The big dilemma this year is whether we have some form of a Triple Crown. Will the winner of all three classics go down as the 14th Triple Crown winner, along with Secretariat, Citation, American Pharoah, Justify and the others or will there be a Triple Crown winner with an asterisk or will there not be a Triple Crown winner at all, even if one horse wins all three races? And regardless of how it appears in the record books, will each individual go along with the official designation or make his or her own decision based strictly on how they feel about it and ignore the record books?
Right now, we have a terrific field lined up for the 11/8-mile Belmont Stakes (G1) June 20. But is it a terrific field because it is perceived as a classic or because so many good horses simply need a place to run? Will Bob Baffert run two of his major stars because it is a classic or because he doesn't want to run three horses in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and he wants to take advantage of a one-turn mile-and-an-eighth race for his two speedballs, especially with the elite tag of classic to go with it?
We should get an indication of how horsemen look at the Belmont Stakes when Godolphin and trainer Brendan Walsh announce their plans for Matt Winn (G3) winner Maxfield, who is undefeated in three lifetime starts. If they truly look at the Belmont as a classic, you would think they would want to run. After all, who passes up a classic race and being featured on a three-hour NBC telecast, especially when you have one of the favorites?
But if they don't run and decide to wait three weeks for the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) on the track that Maxfield obviously relished when he romped in the Breeders' Futurity (G1) last fall, does that mean they regard the Belmont as just another big race and not a true classic? If they regard it as a classic, then you have to run. Just to reiterate what I said, you don't pass up a classic, especially the first one, and lose a chance of being a Triple Crown winner, asterisk or no asterisk.
If they don't look at the Belmont as a classic, then the logical step for Maxfield would be to wait for the Blue Grass Stakes three weeks later. That would then give them four weeks to the Travers Stakes (G1) (assuming it is run on Aug. 8), then four weeks to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), then four weeks to the Preakness (G1) if they want to run there. They could also go straight to the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) from the Kentucky Derby with that race and the Travers under their belt. If NYRA for some reason schedules the Travers for Aug. 1 then it might be coming back too quickly off the Blue Grass, thus making the Belmont more feasible timing-wise. Got all that?
Speaking of the Travers, will NYRA keep it at its traditional distance of a mile and a quarter or shorten it to a mile and an eighth? If the thinking is that asking a horse to run back-to-back mile and a quarter races is too tough, it is not nearly as tough as a younger, less mature 3-year-old running a mile and a quarter and then coming back two weeks later and running a mile and three-sixteenths and then coming back three weeks later and running a mile and a half.
By keeping the Travers at a mile and a quarter, it keeps the long tradition of the race and makes it more attractive, because the only change would be the date. And if a horse should win the Travers and then get beat in the makeshift Derby, at least he is a "real" Travers winner, which is extremely prestigious in its own right. Why bastardize one of America's greatest races when there is no reason for it? Trainers have to get it into their heads that running in the 10-furlong Travers and coming back in the Derby in four weeks is far easier than the traditional Derby--Preakness double, where the difference is a mere sixteenth of a mile. And you are dealing with tougher, stronger, and more mature 3-year-olds in August and September than you are in early to mid-May.
Now, if NYRA polls a number of trainers and owners and asks them if they would run in the 10-furlong Travers and they say no, then that is quite a statement on today's racing and the perceived fragility of the Thoroughbred, as well as the mentality of today's trainers when it comes to the durability of their horses. Can you imagine the cachet a horse would have winning the Travers and Kentucky Derby within a month's span. It will never happen again.
Right now let's see what Godolphin and Walsh do and the historical importance they put on the Belmont Stakes in its current form. Maxfield or no Maxfield, mile and an eighth or no mile and an eighth, classic or no classic, it will be a great race. And in these trying times, that is a lot.