There certainly hasn’t been much usual about 2020, and the June 20 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) was just another example of it. If there were any sense of normalcy, it is that the winner of the Longines Acorn Stakes (G1)—Gamine—and the Belmont winner—Tiz the Law—lived up to their odds-on prices and delivered visually stunning performances.
It was reminiscent of a hot and humid Belmont Stakes day in 1988 when superstar Personal Ensign delivered a knockout in the Hempstead Handicap (G1), defeating Hometown Queen by seven lengths, only to be one-upped by Risen Star about an hour later as he crushed “The Test of the Champion” by 14 3/4 lengths.
That was a 1 1/2-mile Belmont back then. This year’s classic at nine furlongs in a COVID-19 season where the last shall be first is OK by us—like most other racing fans we are happy the sport has been able to move forward throughout the ordeal and that people are watching and wagering. Reported all sources handle of more than $67 million has to be very encouraging, considering the circumstances.
About the only thing that wasn’t encouraging was the continued overhead views of Belmont Park—and other New York City landmarks—during the NBC telecast. While many other states have “opened up” after being locked down since mid-March, the metropolitan area has seen too much devastation from the pandemic to move forward at the same pace. The empty canyon of Times Square and the lonely Statue of Liberty remind us of what is still going on outside our insular world of Thoroughbred breeding and racing.
Among the few media on hand was Kenny Rice, part of the network’s broadcast team.
“That part of it was strange…it was science fiction-like to be there and not be able to see anybody,” Rice said the following afternoon. “You looked around and thought you might be on a movie set of some kind. You think there might be computer-generated people starting to pop in.”
Rice, who usually sticks to the leading connections like glue during the run-up to a classic race, extracting nuggets and getting a true feel for their anticipation, said while it was enjoyable to get around the expanse of Belmont Park without fans…he missed them.
“You didn’t have any human traffic going back and forth from different reporting spots, but you’d be getting ready to do a report around the paddock and you’d forget that the horses had already left from one of the undercard races, and there’d be a race going off out in front…yet you didn’t hear it. There’d be maybe five people yelling and clapping out front.
“What hit me was the walk over,” Rice lamented. “I love that part when the horses first come up out of the tunnel and they are walking into the paddock. The excitement there is the greatest thing next to the excitement of when they had the two Triple Crown winners (in 2015 and 2018). I remember walking up over there with Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, California Chrome…all of the anticipation; you could start hearing the cheering.
“Then, on Saturday, you suddenly realize it didn’t really matter who is walking in right then, there was no one to cheer. There were maybe a dozen media guys and some trainers trying to beat each other…that was the audience.
“Todd Pletcher said he wouldn’t even mind hearing people if they wanted to boo him; just to hear another voice or two other than a bunch of trainers and a few other handlers.”
For those watching from home, the race itself offered plenty of excitement, as Tiz the Law waited, then pounced on the leaders and quickly opened up. Once the bell rang, the sport itself was business as usual.
“To play any sport, you don’t really need fans,” Rice said. “Once they start, they get into it. You can play basketball, football, baseball…anything. Of course, there are different levels of human contact, but I hope they don’t realize they can do without broadcasters.”