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The 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes will kick off this year’s Triple Crown — not the Kentucky Derby.
The Belmont will be run on June 20, before both the Derby and the Preakness Stakes for the first time in history. Those races have been moved to the fall.
The Belmont will be run at a mile and an eighth rather than its usual marathon mile and a half distance, and its purse has been reduced by a third to $1 million with no spectators allowed at the track during this racing season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was tough to ask developing 3-year-old horses to go that far after not racing for months,” David O’Rourke, the chief executive of the New York Racing Association, said in an interview. “As far as the purse, we partly rely on casino revenues, and it doesn’t look like they are running anytime soon.”
The track on Long Island plans 25 days of racing starting June 3, offering an average of $646,000 in purses a day — down from the $750,000 daily average last year.
“This is the year for traditions to go out the window,” O’Rourke said.
There is some precedent for a topsy-turvy Triple Crown schedule — from 1923 through 1932, the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore preceded the Derby. In 1930, Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown with the Derby falling in the middle leg.
Belmont decided on its changes because of the calendar and the economics of a sport that has become something of a bright spot in a sports-starved landscape throughout the pandemic. The racing association also intends to open a training track in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., ahead of a summer meet there starting in mid-July.
While horse racing has many detractors, viewers have tuned in and gamblers have bet more on the handful of tracks that have remained open throughout the pandemic. Tiny Fonner Park in Grand Island, Neb., for example, has set records for betting handle.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York urged major sports leagues to employ imagination to return to action, saying they had a willing partner to stage events if they could reduce risk by focusing on television audiences.
“There’s be guidelines for the actual participants but no crowds, no fans, but for the industry itself, for the televised viewers that can still work,” Cuomo said Saturday while announcing plans for horse and auto racing tracks to reopen in early June.
N.Y.R.A. guidelines call for a reduced number of people at the track, plus daily health screenings, social distancing and masks. The association had given more than 800 antibody tests to backstretch workers and other racing employees, and was working on securing more tests, O’Rourke said.
In March, racing was suspended at Aqueduct Racetrack after a worker who cared for animals and lived at Belmont Park tested positive for the virus. Belmont Park was not in season at the time.
In horse racing, officials saw an opportunity to stage the first major sporting event in New York against little competition. Usually, the Belmont falls on a busy sports weekend, with the N.B.A. and N.H.L. playoffs underway and the M.L.B. season in full swing. It is unlikely any of those sports will return before July.
Churchill Downs officials picked Sept. 8 for the Derby in hopes that shelter in place rules will be relaxed enough by then to welcome fans. Last week, the Stronach Group announced the Preakness would be held Oct. 3. If racing officials tried to keep the traditional Triple Crown sequence intact, it would have meant scheduling the Belmont within a week of the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships and perhaps competing against college football.
How the Belmont Stakes going first impacts the Triple Crown remains to be seen. There are talented 3-year-olds out there ready to run with owners eager to make money. Among them are New York-based Tiz the Law, the Florida Derby winner, and two undefeated colts from the Bob Baffert barn, Nadal and Charlatan, each of whom won a division of the Arkansas Derby.
“If you got a 3-year-old ready to run, we have a $1 million race,” O’Rourke said.
With the second and third legs of the Triple Crown pushed to the fall, owners and trainers of 3-year-old colts may face some difficult decisions.
The usual five-week Triple Crown season generally assures a full field of 20 horses in Kentucky, followed by a smaller and weaker group in Baltimore for the Preakness. Only the Derby winner must go to the second leg to keep Triple Crown hopes alive, while the runners-up and horses that had rough trips or bad luck are rested to try again at the Belmont Stakes.
To sweep this year’s series, a horse will have to win in June, come back nearly three months later, then wait another month for the Preakness. That could make the feat even harder; a compact schedule benefits the most dominant horse in a narrow window.
Holding two legs of the Triple Crown in the fall means potentially greater competition from late developing horses that tap their talent over the summer. The long downtime between races gives each horse more time to recover and should result in full and stout fields.
Throw in the fact that the $7 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and the opportunity to race against older horses awaits on the first weekend of November, and owners may have to pick judiciously among the lavish races.
“It’s a time to try anything and everything,” O’Rourke said.
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