Celebrating What We Have - By Frank Angst

The order of races in the Triple Crown series has changed for 2020. The race dates have been shifted from spring to the summer and fall. The distance of the Belmont Stakes (G1) has changed.

Yet, based on the expressed interest of horsemen with talented 3-year-olds in the first leg of this year’s series—the 1 1/8-mile Belmont Stakes June 20 at Belmont Park—what hasn’t changed is that the best runners of the crop will pursue victory in the 2020 Triple Crown races. From where we’re standing, that is the key ingredient of a classic, and BloodHorse congratulates the tracks and horsemen that have worked to make this happen in 2020.

The shortened Belmont will be followed by the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs and the Preakness Stakes (G1) four weeks later at Pimlico. While some might lament the loss of the traditional Triple Crown this year, it’s not a time to compare 2020 with previous racing years. The prevailing feeling here is one of gratitude for what the sport has been able to pull off—finding a way forward for its biggest series.

If there are feelings of loss for not having a traditional Triple Crown schedule in place, one only needs to compare racing with other sports. The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships were canceled, along with an entire schedule of spring sports. Professional team sports have not yet found a way back on the court, ice, or field, resulting in halted NBA and NHL seasons and Major League Baseball having not  thrown its first regular season pitch.

And, of course, considering what’s going on in the country and the world overall, our feelings of regret should be reserved for the very real losses occurring in the world during this pandemic. In the New York City area alone, including Long Island where this year’s Triple Crown will begin, more than 25,000 deaths have been linked to COVID-19.

This is a time for gratitude for what we have. In racing, we have a way forward thanks to technology that allows fans to wager from home and watch the action on high-definition televisions. We have a way forward because of on-the-fly planning by New York Racing Association, Churchill Downs Inc., and The Stronach Group. We have a way forward because horsemen, jockeys, gate crews, and backstretch workers have continued to keep the show going and care for horses.

And, thanks to horsemen adjusting on the fly as well—not to mention what appears to be an especially talented crop of 3-year-olds—we appear to have a Belmont that will draw most of the top ones. The race might not be 1 1/ 2 miles, but based on equine talent, it will be a classic-sized hurdle.

Consider the trio of runners expected to top the full field in Sackatoga Stable’s Tiz the Law, who would enter off a 4 1/ 4-length victory in the Curlin Florida Derby (G1) March 28 at Gulfstream Park. Undefeated Nadal rolled to a three-length score in a division of the Arkansas Derby (G1) May 2 at Oaklawn Park. Undefeated Charlatan easily won his graded stakes debut when he found little competition in the other division of the Arkansas Derby, winning by six lengths. And perhaps grade 1 winner Maxfield.

“It’s a little screwed up, but it’s still the Triple Crown,” said Sackatoga managing partner Jack Knowlton. “Some people will complain it’s not the Triple Crown, and if they want to put an asterisk on it, that’s fine.”

An important stamp of approval for this Belmont as a classic comes from two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert as he plans at least to send Nadal and Charlatan.

If given the option of keeping one thing the same in this year’s Triple Crown races, equine talent would be our first choice over race distances or timing of races. Considering the talent, we’re opposed to any asterisk.

This is the Triple Crown for 3-year-olds of 2020; past or future series don’t factor. The crop’s best runners are trying to win it. Should one horse emerge with victories in the three races, in our eyes he would be a Triple Crown winner. It’s a unique challenge every year, including this year, which will require a runner to maintain excellence for some 3 1/2 months.

Baseball eventually removed the asterisk next to Roger Maris’ home run record, decades after it realized the silliness of such a mark. We know the best horses are trying to win this year’s Triple Crown races and that’s enough for us to recognize such an accomplishment, should it occur. Don’t repeat baseball’s mistake.

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