The Curtain Rises on the 'Triple Crown'

If you think watching racing from Belmont Park and Churchill Downs and other tracks in front of empty grandstands is kind of eerie try watching the races from Royal Ascot where the event normally is highlighted by a sea of top hats and ornate women's hats, with champagne pouring and a proper buzz in the air. And of course the revered presence of The Queen and the Royal Procession …

Now we come to the Belmont Stakes (G1). You remember those wild humanity packed afternoons when the pride of Philadelphia, Smarty Jones, drew a massive crowd of 120,000 that will never be topped; when throngs of Venezuelans and Spanish-speaking Americans converged on the track to set an attendance record back in 1971 to see the rags-to-riches Canonero II try for an unlikely Triple Crown sweep; when a frenzy of emotion swept the track as American Pharoah ended a 37-year-old Triple Crown drought; and of course when Secretariat left the crowd in a state of awe with his other worldly performance that put an end to a 25-year-old Triple Crown drought.

This year there will be no crowd (literally), no horse trying for the Triple Crown, and in fact, no Kentucky Derby (G1) or Preakness (G1) winner and no horses who even ran in those races. The starting gate, instead of being positioned in front of the grandstand, will be a mere speck in the distance as the first leg of the "Triple Crown" will be contested at the greatly reduced distance of a mile-and-an-eighth.

So, where exactly does that leave this year's Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown? Is there a "Test of the Champion" this year? Is there a Triple Crown this year? I would tend to doubt that many people will put the name of this year's Triple Crown winner, should there be one, alongside the names of Secretariat, Citation, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, American Pharoah and the others, as the accomplishments are so totally different, like the proverbial apples and oranges. They just seem like two separate entities.

But then again, who knows how people will perceive it and how large an asterisk they see following the three races, especially the Belmont Stakes. Let's see how it plays out.

What do we make of this year's classic season in general? Here we’re nearing the end of June and the two top ranked 3-year-olds on the NTRA poll have each run two times. That's two starts in almost six months. Do we really know much about these horses? Will handicapping the Belmont be more of a guess, as Tiz the Law, Sole Volante, and Modernist (if he runs), who ran in the traditional prep races face late developers like Dr Post, Tap It to Win, and Pneumatic, who have yet to be tested for class?

So, however you look at the Belmont Stakes, whether a true classic or merely another 1 1/8-mile prep for the Kentucky Derby, there is a great deal of intrigue to the race, even with the loss of Nadal, then Maxfield, then Charlatan. The race could be a confirmation of the talents of the early season prep horses or the beginning of a second wave that was able to take advantage of the postponement of the Kentucky Derby.

With a dangerous speed horse in Tap It to Win and with proven top-class stalkers in Tiz the Law and Modernist, it was an interesting decision to wheel the late-running Sole Volante back in 10 days rather than stay home and wait for the July 11 Blue Grass Stakes (G1). They chose the one-turn, speed-favoring track over the more logical two-turn race, over which he could use his turn of foot and late kick. How often do we see speed horses set extremely fast fractions at Belmont and just keep going as the closers get caught on that big sweeping turn and fail to make an impact? And few people are expecting Tap it To Win and especially Tiz the Law to be backing up at the end. That would also compromise the late-running Max Player and Farmington Road.

So the decision to run Sole Volante, although seemingly insignificant, has more significance than we might think. By putting their horse at more of a disadvantage than had they stayed home to run in a prestigious race like the Blue Grass Stakes, the connections of Sole Volante are telling us they do indeed perceive the Belmont Stakes as a major event, possibly even a true classic that is worth going after. At worst, it should set him up for a return to two turns in the Travers Stakes (G1). This is an important decision in that it contradicts the decision to pass the race with Maxfield before that colt was injured.

Look, the truth is, this year's version of the Belmont Stakes is not the "Test of the Champion" and does not serve as a test of stamina, as intended. Is this a classic field for the first leg of the Triple Crown? No. But technically, the victor will still be a Belmont Stakes winner, even with that big fat asterisk that will accompany it. So, look at it as you wish, and just enjoy the intrigue and the presence of Tiz the Law, who relished the track and distance when he ran off with the Champagne Stakes (G1) last fall. Can he turn back the second wave of challengers?

Whoever wins this race likely will find himself in the Top 5 ranked Derby horses, and if Dr Post, Pneumatic or Tap It to Win are victorious, then you could have the start of the changing of the guard and a new look Derby picture. And if Tiz the Law adds this race to his stunning victories in the Holy Bull Stakes (G3) and Curlin Florida Derby (G1) then we could be looking at a potential Derby showdown between East and West, with Tiz the Law and Honor A. P. looking like standouts at this point.

Now we come to the matter of the Triple Crown. Some feel this year's three classic races do not offer the unique challenge that is the Triple Crown, while others feel it is even tougher to stretch the three races out over some two-and-a-half months and maintain a horse's form for that long.

I am old school and feel the main challenge to this year's Triple Crown is all about keeping a horse healthy and sound more than anything else, as top-class horses should have no problem maintaining their form for 75 days, and today's horses apparently need more time between races, so you shouldn't see horses tailing off come Preakness (G1) time.

And we have no idea what the Preakness will offer, as you can be sure some trainers will choose to go straight from the Kentucky Derby to the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) if there is no "Triple Crown" at stake. So will the Preakness just be hanging out there as a bridge between the Derby and the Classic or attract enough top horses to keep its classic reputation? We have no idea who will be left by then.

But for now, we have the Belmont Stakes to look forward to, and we will see how it bounces back from the losses of Nadal, Maxfield, and Charlatan and just where it leads us on the road to the Kentucky Derby.

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