, but that is always a risk when you have a horse who is breezing well and has been doing it for 2-3 months. I have a debate with my dad, who trains a couple of horses of mine, that these 3 mile gallops he had done with one of my horses was only going to do us good if we got in a galloping contest, you still need to work to build the right density/lactic acid tolerances regularly. I know that I’m right because his horses always look like the winner turning for home and hang the last 1/16th (classic lactic acid impact and/or cardiac output concerns)….

        • lawrence

          you may well be correct….but we have never had a 2yo buck shins….so I guess what ever works for you…

  • Jim McGuire

    The Triple Crown is very hard but far from impossible. In the 36 years since the last winner, there have been numerous close calls – Spectacular Bid ( either the cursed safety pin or simply stamina), Silver Charm & Real Quiet run down in the shadow of the wire in successive years. Smarty Jones arguably moves too soon. Point Given, Afleet Alex and Lookin at Lucky quite possibly win the TC with a better Derby trip. Charismatic might have taken it; even injured he finished 3rd. I’ll Have Another was a prohibitive Belmont favorite before he was scratched. Same for A.P. Indy on Derby Day. Big Brown’s post position places him next to Guadalcanal, who steps on his foot shortly after the start … and this is not an exhaustive list. The bottom line is that while the Triple Crown hasn’t been won in 36 years, it probably should have been won a few times and remains clearly winnable – without messing with the schedule. Wouldn’t be at all surprised if the next 36 years saw five winners or more.

    • lawrence

      good post

  • Hoops and Horses

    The ONLY change I would make would be the Preakness and Belmont are one week later than they currently are, which would put the Preakness in most years on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend (except when Memorial Day is May 31). Citation’s win in 1948 allows for that, and three weeks between each of the Triple Crown races would not be the worst thing, especially if such also allowed for a companion series for older horses of perhaps the Stephen Foster (moved to Derby Day and switching spots on the CD Stakes schedule with the Alysheba with the Foster lengthened to 1 1/4 Miles), the Pimlico Special and Brooklyn all run as the races before the respective Triple Crown events in a new incarnation of the Handicap Triple Crown. This is very similar to a Handicap Grand Slam that I previously proposed with the Met Mile and Carter switching spots on the schedule and the Met Mile being the first leg of a Handicap Grand Slam with the other three (Foster at 1 1/8 Miles and on opening night of the CD spring meet) after that.

    One thing I would like to see NYRA for for 2015 is a MASSIVE overhaul of the three year old filly stakes that would include moving the CCA Oaks to Belmont weekend, returned to its former 1 1/2 Mile distance for the same $1.5 Million the boys race for. As I would do it, the CCA Oaks would be the day before the Belmont (or day after) as possibly the last leg of an official Filly Triple Tiara with the Kentucky Oaks lengthened to 1 1/4 Miles and Black Eyed-Susan lengthened to 1 3/16 Miles as part of this.

  • lawrence

    so what if on average since 1969 we have only 3 triple crown winners! I think that’s about right every 15 years or so….greatness does not show up on a regular basis….we as a society are into instant gratification….”I want it now ! card debt….buying houses we cant afford (housing bubble).we need to stop whining and put the big boy pants on…..forget about “making it easier’…watered down…dumbed down is more like it…. like we have done to our education system….SAY NO to this utter nonsense ! tradition rules .

    • Andy in the desert

      Excellent out of the box logic Lawrence, I think you hit a bulls-eye.

      Now where’s my cc so I can buy the latest and greatest thingamajig?!?

      Actually I haven’t had a cc since 2008 but you get the drift.

      And don’t get me started on the public fool system, teachers unions, and the demonic evil “curriculum” that is common core.

      Sorry for the digression. I feel better now. :)

  • Sal Carcia

    Changing the schedule is more about adapting to present day training regimens than making it easier or more difficult. When Sherman was asked about whether Chrome would be ready for the Preakness. He said he was not certain given he doesn’t run horses back in two weeks.

  • The Farm Guy

    Does the fact that CDI has ensured, by design, a 19- 20 horse field (by virtue of an AE list) make the Derby, and by extension the TC, easier or harder to win?

    By changing the criteria from graded stakes earnings to a point system make the Derby, and by extension the TC, easier or harder to win?

    The Triple Crown has changed, at least in terms of its “win-ability”, whether you like it or not. The test should be the distances and the competition, not the spacing. No one I know, when considering future matings for their mares, combs through stallion’s past performances searching for horses that ran three times five weeks. They do, however, try to find stallions that could carry their speed over classic distances against the best competition available.

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