The Belmont Stakes, traditionally the last leg of the Triple Crown, kicks the series off on Saturday for the first time. The coronavirus pandemic forced organizers to move the Kentucky Derby from May 2 to Sept. 5, the Preakness Stakes from May 16 to Oct. 3, and the Belmont Stakes from June 6.
That was not the only change: the Belmont’s traditional marathon distance of a mile and a half, which earned the race the nickname the “Test of the Champion,” was shortened to a mile and an eighth. That means the starting gate will placed in the chute on the backstretch, and the field of 10 will have to go around only one turn.
The favorite with a familiar feel.
The prohibitive 6-5 favorite is Tiz the Law, a New York-bred colt owned by Sackatoga Stable and trained by the 82-year-old Barclay Tagg. The Florida Derby champion, he has won four of his five races in dominant fashion and has earned $945,000 in purse money.
In 2003, Sackatoga and Tagg won the Derby and the Preakness with another New York-bred named Funny Cide.
The stable was born in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., when six old high school buddies sat on the front porch of the village’s former mayor and acknowledged they were approaching midlife crises. Five of them were small businessmen and one a teacher, and their careers had been good to them. So they got in the horse business. The stable’s managing partner, Jack Knowlton, landed in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., as a health care consultant in the early 1980’s, hence the name.
The group, now with additional partners, captured the imagination of sports fans by arriving at each Triple Crown race in an old yellow school bus and coolers full of beer. Unfortunately, Empire Maker upset their bid to sweep the series in the Belmont Stakes.
Who else has a shot to win?
The Belmont has not been good to New York-breds. The only New York-breds to have won this race were Ruthless in the inaugural 1867 running, Fenian in 1869 and Forester in 1882.
With that in mind, you might want look for an alternative to bet. We got the horse right here: it’s Dr Post (5-1 in the morning line). This colt has won both his races as a 3-year-old, showing his toughness by overcoming traffic trouble in his last race, the mile-and-a-sixteenth Unbridled Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
A Triple Crown series like no other.
With the pandemic shutting down major sports, and some racing, for nearly three months, traditional Derby prep races, like the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York, were either canceled, or in the case of the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland, moved to July.
That means that several of the horses running in the Belmont are coming here after not competing in months. Tiz the Law’s last race was on March 28, for example, while Fore Left and Max Player have not faced other horses since February.
The June kickoff to what is considered American horse racing’s most prestigious series, the Triple Crown, has also posed another challenge to horsemen: keeping them sound and healthy.
The top Triple Crown contenders Nadal and Charlatan, both trained by Bob Baffert, sustained serious injuries after each won a division of the Arkansas Derby. In May, the unbeaten Nadal was retired with a left front lateral condylar fracture. Earlier this month, Charlatan, also undefeated, sustained an ankle injury and will return to racing but not in time for the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby. The colt also failed a post-Arkansas Derby drug test for the anesthetic lidocaine. State regulators are awaiting another split sample test before deciding if Charlatan should be disqualified and the purse money returned as well determining if Baffert should be fined and suspended.
The Matt Winn Stakes winner Maxfield is out with the same injury as Nadal, and the Louisiana Derby Champ is out with bone bruises.
The loss of these top contenders and the Triple Crown’s late start does provide late-developing horses a pathway to the Kentucky Derby.
No spectators, or owners, allowed.
The Belmont may be the first major sporting event to return to New York, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, but it will hardly be the spectacle that horse racing afficionados and casual fans alike have come to know and love.
Instead of 150,000 people filling the grandstands on Long Island, there will be no spectators or horse owners allowed in the racetrack. There will be no beer or hot dogs or fancy buffets in the dining room.
While there will also be no betting windows open, fans can bet the 12-race card by computer and watch most of the races on television on NBC, starting at 2:45 Eastern.
Only a bare-bones staff of grooms, trainers and assistant starters (and a handful of news media) will be allowed on the grounds, less than 100 people in all. All are required to wear gloves and masks.
“If you do not have a shank or bucket in your hand, you can’t come in,” said Pat McKenna, a spokesman for the New York Racing Association. “Only essential personnel.”
That does include a bugler to sound the Call to Post.