How to save horse racing.

How to save horse racing.

How to save horse racing.

The stadium scene.
Aug. 27 2004 4:00 PM

Stakes Is High

How breaking up the Triple Crown will save horse racing.

Not enough is at stake in the Preakness
Not enough is at stake in the Preakness

For 75 years, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes have been horse racing's holy trinity. The Triple Crown might be a grand exalted tradition, but it's not helping the sport of kings. Busting up the sport's precious jewels is the easiest and most logical solution to the problems that beset modern horse racing. So listen up, horse folk: Dump the Preakness and call the Travers Stakes up to the big leagues.

If Smarty Jones were running in the Travers this weekend, the Olympics wouldn't be on the front page. Instead, Smarty is out to pasture, and so is horse racing for all but the die-hards. As usual, this year's Travers features many of the country's top 3-year-olds racing at a beautiful venue in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. But since it's not part of the Triple Crown, the average sports fan doesn't give a damn.

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Subbing in the Travers would, most important, space out the Triple Crown's suicidal schedule. Asking top young horses to run three major races in five weeks is simply out of sync with the way they are now trained and handled. The days of tireless beasts like 1941 Triple Crown champ Whirlaway—he won the Derby on May 3, the Preakness a week later, ran again on May 20, then took the Belmont in early June—are long gone. Old-school types may argue that today's horses are wimpy and fragile, but top-flight thoroughbreds just aren't going to run as much when breeding fees far eclipse earnings on the track. Smarty's owners made nearly $40 million from the sale of his, um, services; no one is going to pass up that kind of money for the glory of the winner's circle.

Since an owner's main incentive is to keep his horses healthy, very few 3-year-olds race in all the Triple Crown events. The Derby's starting gate is always packed with the year's best, but as the summer wears on, the tracks get emptier. Good horses that lose in Kentucky are often held out of the Preakness, which is run two weeks later, so they can train properly for the Belmont. Not only does that ensure a relatively weak Preakness field, but it puts a horse that wins the Derby and Preakness at a competitive disadvantage.

The past two years, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones have both seen their quests for history dashed by well-rested thoroughbreds that skipped the Preakness. But while the near misses by Funny and Smarty have many people bemoaning the lack of a Triple Crown winner in the past 26 years, that drought is neither unusual nor undesirable. After Citation managed the feat in 1948, it was 25 years before Secretariat followed suit. The Triple Crown shouldn't be changed to cheapen the accomplishment by making it more easily attainable. Altering racing tradition is the right thing to do simply because it would make the races better. Dropping the Preakness from the schedule would give every horse more than enough time, a full five weeks, to prepare for the Belmont. Instead of a war of attrition, the Belmont would be an annual showdown of 3-year-olds in peak form.

Delaying the final leg of the Triple Crown until the Travers in late August, after a thrilling Belmont, would keep the sport on casual fans' radar for an extra three months. The Triple Crown is the only time when most sports fans follow horse racing, and the sport desperately needs to expand that window of opportunity. Currently, it's a mere 35-day porthole, from the first Saturday in May to the first or second Saturday in June. By late August, with the NFL still warming up, baseball being pre-September, and the NBA slumbering, the Triple Crown would have the sports spotlight all to itself.

Of course, demoting the Preakness won't sit well at Pimlico, the race's home track. But if one of the Triple Crown's hosts has to go, there's really no other choice. Pimlico is an old, crumbling facility, and with the state of Maryland refusing to allow slot machines at tracks, attendance and revenue aren't going to increase in the future. Racing guru Andrew Beyer, for one, has already suggested that Magna Entertainment Corp. close down Pimlico and move the Preakness to another one of its many tracks. Why not just put the Triple Crown's weakest link out of its misery altogether?

There shouldn't be any worries about losing the Preakness' storied tradition. The Travers is hardly lacking in that department—it's the oldest annual stakes race for 3-year-olds in America, dating to 1864, and is run at Saratoga, arguably the most idyllic, revered track in the world. The race is even nicknamed the Midsummer Derby—how much more clout do you need?

Besides, the Triple Crown's parameters weren't handed down from Mount Sinai. It's just a marketing phrase adopted by a clever writer (Charles Hatton, who imported the term from Britain in the 1930s) that's been codified by the passing of time and the largesse of sponsors. Visa, which has promised to pay out $5 million if a horse wins all three races, could make a big splash by doubling the bonus on the condition that the third race is the Travers. Nick Zito, one of the top trainers in the world, recently said that he considers the Travers the "fourth leg of the Triple Crown." A Triple Crown with four legs will not stand. To save this patient, we're going to have to amputate.

John Williams is an editor and writer living in Brooklyn.