The Stronach Group, which turned California racing on its head a few weeks ago by announcing it was shutting down Golden Gate Fields, caused another shock to the horseracing landscape when its race director proposed to move the Preakness Stakes to four weeks after the Postpone the Kentucky Derby.
Currently, the Preakness takes place two weeks after the Derby and the Belmont Stakes follows three weeks after. Because of the short two-week turnaround time, most horses that compete in the Kentucky Derby, with the exception of the winner, tend to skip the preakness and point to the Belmont.
Aidan Butler, managing director of 1/ST Racing, said the move should be made in the interests of horse safety.
“We have discussed it internally and believe it is in the best interests of the horses and horse safety to move the race four weeks after the Kentucky Derby.” Butler told the Thoroughbred Daily News, which it first reported on Wednesday evening. “This would give the horses more time to recover between races to be able to run in preakness. Horse safety is more important than tradition. [The New York Racing Assn.] is aware and considering the impact this would have on Belmont. Stay tuned.”
The NYRA, which hosts most of the racing in New York, made it pretty clear how this would affect the Belmont Stakes. It won’t.
“NYRA has concerns about fundamental changes to the structure of the Triple Crown,” said Patrick McKenna, NYRA vice president of communications. “We have no plans to reschedule the Belmont Stakes.”
Butler did not reply to a message from the Times.
It’s unclear if this represents a showdown, a seismic shift, or just posturing on the part of Stronach, who owns the Santa Anita, Pimlico, Laurel, and Gulfstream racetracks.
Stronach is a private company known for operating in secret and making its intentions known to few people.
Before the company announced the closure of Golden Gate last month, it didn’t share its plans with key stakeholders, including the California Thoroughbred Trainers and the Thoroughbred Owners of California. The California Horse Racing Board found out about this two days earlier when they received a question from another state agency. The coaching and ownership groups were not informed until Stronach learned the Times ran an article announcing the closure.
Stronach has not disclosed what will become of the site the track is located on. It takes a ballot initiative for the area to become something other than a park or green space.
Coincidentally or not, the timing of the announcement of a possible date change from Preakness, which is still in the “We’re Thinking Now” stage, falls just before Preakness’ television deal with NBC expires after next year. Just a year ago, NBC hosted all three Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup. But Fox has shown keen interest in getting into horse racing. It outbid NBC to acquire the Belmont and wore it this year when Jena Antonucci became the first coach to win a Triple Crown race.
Fox made a major investment in racing when it acquired 25% of NYRA Bets, NYRA’s advance betting division. Most races in New York are no longer broadcast on FanDuel but on Fox channels.
NBC’s contract with the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup expires after the events in 2025 and Fox is said to be keen. NBC may have sent a signal to racing this year when it moved the Nov. 4 Breeders’ Cup signature race, the Classic, to the third-to-last race on the Santa Anita card, urging the station to switch to Big Ten coverage can football. It is the first time in the event’s 40-year history that the Classic is not the last race.
The Turf Sprint and Sprint will be broadcast on NBC streaming service Peacock and FanDuel TV, formerly TVG.
If there is a risk of disrupting the Triple Crown schedule, this could, in theory at least, give the disruptor a bargaining chip for the rights fee. Or it could have the opposite effect, driving away any potential interest and lowering the price of the rights fee.
Fox did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Butler touched on the possibility of the Preakness moving in an interview with The Times in Baltimore in May.
“I think we could,” Butler said when asked if he could unilaterally push back the date of Preakness. “We could say, ‘Don’t worry [the Belmont]. But we have a really good relationship with both Churchills [Downs] and NYRA. That was not always so.
“The Triple Crown Inc. is a cause that all three of us own. So you want to be thoughtful and mindful. Sometimes it’s a bit unfair to NYRA because [the Belmont is] Not such a crazy event unless there’s a Triple Crown in play. That means they have to carry the load of that third leg most of the time. But when they get the opportunity of a Triple Crown winner, it strengthens the entire Triple Crown ecosystem.”
As for the ecosystem within the Stronach group, Butler gave the impression that there was no clear consensus.
“Our company is right in the middle,” said Butler. “A lot of them want to do it, a lot don’t.”
Apparently this equation has changed in three months.