Preakness Stakes is affected by overcrowded Kentucky Derby field

The argument can be made that the first and most prestigious jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown is a rhinestone.

The Kentucky Derby remains the biggest deal in the sport. It is watched by millions of racing fans and cared about by millions more who would draw the blinds if you put any other race in their backyard.

A sport whose wagering numbers and on-site attendance figures are dwindling needs every bit of knockout branding it can get. The Kentucky Derby is, and always will be, a day of wine and roses in a sport whose routine daily existence is leaning more these days toward stale beer and dandelions.

The premise of the Derby is that its prestige creates a field of dreams. The reality, confirmed by the concern of some of the brightest minds in the sport, is that it is becoming a field of nightmares. Its bloated 20-horse maximum, always filled now, has created something more like a cavalry charge than a horse race.

Trainer Bob Baffert, who has won three times, calls it a “demolition derby.”


He experienced that last year, when his Lookin At Lucky drew the inside post and was squeezed down to the rail so badly at the start that he never had a chance.

“He was like a hockey player, being checked into the boards by 19 guys,” Baffert has said.

Starting in a more manageable field, Lookin At Lucky went on to convincingly win last year’s Preakness.

The worry is, with that many horses — especially with that many young horses — the best one has much less of a chance to win. And if the chance for victory by the best 3-year-old is being drastically minimized by traffic that resembles the 405 Freeway at 5 p.m., then aren’t the excesses of the first leg of the Triple Crown reducing the value of the next two?

Even Graham Motion, trainer of this year’s Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, is not so giddy about his current personal success to shrug off the problem.

“So often, the best horse doesn’t win the Derby,” he says. “Like last year [with Lookin At Lucky]. It’s a concern. It’s also a tribute to the best riders in the world that there hasn’t been a serious accident.”

Animal Kingdom was made the 2-1 favorite Wednesday for Saturday’s Preakness, which has a more reasonable 14-horse limit.

“Even 14 horses is a lot to navigate,” Motion says, “especially when you are the one they are gunning for.”

Trainer Nick Zito has won the Kentucky Derby twice. In this year’s Derby, his Dialed In was the favorite but had to battle through rush hour on the home stretch just to grab a hard-charging eighth.

“This is fixable,” Zito says, “but you aren’t going to see it. There is logic to the premise. It makes a lot of good sense, but it’s not going to change.”

Zito pointed out that there is so much going on in that final Derby charge that, two years ago, even veteran race caller Tom Durkin missed the call when unheralded 50-1 shot Mine That Bird squirted out of the scrum and got home first. Others have pointed out that last year’s winner, Super Saver, never won again.

Certainly there are years when the format seems to work. Starting in 1997, for example, racing had three straight years of the right horse emerging from the Derby and going on to run for the Triple Crown at the Belmont. Even though Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Charismatic all fell short, racing got the drama and attention it warrants and covets with a Triple Crown run.

The reason the 20-horse field in the Derby likely won’t change is the same reason that the sport may struggle forever to increase its public niche. It has no governing body that can effectively mandate that a change — even at the Kentucky Derby — must be made for the overall good of the sport.

The rush to get into the top 20 on graded stakes earnings to qualify for the Derby can trigger questionable decisions of how often, and where, young horses are raced. Owners who know their horses aren’t of Triple Crown caliber enter them anyway, often only so they can say they’ve had a horse in the Derby.

Ego overcomes common sense, and that’s understandable. What isn’t understandable is that there is nobody with the authority to say no.

The lure of the Derby and its corresponding spotlight is tremendous, and not just for owners. Zito says that fellow trainer Mel Stute, a fixture for years at California tracks, told him recently he’d love to go again.

“He said being there makes you feel like a celebrity,” Zito says.

The last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978. That’s 33 years ago. That defies even the basic law of averages.

One of the most difficult things in racing has become setting the line on the Preakness. Is the Derby winner the real deal, or just another one-shot wonder who found the right hole at the right time in the homestretch gridlock? With his 2-1 rating, Pimlico odds maker Frank Carulli has decided Animal Kingdom is real.

Racing hopes Carulli is right. If he isn’t, one of the more difficult challenges in sport, a Triple Crown, will have to wait for next year. That’s while the very sport that wants it and needs it so badly continues to legislate it closer to impossibility.