Normally, the horse racing world would be enjoying one of the most exciting weeks of the year, as horses arrive at Pimlico in Baltimore and take their last gallops in preparation for the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown, on Saturday. But nothing about this spring is normal.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact, racing has had to make significant adjustments to its annual calendar, and as of this writing the only fixed Triple Crown race on the horizon is the rescheduled Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, set for Sept. 5 – the “first Saturday in September.”
The other two legs of the Triple Crown – the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, originally scheduled for May 16 and June 6, respectively – are currently in limbo. The Stronach Group stated last week that it was still exploring several possible dates for the Preakness, and the New York Racing Association’s rescheduling of the Belmont Stakes will be contingent on state government’s plans to re-open the economy in the region hardest hit by COVID-19.
Adding to the whirlwind of uncertainty, key Kentucky Derby preps such as the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Santa Anita Derby were not held on their original date of April 4 but may be in the coming months; the latter race is tentatively rescheduled for June 6 pending approval from local public health officials to resume racing at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. These races, plus several others, were included on a revised Road to the Kentucky Derby race series released by Churchill Downs on May 12.
And to top it all off, major races for 3-year-olds usually held after the Triple Crown, such as the Haskell Invitational Stakes in July and the Travers Stakes in August, aka the “Midsummer Derby,” are still on the horizon. (The Haskell was listed as a Kentucky Derby points race in the May 12 release.)
Tie all of these threads together, and the 2020 Triple Crown season will be one for the history books. The traditional Derby-Preakness-Belmont order through May and June is disrupted, and that’s disappointing – but the setback can also provides an opportunity to be creative.
How should the Triple Crown play out over the next six months? Should the order still be followed, even if it’s in the fall? Should the Preakness be held before the Derby for the first time in nearly a century? Should the Belmont go first, and if so, should it be held at its usual mile and a half distance? How should the other major 3-year-old races be best rearranged? And how does the November Breeders’ Cup World Championships fit into the process, if at all?
Below are Team ABR’s scenarios for re-envisioning the 2020 Triple Crown, submitted with the goal of sparking debate about the best way to enhance the series and promote the sport amidst a racing season like no other.
I suppose I would consider myself largely a traditionalist when it comes to the Triple Crown in that I’m not in favor of messing with the distances. I understand why trainers/owners and the New York Racing Association might be in favor of cutting the distance of the Belmont Stakes from 1 ½ miles back to 1 1/8 miles. There is some merit to the argument that 1 ½ miles in June is too much to ask of a 3-year-old given the training schedules of quite a few Thoroughbreds have been interrupted and many of the major Kentucky Derby preps in the spring were either canceled or postponed. But the Belmont Stakes is the “Test of the Champion” and I prefer leaving it the 1 ½-mile test of class and stamina that it has been since 1927.
I’m far more open to juggling the schedule to fit in the middle of this COVID-19 pandemic. My only hope would be to make sure there is sufficient spacing between the three Triple Crown races as well as the Haskell Invitational Stakes and Travers Stakes so that connections could target a preferred combination of two, three, or more of those races that they believe suit their horse. These are five of my favorite races every year and it would be disappointing to see them competing for the same horses. —Mike Curry
For the most part, I will just be glad if the Triple Crown races are run. I don't have strong feelings about order and spacing on a personal level. However, there's a chance other sports will be happening on a smaller scale or still not at all by this fall, and if racing is occurring then we have an opportunity to grow our sport. The Triple Crown races have enormously more impact on the general public than any other races each year. If we as an industry would like to use this rescheduling opportunity to attract as many new fans as possible, I have some ideas.
I think it's important that the races are close enough together that public interest is maintained – in other words, not much (if any) farther apart than they are each spring. The quick succession of the races is what builds hype and interest. A Belmont Stakes that is three months divorced from the Kentucky Derby won't have much meaning to most of America. I also think the series can be used to increase interest in the Breeders' Cup on Nov. 6-7, provided that some of the same horses run. Promoting the November championship races in September is much more likely to attract those fans than promoting it in the spring. It's also important to keep in mind the fact that horses these days race less frequently – in many cases a final prep race for the Breeders' Cup comes in September or even August. If traditional order and spacing is kept it could be hard to convince the connections of a 3-year-old who wraps up his mile-and-a-half third race in five weeks on Oct. 10 to go a mile and a quarter against the best in the world four weeks later in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
With those thoughts in mind and since the Kentucky Derby is already set for Sept. 5, I would propose a Preakness-Derby-Belmont schedule, with the Preakness two weeks before the Derby on Aug. 22 and the Belmont following the Derby three weeks later on Sept. 26, keeping the distances the same. This would, of course, require rescheduling some other key races such as Saratoga's Travers Stakes but the truth is that most people outside of racing have never heard of the Travers, or any race besides the Triple Crown races for that matter. If we want the Triple Crown races to have an impact among the general public, they need to be close together. And if we want to try to keep some of the same fans interested for the Breeders' Cup, we need it close enough that those fans mark it on the calendar but far enough that Triple Crown-raced horses will run in the Breeders' Cup. –Christina Moore
When the pandemic hit and tracks started cancelling or postponing meets, and then Churchill Downs rescheduled the 148th Kentucky Derby, at first I thought that if the Triple Crown series were to be held this year, it should be held in the same order, just moved to the fall.
But now I’ve changed my mind. Fact is, this year has already become an aberration, in all walks of life. Any horse that wins the 2020 Kentucky Derby is already going to stand out due to the fact that the race was run four months later than usual – not to mention if it’s held without 150,000-plus roaring fans in attendance.
Every year, there’s always a bunch of 3-year-olds who emerge on the scene after the Kentucky Derby – and sometimes not until late summer (think Arrogate or West Coast) – to take position at or near the top of the class. This strange, unsettling time gives horse racing an opportunity to actually recognize a broader body of work for 3-year-old champion since the three legs of the Triple Crown have been pushed to the summer or fall to join other marquee races such as the Haskell and Travers.
So, to sum it up, how about the following schedule? Preakness in late June… followed by the Haskell in mid-July (currently set for the 18th)… the Travers in mid-August, three weeks before the Derby… the Kentucky Derby… and then the Belmont on the first Saturday in October. Five Grade 1 races spaced out three weeks apart save for an extra week for the 1 ½-mile Belmont at the end. Could any of the current group of 3-year-olds – and right now, this is shaping up to be an excellent division – handle such an assignment? Probably not, given the modern-day preference of less rigorous training. But it surely would be fun to see if it could happen. –Patrick Reed
Just when you thought the Triple Crown couldn’t get any weirder than it was in 2019, 2020 comes along. With the Kentucky Derby moving to Sept. 5 and the Belmont Stakes and Preakness as yet unscheduled, the quest for one of sport’s most elusive titles just became even harder. How would I like to see it played out? In my ideal world, the Belmont Stakes would keep its mile-and-a-half distance – I’ve always loved the Test of the Champion for that exact reason – and I’d like the Belmont to be first in the sequence of races that make up the Triple Crown.
I'd like to see the Belmont held in late June so that it could be run at Belmont Park, then be followed by the Preakness Stakes four or five weeks later; this would give the Triple Crown horses time to recover from the Belmont's long distance. Finally, everything would culminate in Louisville on the first Saturday in September, giving the Kentucky Derby its first chance to determine a Triple Crown winner if the first two legs are won by the same horse. Sure, it’s not the exact same five-week time frame that encompasses the Triple Crown in normal years, but I think we all know that 2020 is anything but normal. –Penelope Miller
As a native New Yorker and former resident of Maryland, I have a pretty deep personal connection to the Triple Crown, especially the Preakness and Belmont. Every year, I get swept up in the energy leading up to the Preakness and that excited anticipation of waiting to see whether the Derby winner is good enough to keep a Triple Crown dream alive. As for the Belmont Stakes, I can’t think of the race without thinking of all of the years I’ve been to the race with my dad. There were all of those near Triple Crowns we witnessed and that one time in 2015 when we actually saw American Pharoah ace the mile-and-a-half test and capture the crown.
But this year things will be different, and I’m actually strangely fine with that. The scenario I’d be most interested to see play out is one in which the Belmont Stakes is run first, followed by the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness. As someone who has been riding out the coronavirus lockdown in New York, I know the uneasiness so many of us here in the city have felt and continue to feel. We need something to lift our spirits and we need it soon. I’m a Mets fan and can remember the jolt we all got here in the city when baseball returned to New York after 9/11. I’m moved by the thought of the Belmont Stakes being the first major sports event in New York amid this crisis. Whether it’s in late June, early July, or even if it’s held in Saratoga at some point this summer, I’d love to see the Triple Crown kick off in New York.
We know the Kentucky Derby is set for Sept. 5. So, what to do with the Preakness? To be honest, and this is totally selfish, I’d love to see the Preakness run on the rumored date of Oct. 3. For starters, I’m enjoying letting my mind wander and thinking of the possibility of a Triple Crown being on the line at the Preakness. Not only would it be such a unique storyline, it would truly be an incredible test of talent for a 3-year-old horse to retain his form across a five month period (assuming the Belmont Stakes is run in June) and prevail in all three legs of the Triple Crown. The Preakness card could also be stacked with other “Win and You’re In” races for the Breeders’ Cup, as it would be perfectly positioned exactly a month out from the World Championships. –Dan Tordjman