Baseball had a problem. Because games were taking way too long, because stolen bases were near an all-time low, because defensive shifts were cutting down on offense, the product that is baseball wasn’t as good as it could be. Too many boring, interminable, bad games could only mean one thing, that fans were and would continue to lose interest in the national pastime.
Sound familiar? Horse racing has a Triple Crown where the product has been weakened because trainers, who simply refuse to run their horses back on short rest, are reluctant to run racing’s stars in all three races, and in particularly in the GI Preakness. The Triple Crown is the sport’s most important asset and the one product that the general sports fan will pay attention to. The sport can’t afford to allow anything that limits its appeal or diminishes its excellence. When you now get a Preakness every year where you have to hold your breath that the Derby winner will actually run and the rest of the field is made up of a horse or two that straggled across the finish line at Churchill Downs plus a few new uninspiring faces you have a problem and a series that needs improvement.
With bold new rules that arrived this season, baseball has been fixed and most agree that the game has never been better or more exciting. Now, it’s time for the Triple Crown to do the same. It, too, needs to be fixed and the obvious solution is to extend the time between races.
I cannot believe that I just wrote that. For decades, I have defended the Triple Crown, the spacing of the races and implored the industry to not change a thing. But now I realize, thanks in part to my interest in baseball, that I was putting tradition over practicality. Tradition is fine but not when it means being so stubborn that you don’t change with the times, not when it means that we keep getting Preaknesses like this one.
Baseball could have made the same mistakes and remain tradition-bound. Forcing the pitchers to deliver a pitch within 15 seconds (or 20 if there is a man on base) is a radical change. So are the new anti-shift rules, which meant players could no longer be positioned wherever a team’s analytics department dictated. Because the bases are bigger and a pitcher is limited so far as how many times he can throw over to a base, teams are starting to steal again. The biggest change is that games are now, on average, about 30 minutes shorter than they were in 2022. Everyone loves the new rules and the new game.
The NBA game changed dramatically in 1979 when the three-point shot was added. No one is complaining. That sport has never been more popular.
It’s great that GI Kentucky Derby winner Mage (Good Magic) isn’t pulling a Rich Strike (Keen Ice) and will run. But where is runner-up Two Phil’s (Hard Spun)? His trainer, Larry Rivelli, was quoted this week saying that even if he had won the Derby he’s not sure that he would have run back. Where is third-place finisher Angel of Empire (Classic Empire)? Both Two Phil’s and Angel of Empire turned in terrific efforts in the Derby and would be 4-1 or less in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, which goes for $1.65 million. That’s a position any owner should love. Yet, they won’t be taking part. Where is GI Blue Grass winner Tapit Trice (Tapit)? Oh, that’s right, Todd Pletcher never runs in the Preakness. All we’re getting from the Derby is Mage amd fourth-place finisher Disarm (Gun Runner). The best of the new faces is First Mission (Street Sense). He has a chance to turn out to be a good horse, but let’s not forget that his biggest win came in a minor Derby prep, the GIII Lexington S.
Part of my stubbornness was that I hate it that trainers insist on having so much time between races and on running so infrequently. It’s bad for the sport and limits the amount of money an owner can make. To me, it makes no sense. Horses used to run 25 times a year and three weeks between races was considered a layoff. It’s scientifically impossible that the breed has changed so much that five races a year or a only month between races is something that taxes them.
I also used to think that extending the time between the races would mean the task of sweeping the series would be easier and that future Triple Crown winners wouldn’t match up to the ones that came before them. In hindsight, the Triple Crown has never been easier to win because the Preakness can turn into an uncontested layup for the Derby winner.
Sure, I’d rather see a change of mind-set where trainers target the entire series as it is, but with the current scheduling of the Triple Crown that’s not going to happen. There’s often talk that the Preakness should be run a week later, three weeks after the Derby. Then there would be another three weeks to the GI Belmont S. That wouldn’t work. To the modern trainer, that’s still not enough time between races.
To keep as many of the best 3-year-olds in the series from start to finish, you’d probably need six weeks between races. But that would be overdoing it. The best solution is to have each race run on the first Saturday of the month. This year the Derby would have been on May 6, the Preakness on June 3 and the Belmont on July 1. I’m sure there are some factors that I haven’t taken into account, like how would the networks react? The new set up would also likely weaken races like the GI Haskell S. and the GI Travers S.
But there’s no doubt that a Triple Crown where there are four weeks between each races would be a better Triple Crown than one where three races are crammed into five weeks. It’s all about the product we are selling to the fans.
If you’re going to be in Baltimore for Preakness week you might want to check out the red-hot Orioles. They play the Angels and Shohei Ohtani on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Go catch a game. You’ll enjoy it. The sport’s never been better.