Kallas Remarks By Steve Kallas
Once upon a time, three-year-old thoroughbred horses would race frequently and, while it was a difficult thing to race three times in five weeks (Kentucky Derby first Saturday in May, the Preakness two weeks later, the Belmont three weeks after that), it wasn’t absurd, stupid or dangerous. Many horses would routinely “dance every dance,” taking their shot at horse-racing immortality. In the 1970s, Triple Crown winners were frequent (1973 — Secretariat, 1977– Seattle Slew, 1978 – Affirmed).
But that was then; this is now. With no Triple Crown winner in 30 years, and even with a realistic chance that Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown can do it this year, it’s .simply stupid to expect them to go to the post three times in five weeks to race at distances they have never raced at before and, in the case of the mile-and-a-half Belmont, will never race at again.
Don’t take my word for it. The Preakness, in the last decade or so, has simply become a prep for the Kentucky Derby winner to take his shot at the Triple Crown. In the “old” days, six or eight or ten Derby starters would come back to take their shot at the Derby winner in the Preakness two weeks later. Not anymore. In this year’s race, other than Big Brown, there is only one horse (out of 19) coming back from the Derby to try his luck in the Preakness, and that’s speed horse Gayego, who finished 17th in the Derby, some 36 lengths back (some would say he didn’t even race in the Derby off that performance). Frankly, that’s the trainers and owners of Derby losers telling us that it’s preposterous to race three times in five weeks in the 21st Century.
DON’T HURT THE TOP THREE-YEAR-OLDS
Today, you are pretty much doing a disservice to your good, young three-year-old if you send him (there probably won’t be any hers for a long time after Eight Belles broke both her ankles right after the Derby and had to be put down on the track) out to race three times in five weeks. The Derby winner pretty much has to do it, because a Triple Crown winner today is probably worth an additional $40 million or so if he can get the job done.
Do horses get hurt racing three times in five weeks when, generally speaking, good horses today rarely race more than once every four to six weeks? Well, that’s pretty much an unanswerable question in a sport where a horse can break a sesamoid bone, for example, by simply taking a bad step out of his stall.
But in 2006, Barbaro had raced five weeks before the Derby (he paid $14 as an undefeated Derby winner because no horse in over 50 years had raced his last race more than four weeks before the Derby and won the Derby). But then, in the Preakness, a pass race from a gambling perspective (as is this year’s Preakness because Big Brown will be a no-value, heavy favorite), Barbaro broke down and, after months of trying to save him, had to be put down. Interestingly, Barbaro had only raced twice in 13 weeks prior to the 2006 Derby. While nobody can ever say with certainty that Barbaro broke down in the Preakness because he came back to race 14 days after the Derby (rather than having five or eight weeks off between races as he had previously done in early 2006), the truth is nobody will ever know for sure.
Which brings us back to 2008. Big Brown, beating another long-believed Derby no-no of having only three lifetime starts before winning the Derby (that hadn’t happened in something like 80 years), will come back just two weeks later to try and win the second leg of the Triple Crown. He should do it (there’s not much competition), but the good horses now lay in wait for the Belmont, three weeks after the Preakness.
SO, WHAT SHOULD THE NEW SCHEDULE BE?
Here’s a simple but realistic schedule for the Triple Crown in the 21st Century: Kentucky Derby, first Saturday in May, Preakness, first Saturday in June, Belmont, first Saturday in July. Throw in the Travers at Saratoga (late in August) and you have a perfect four-race program for any real good three-year-old in the world.
HERE’S A GOOD BASEBALL ANALOGY
Of course, if you follow horse racing, you can hear the traditionalists screaming: “this is how it’s been done for over 100 years, horses should dance every dance, it takes a special horse to win the Triple Crown” and on and on and on.
But let’s take a look at pitchers in baseball. Up until the late 1960s and into the 1970s, pitchers took the ball with three days of rest and started about 40 games a year. That changed in the ‘70s and ‘80s to pitchers taking the ball with four days of rest and, today, starting about 34 games a year. Not only that, but you baseball fans know that starting pitchers rarely come out for the eighth or ninth innings – the complete game, with rare exceptions, is on the verge of becoming extinct. Few people know what a complete game looks like.
Like the horse-racing traditionalists, the baseball traditionalists bemoan the fact that pitchers “aren’t tough anymore,’ that they don’t “suck it up anymore’ and go out for the eighth or ninth inning. Of course, if you know baseball, you know that we are much closer to the five-inning starter than we are to a return of the nine-inning starter.
So the analogy is this: To have horses race three times in five weeks in the 21st Century would be like making major league pitchers pitch every fourth day in the 21st Century, a stupid and dangerous (to pitchers’ arms) thing to put into play. So, too, to make these horses run distances they have never run before and, in the case of the Belmont, a distance they will never run again, would be like making today’s pitchers (whatever one may think of their “toughness”) pitch complete games no matter how tired they might be in the eighth or ninth inning. Hopefully, you get the point.
While tradition in horse racing (and many other things) should be respected and honored, there has to be a common sense approach to how it really is today. That common sense approach, in thoroughbred racing, would be to space the Triple Crown races at least a month apart. That way, more horses could “dance every dance” and, at least arguably, less horses will be put at risk of serious or fatal injury.