1/ST Racing and Gaming, owner of the Maryland Jockey Club, says it’s time to reexamine the schedule of horse racing’s Triple Crown, and the company’s CEO has reportedly suggested pushing back the date of the Preakness Stakes to ensure the safety of the horses.
In remarks to Thoroughbred Daily News published Wednesday night, Aidan Butler said the company has discussed moving the Preakness from two weeks after the Kentucky Derby to four weeks.
“We have discussed it internally and believe it’s in the best interests of horses and horse safety to move the race four weeks after the Kentucky Derby,” Butler told the website. “This would give horses more time to recover between races to be able to run in the Preakness. Horse safety is more important than tradition. NYRA is aware and considering how this would impact the Belmont. Stay tuned.”
The New York Racing Association, which hosts the Belmont Stakes five weeks after the Derby, has come out against the change.
“NYRA has concerns about fundamental changes to the structure of the Triple Crown,” spokesman Patrick McKenna said. “We have no plans to move the date of the Belmont Stakes.”
Butler released a statement to the media Thursday noting the conversation around spacing out the races is “nothing new” and the schedule for the three legs of the Triple Crown “has varied multiple times in the past.” Adding time between the Derby and Preakness “would give horses a greater opportunity to prepare and be ready between the Derby and the second leg of the Triple Crown,” he said.
“We recognize that modifying the schedule for the Preakness Stakes could have implications, and we look forward to engaging with all stakeholders to work through questions and concerns,” he said. “The future of the Triple Crown is best decided collectively, but we are committed to seeing this conversation through to a positive result.”
Although each of the races in the series dates to the 1800s, the concept of the Triple Crown was not popularized until the early 20th century, when Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton used it to describe Gallant Fox’s feat of winning all three races in 1930. The New York Times has noted the term appeared in its pages seven years prior.
Before the idea caught on, the schedule of the races was not always consistent, including two occasions, 1917 and 1922, when the Derby and Preakness were contested on the same day, and one, in 1890, when the Preakness and Belmont were on the same card at a long-gone New York City track.
The year Gallant Fox — who was stabled at William Woodward Sr.’s Belair Stud in Bowie, Maryland — swept the series for 3-year-olds, the Preakness ran first, followed by the Derby and Belmont.
From 1931 to 2019, the Derby, Preakness and Belmont have gone in the traditional order, though the spacing sometimes varied until the modern five-week configuration was established in 1969. The COVID-19 pandemic shuffled the schedule in 2020, but the races returned to their usual spots on the calendar the following year.
Although the dates have more or less been set in stone for over five decades, opinions about the lineup have been anything but. Calls for a longer break between the Derby and the Preakness go back decades, with trainers saying two weeks is too short a turnaround for modern thoroughbreds, who are bred for speed over durability.
It’s not even the first time such as change has been put forth by the Maryland Jockey Club. Former president Tom Chuckas laid out a plan in 2014 for the Derby to stay on the first Saturday of May, with the Preakness and Belmont shifting to the first weekends of June and July, respectively.
“The philosophy of the trainers has drastically changed over the years,” Chuckas told The Racing Biz at the time. “It is hard for them to bring a horse back from the Derby in two weeks and run a horse three times in a five-week period. Most of them will not do it. But this idea is not just for the Triple Crown races. We have an obligation to the public to put our best racing on the table when the world is watching and we are not doing that.”
Even after American Pharoah put an end to a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015, and was followed three years later by Justify, trainers of Derby runners have skipped the middle jewel of the Triple Crown in greater numbers.
Country House, who won the 2019 Derby by disqualification, did not make the trip to Pimlico Race Course due to a virus, nor did the horse who crossed the line first, Maximum Security. In 2022, the owners of the surprising 80-1 Derby winner Rich Strike opted to rest their horse rather than ship him to Baltimore.
On top of that, the Good Magic colt’s Triple Crown bid came under the cloud of a series of horse deaths at Churchill Downs leading up to the Derby, which added additional scrutiny for the sport and how it protects its equine athletes.
“I think we’re kind of at the point where we have to make a lot of tough decisions in the industry,” trainer Todd Pletcher, who has frequently bypassed the Preakness, told the publication BloodHorse. “People hate to change tradition, and I totally understand that. At the same time, a lot of things have changed in the industry. We probably have to take a hard look at it and stretch it out a little bit.”
Not everyone is in agreement.
H. Graham Motion, the Maryland-based trainer who guided Animal Kingdom to the winner’s circle in the 2011 Derby, posted to X (formerly Twitter) that the series should remain unchanged.
“We have a lot of issues in horse racing,” he wrote, “the Triple Crown is not one of them.”