What Tradition? Triple Crown Schedule Has Always Been a Thing of Change

by | 05.30.2014 | 12:31pm
Gallant Fox

As the world awaits the result of the Belmont Stakes on June 7, Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas is campaigning for a change to the schedule of the Triple Crown races. Although his initial suggestion was made public before California Chrome won the Preakness Stakes, Chuckas continued with his proposal even after a Triple Crown went on the line.

Chuckas' plan to move the Preakness to the first Saturday in June and the Belmont to the first Saturday in July has been met with an overwhelming cry of outrage from racing's traditionalists, but the move would not be the first time the schedule has been altered.

When Sir Barton swept the trio of races in 1919, it was not yet recognized as a series and two of the three races were held on relatively unheralded Wednesday cards (only the Derby was on a Saturday). At that time, two of the three races bore even less resemblance to their modern incarnations, as the Preakness was run at 1 1/8 miles and the Belmont was only 1 3/8 miles.

For many years, the Preakness was held the weekend after the Derby, with four weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. In fact, the greatest number of Triple Crowns with the same schedule (four) were won this way, with the whole series lasting 35 days. It wasn't until Citation's win in 1948 that there were two weeks placed between the Derby and Preakness. He still had four weeks before his Belmont run, though like many Thoroughbreds in his day, he also competed in between the Preakness and Belmont, winning in the Jersey Stakes May 29.

Assault won the Triple Crown in the least number of days, with only four weeks between his Derby win on May 4, 1946 and his Belmont victory on June 1. (That was also the year that the Kentucky Derby accumulated a staggering 17 entries, perhaps dispelling the myth that a large field is a modern trend.)

Then there was Gallant Fox's Triple Crown, which was run in a different order from the modern version. In 1930, the Preakness took place the week before the Kentucky Derby. This was actually the first time the Triple Crown was recognized as a series (Sir Barton's status as racing's first winner was awarded retroactively) although Gallant Fox's name does not bear an asterisk in most history books for having completed them out of order.

Horsemen had their concerns about the rigor of the Triple Crown and its run-up in the olden days, too. Johnny Longden, who won the series aboard Count Fleet in 1943, conditioned 1969 Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince. Longden recalled the fact that Count Fleet never ran again after his Belmont win, and Majestic Prince's connections initially told the press they would skip the Belmont, citing a tough schedule in the early part of the year. Majestic Prince made four starts from January 7 until his Derby victory, all of them wins in stakes races.

“No, he's relaxed this morning, ate everything up, seems all right,” Longden told The Blood-Horse's Kent Hollingsworth in the magazine's May 24 issue. “We'd probably lose some money by skipping the Belmont, but the money is secondary when you're considering the horse. I checked back on it and I found that horses with tough races in the Derby never were worth a damn after the Belmont.”

In the end, Majestic Prince's owner Frank McMahon elected to run the horse in the Belmont anyway (according to several reports, over loud objections from Longden). The hose finished second and never ran again.

There are only three Triple Crown winners who completed the schedule at the modern spacing, which was put in place in 1969: Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed.

The current Triple Crown drought totaling 36 years is rivaled in its agonizing length only by the 25-year gap from Citation to Secretariat. In the midst of that drought, Frank Kilroe penned an editorial about the challenge of the Triple Crown as Majestic Prince waited for his ultimately unsuccessful Belmont bid. Kilroe wrote that although the historic placement of the Preakness the week after the Derby “seemed a lop-sided arrangement,” it's likely that the four-week break between the Preakness and Belmont were helpful to previous winners.

“Three of the last four to win the Triple Crown benefited by that four weeks to recover from the first two episodes and train up to what becomes each year a more unusual distance in American racing,” wrote Kilroe. “Each of the three used an intermediate race at a lesser distance as part of that training program midway of the four weeks, but the interval did permit a more leisurely progression.

“We cannot expect the Pimlico management to move its major opus back into the fallout from Churchill Downs, but it would be interesting to see what a week's delay with the Belmont would do for it and the nation's 3-year-olds.”

Forty-five years later, the question lingers as track management has told the press that they are open to working together on a scheduling change. As California Chrome prepares to enter the Belmont starting gates June 7, he will carry not just the weight of a nation's Triple Crown hopes but the weight of this issue. The horse's finishing position in the Belmont, as well as the manner in which he comes out of the race, might either temper the voices advocating change or fan the flames of debate.

Triple Crown tablea

An early version of this article incorrectly said the 1919 Kentucky Derby was run on a Wednesday.


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