As racing turns its eyes from Churchill Downs to Pimlico Race Course, the annual speculation begins anew—will the winner of the roses pick up the Black-Eyed Susans and carry on fresh hopes of a horse breaking the Triple Crown curse?
We go through this brief period of hope almost every year, because it's virtually inconceivable that the Derby winner would skip the Preakness except in the face of a pop-up illness or injury. It has happened before, though, and the choice not to seek immortality doesn't always mean a horse's name stays out of the history books.
The last Derby winner to skip the Preakness was Grindstone in 1996. His connections planned to take him to the Triple Crown's second jewel until a bone chip was discovered in the horse's right knee a few days after his win under the Twin Spires.
Spend a Buck opted out of the race in 1985 when owner Dennis Diaz announced he would run the colt in the Jersey Derby at now-defunct Garden State Park because of the $2 million the track put up as an incentive to attract a Derby winner. The incentive required a horse to win the Cherry Hill Mile and the Garden State Stakes in addition to the Kentucky and Jersey Derbies.
Diaz, who paid $12,500 for Spend a Buck as a yearling, told Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Christine that the decision was two-fold.
“We're doing what's best for the colt,” he said 90 minutes after the announcement, which prompted Christine to rename the series the 'Triple Frown.' “The Jersey Derby gives him nine extra days between races. After he had knee surgery last November, he ran under a compressed schedule in order to be ready for the Kentucky Derby, and the Derby was his fourth race in six weeks. These are fragile animals, and extra time off should do him good.”
Diaz also admitted it was a numbers game—a Preakness win would only be worth about $300,000, while the Jersey Derby's purse was $600,000 to the winner plus the $2 million bonus.
The gamble paid off financially —Spend a Buck won the Jersey Derby by a neck over Crème Fraiche, collecting the largest purse in racing's history at the time.
The decision marked the second time in the 1980's that a horse passed up a chance at competing for a Triple Crown.
Before Spend a Buck, Gato Del Sol trainer Eddie Gregson made the choice to skip the 1982 Preakness in favor of the Belmont immediately after being handed the roses at Churchill.
“That's not for this horse,” said Gregson, who insisted he was not ducking Linkage, who defeated Gato Del Sol in the Blue Grass and would be looking for a rematch in the Preakness.
Gregson cited concerns about the demands of the race, asking a horse to run back after carrying 126 pounds over 1 ¼ mile.
“If Pimlico wants to move its race a week later, it's all right with me,” he told The Victoria Advocate.
Before that, you have to go back to Tomy Lee (1959) to find a Derby winner that skipped the Preakness. The horse's trainer, Frank Childs, had said on the Monday after the Derby victory that Tomy Lee would go to Pimlico but changed his mind by Tuesday afternoon, when Childs said the horse was “kinda off his feed” although fine. There were conflicting reports at the time as to Tomy Lee's next race, except that he would shoot for the Hollywood Derby June 27.
The colt, originally purchased as a companion for owner Fred Turner's prize sales acquisition Tulyar, ran sixth under Don Pierce in the Cinema Handicap, which was to be a prep race for the Hollywood Derby. Turner, who was furious that regular rider Bill Shoemaker was committed to another mount and appalled by what he judged as mishandling of the colt on Pierce's part, threatened to take Tomy Lee out of training on the spot. The colt did run again but failed to hit the board.
Four years earlier, Swaps missed the Preakness and a rematch with Nashua when a split hoof wall flared up after the Kentucky Derby. The injury, which first incurred in January, settled in time for him to run in (and win) the Will Rogers Stakes three weeks later on May 30, followed by a win in the Californian June 11.
Before that, the connections of 1954 Kentucky Derby winner Determine decided that winning the roses was enough good fortune for them.
“We didn't want to push our luck too far,” said trainer William Molter in the Blood-Horse after the race. “I feel that we got the big one, the one we wanted most.”
Molter's lack of confidence may have stemmed from Determine's unimpressive size. At just 15 hands high and 875 pounds, he was even disappointing to the man who purchased him. Andrew Crevolin (known as “Lucky Andy” on the track and “Thrifty Andy” at the sales) went to $12,000 for the Alibhai colt as a yearling and allegedly walked away asking associates, “Why did you let me buy that thing? I must have been standing in a hole when I bid on that one.”
The Triple Crown had something of a bumpy year in 1951, when the top seven betting choices finished out of the Kentucky Derby money, and the top four Derby finishers were ineligible for the Preakness. Pimlico management saw an opportunity and proposed the Jubilee Stakes, which would pit the top four Preakness finishers against the top four Derby finishers. The race never materialized, however, as Derby winner Count Turf came up with a fever and the other three Derby finishers defected. Count Turf recovered in time to finish 20 lengths behind Counterpoint in the Belmont.
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