View From The Eighth Pole: So Much To Look Forward To

Finally, some clarity.

Having a Belmont Stakes at the shortened distance of 1 1/8 miles to kick off horse racing’s Triple Crown on June 20 may not be what most people want, but it’s what they get.

As Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert put it, “I just feel fortunate that they’re even going to have it. I would have preferred the traditional Triple Crown schedule and distances. The Belmont is the true test of champions for horses to go through all three races.”

That’s not going to happen this year. But maybe, just maybe, something good can come out of this unwelcome departure from tradition.

The New York Racing Association announced the 2020 Belmont’s new date and distance on Tuesday, three days after the Maryland Jockey Club circled Oct. 3 on the calendar for the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, traditionally the middle jewel of the Triple Crown but, in 2020, the final leg of the three Grade 1 races.

Churchill Downs was the first of the Triple Crown tracks to publicly recognize the havoc the coronavirus pandemic would play, announcing on March 17 that the Kentucky Derby would be postponed from May 2 to Sept. 5.

At the time, Churchill Downs officials couldn’t be faulted for thinking the delay would allow them to run the Derby with a packed house, as is the norm. That doesn’t seem as likely today, though a decision on spectators at the Kentucky Derby probably won’t be made for some time.

The move by Churchill Downs put a traditional Triple Crown – the Preakness following the Derby by two weeks and the Belmont coming three weeks after that – in jeopardy. A duplicated pattern with a Sept. 5 Derby would have had the Preakness on Sept. 19 and the Belmont on Oct. 10. But the scheduling of races isn’t done in a vacuum. There are television rights and schedules (NBC Sports has the contract for the Triple Crown, but it has programming obligations with other sports) and consideration on how those three races might affect other races on the calendar.

As for altering the distance of the Belmont Stakes, it would be unfair to ask horses who have not been battle tested this year because of the suspension of racing to embark on a mile and a half challenge. NYRA is doing the right thing for the horses.

So we can do a couple of things here. On the one hand, we can express outrage that one of the most cherished sequences in racing has been upended and that, at least for the immediate future, fans will not be able to attend major races. On the other hand, we can see how things are unfolding and look forward to weekend after weekend of exciting and meaningful races throughout the summer and fall.

The reopening last week of Santa Anita and Churchill Downs has lifted the spirits of racing fans everywhere and given horseplayers a top-shelf product on which to bet. But it’s only going to get better from here.

–This Memorial Day weekend will see five stakes on Saturday’s Churchill Downs card, including a newly minted Kentucky Derby points race, the G3 Matt Winn. Santa Anita will have five graded stakes over the weekend, including the G1 duo of the Shoemaker Mile and Gamely on Monday.

–On Wednesday, June 3, Belmont Park reopens and on the first Saturday of the meet there will be four graded stakes.

–That same Saturday, June 6, Santa Anita will run the G1 Santa Anita Derby and G2 Santa Anita Oaks – two important points races for the Kentucky Derby and Oaks – plus the G1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita for older horses.

–The weekend of June 13-14 will be relatively quiet, with the Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park the only G1 race in North America. Call it the calm before the summer storm.

–On June 20, in addition to the Belmont Stakes, NYRA will run five other graded stakes, including three Grade 1, the Acorn, Jaipur and Woody Stephens. Belmont week kicks off with Royal Ascot from England, running its spectator-free races from Tuesday through Saturday’s lead-in to the Belmont card.

–June 27 is Stephen Foster day at Churchill Downs, featuring four graded stakes. Belmont will also run four graded stakes that afternoon.

–The Fourth of July holiday comes up on a Saturday this year, with Belmont Park offering the best racing with five graded stakes, among them the G1 duo of the Met Mile and Manhattan, along with the G2 Suburban.

–July 11 is Delaware Park’s big day, with the G2 Delaware Handicap leading six stakes on the card. This might also be a good weekend for Keeneland to reschedule its two big Derby and Oaks preps, the G2 Blue Grass and G1 Ashland Stakes. Discussions have been ongoing. There is also talk of Del Mar opening a week early, meaning it could be racing the weekend of July 11-12.

–July 18 brings us the G1 Haskell Invitational and five other stakes from Monmouth Park. Like the Blue Grass and Santa Anita Derby, the Haskell will offer 100-40-20-10 Kentucky Derby points to the top four finishers. This also will be opening weekend at Saratoga.

–Neither an expected reconfiguration of Saratoga’s stakes schedule or a Del Mar stakes schedule has been released. Many believe the G1 Travers will be moved to either the last weekend of July or first weekend in August. Del Mar’s Shared Belief Stakes figures to be around this time, too, since it is getting 50-20-10-5 Kentucky Derby points to the top four finishers.

–Aug. 8 is currently scheduled as G1 Whitney Stakes day, one of the best days of racing during the summer.

–Aug. 15 is the date for the G1 trio of the Arlington Million, Beverly D. and Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park, though there currently is no set date for that suburban Chicago track to reopen or contract with horsemen.

–The last two weekends in August are somewhat in limbo, pending release of the Saratoga and Del Mar stakes schedules.

–Labor Day weekend, Sept. 4-7, will be one of the best racing weekends of the year, starting with the Sept. 3 Kentucky Oaks, continuing on Sept. 4 with the Kentucky Derby and then ending with closing day, Sept. 7 at both Del Mar and Saratoga.

–Sept 12 brings us the Queen’s Plate from Woodbine in Canada, followed one week later by the G1 Woodbine Mile card, one of the best racing days of the year at the Ontario track.

–Late September will kick off some of the “super Saturday” Breeders’ Cup preview cards and Oct. 3 will mark the end of the Triple Crown with the 145th running of the Preakness.

–Then we can all take a deep breath and look forward to the Nov. 6-7 Breeders’ Cup from Keeneland.

I’m not going to tell anyone else that they should embrace what we have ahead of us rather than lament that our traditions have been turned upside down. But that, along with a hope for a return to normalcy in 2021, is exactly what I’m going to do. There is a lot to look forward to.

That’s my view from the eighth pole.

 

 

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