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Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Burning Preakness questions

By Amanda Duckworth
Special to

When Preakness week rolls around, there are two main topics of conversation every year without fail. One, will the Kentucky Derby winner win again at Pimlico? Two, should the time between the races in the Triple Crown be changed to make it easier for the horses?

The answer to the first question will be revealed as soon as they cross the wire on Saturday. The second question is a little more tricky. Who is right and who is wrong isn't nearly as cut-and-dried as the winner of the race.


"I would like to see the extra week put in.   I just think it's hard on the horse. I know it's tradition, but it's grueling.

" -- Art Sherman, California Chrome trainer

Some feel tradition should be respected, while some feel it is time for a change. The most-often suggested change is adding a week between the Derby and the Preakness, making it a six-week race series instead of the five weeks it currently is.

"I would like to see the extra week put in," said Art Sherman, the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome. "I just think it's hard on the horse. I know it's tradition, but it's grueling. There's been some super horses win the Triple Crown, but when you look at the record, there's not too many of them."

Then you have trainers like Wesley Ward, who thinks tradition should be left alone. Ward, who will be entering Pablo Del Monte in the Preakness, could have run the colt in the Kentucky Derby. Instead, the horse's connections opted to wait for the second jewel of the Triple Crown and will be one of the new challengers waiting for California Chrome in Baltimore.

"I don't think they should change it," said Ward. "That's what makes those types of horses so special. If California Chrome is good enough to fend off us, and then is given three weeks to the Belmont, where it's another grueling test of an added distance, I think that's what really sets the Triple Crown winners apart. I'm rooting for him. If anybody's going to beat me, I hope it's him, and if not, I'm hoping I'm the winner."

The funny thing is that both men defend their stance with the same explanation: The Triple Crown is hard. No one questions that and history backs it up. Only 11 horses have been able to claim racing's greatest prize, and there is no guarantee it will ever happen again.

But is something being hard to accomplish reason enough to change it?

From a logistical standpoint, trying to change the Triple Crown could be a nightmare. Each race is held at a different track in a different state, which means they are all regulated by a different racing commission.

Honestly, given how difficult it is to get different racing jurisdictions to play nice with each other, it is a bit of a miracle the Triple Crown exists at all. It is also why all the talk of changing it may never result in anything.

One of the most common reasons given for changing the series is the thought that horses aren't the same as they used to be. That is true in many ways, but would it really serve the breed well to make the race series easier? Or should we instead focus on fixing what has changed for the worse in the breed?

Also, horses today still do race with some frequency, just not the top horses. With the upper echelon of runners, there is this mentality that staying undefeated is more important than being battle-tested. That talent can be shown in one or two races, instead of one or two complete seasons of racing.

California Chrome looks out from his stall at Pimlico Race Course.
California Chrome has spent less time in the barn and more time on the track than most of his rivals.
Most of racing's heroes from the past simply would not be asked to run the campaigns they were asked to run in their day. That doesn't necessarily mean horses today couldn't run those campaigns, it just means they are rarely given the chance.

Now, many connections hope that the promising youngster in their barn is horse racing's version of LeBron James and can skip straight to the big leagues without putting in the time elsewhere. Some horses are good enough to do that. Most aren't.

What it really boils down to is that the Kentucky Derby has become the goal, not the Triple Crown. Horses that are happy and healthy and can run stay in the barn because they have earned enough points to run in the Run for the Roses, so why risk it by racing more before the Derby?

That works for one race, but not for a series of them. With that mentality, many horses don't have the foundation to handle the Triple Crown series. Rather, they have the foundation to maybe run well on the first Saturday in May. In many ways, it is the difference between training for a 10K and training for a marathon.

That said, California Chrome is a bit of a throwback. Coming into the Derby, he had already run 10 times. For a comparison, the two horses that finished immediately behind him, Commanding Curve and Danza, had also run 10 times ... if you combined their records.

On paper, California Chrome should win the Preakness on Saturday, and it will be a lot of fun if he does. However, if he loses, keep an eye on the winner. For all the attention the Derby gets, some scary-good horses have shown their true colors in the Preakness.

In the past 10 years, eight of the eventual champion 3-year-olds have won the Preakness. Only four have won the Derby. This statistic is skewed slightly because it includes the filly Rachel Alexandra, who won the 2009 Preakness, but considering she was also named Horse of the Year, it is fair to say she was the best of her crop, regardless of gender.

When a sport wants something to happen, it is only natural to discuss ways to make that thing happen faster. Until a horse wins the Triple Crown again, the question of whether the series is impossible to win nowadays will continue to be asked.

Hopefully, California Chrome wins it all, proving not only that the Triple Crown is possible, but that it's possible to do with a horse who isn't left in the barn for two months at a time before he breaks from the starting gate again.

If not? Well, it is a safe bet that everyone will gather at the same time, in the same place, to have the same conversation next year.