In a sense, the 154th Belmont Stakes on Saturday doubles as a race among eight horses and an epitome of an entrenched era. It shouts the reality of how racehorses race less frequently than they used to, a fact so familiar and debated across decades that it has begun to enter middle age.
Two factoids hover. As Jay Privman pointed out in the Daily Racing Form, the 2022 Triple Crown has become the first time since 1954 that the Kentucky Derby winner did not enter the Preakness, and the Preakness winner did not enter the Belmont Stakes. And if the pass-the-smelling-salts Derby winner Rich Strike were to win this Belmont Stakes, he would become the first horse since Thunder Gulch in 1995 to win the Derby and Belmont but not the Preakness, and the 12th horse to do so all told, but the first to do so without entering the Preakness.
By now, both 1954 and 1995 stand among the markers in the long-running trend toward the average horse racing less than the average horse used to race.
By now, four years after Justify won the Triple Crown and retired to stud after racing only six times in his life – and going 6-0 – it can feel jarring just to read the schedule of Determine, who in 1954 became the first gray horse to win a Kentucky Derby. A deft, smallish colt bought for $12,000 by California auto megadealer Andrew Crevolin, and schooled by eventual Hall of Fame trainer William Molter, Determine awakened on May 1, 1954, for his ninth race of the calendar year alone.
He had run even on April 27.
He had raced on Jan. 9, Jan. 20, Feb. 6, Feb. 20, March 20, April 3, April 17 and April 27, the first seven in California on Santa Anita and Bay Meadows, the last at Churchill Downs in the Derby Trial four days before the Derby. He had won six times and placed twice (including in the Derby Trial). After Determine avenged that Derby Trial result by besting Hasty Road in the Derby itself, Molter stunned horse-minded humans by saying he and Determine would head on back to California rather than go to Baltimore, partly because he had missed the deadline for entering the Belmont Stakes.
“After all,” the Associated Press quoted Molter as saying at the time, “he won the big one, and that is what we wanted. Since he can’t win the Triple Crown (because of the Belmont mix-up), I would just as soon ship him back home.”
While Hasty Road won the Preakness but declined to enter the Belmont, whose mile-and-a-half length can make it seem as if they’re moving back the finish line while horses are in progress, Molter determined he’d give Determine a rest.
So he did.
Determine got a whole month and four days.
He entered the Debonair Stakes on June 5, the California Stakes on June 12 (while the Belmont ran in New York) and the Westerner Stakes on July 3, all at Hollywood Park, as at times he competed almost as often as an American football team.
Across time, that kind of schedule would become antiquated and then shocking. Zoom ahead 68 years, and nobody flinched when Rich Strike owner Richard Dawson cut through his exhilarated disbelief right after the Kentucky Derby to say the Preakness two weeks thence might be a no-go. Rich Strike had raced seven times as of Derby morning, which nowadays placed him near the high end of the field in that category, and only once had he raced with fewer than five weeks of rest.
“I don’t think we’ve ever raced in a shorter time period than five weeks’ rest and some of them have been six and seven,” Dawson said. “As an owner, I was a little anxious and I was thinking, ‘Well, if we got a great horse, maybe we ought to run in this race or that race.’ And (trainer) Eric (Reed) was incredibly calm and convincing. And, of course, you know, I mean, why have a trainer if you don’t listen to him?”
Five days after that, Dawson referred in a statement to the “very, very tempting” idea of the Preakness, but said he and Reed would “stay with our plan of what’s best for” Rich Strike. Rich Strike became the third consecutive Kentucky Derby champion to skip the Preakness, discounting 2020 when the pandemic disfigured the Triple Crown schedule into a June-September-October puzzle. Then trainer Chad Brown entered the Preakness with a horse who had not run the Derby, Early Voting, won that Preakness and opted to point his horse toward later, more rested times beyond the Belmont. The 2022 Belmont Stakes will feature three horses who ran in the Kentucky Derby – Rich Strike, Mo Donegal (fifth) and Barber Road (sixth) – and two who ran in the Preakness – Creative Minister (third) and Skippylongstocking (fifth).
Through the years from 1954 to now, the tilt toward racing less frequently has not lacked for diagnoses. Enthusiasts have chalked it up to gathered frailty across generations, to breeding, to medications, to the allure of stud-fee riches, to trainers babysitting their winning percentages. Super-barn trainers such as Todd Pletcher have pointed to having learned their horses simply perform better with longer rest.
And amid a culture with a heightened awareness of animal wellness, Rich Strike’s Preakness absence drew a further layer of support.
“We applaud the Rich Strike team for putting the welfare of the horse first and choosing not to run in the 147th Preakness,” Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, said in a statement. “Their decision to ‘give him more recovery time and rest’ is refreshing to see, and we have no doubt that Rich Strike will go down in the history books as one of the most famous American racehorses of all time.”
If he can win the Belmont Stakes, he’ll also go down as an exception and a flashing sign-of-the-times. Eleven horses won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont, but all ran in the Preakness. Four finished second in Baltimore: Twenty Grand in 1931, Middleground in 1950, Needles in 1956 and Chateaugay in 1963. Two finished third: Bold Forbes in 1976 and Thunder Gulch in 1995.
By the time Thunder Gulch made his way to a win both by two lengths, and gave trainer D. Wayne Lukas the fifth of his six consecutive Triple Crown race wins (with four different horses) at the time, Thunder Gulch had been the only horse to race in all three Triple Crown races.
By 2022, of course, there will be none.
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