Horse racing’s Triple Crown will look different this year from start to finish.
The Belmont Stakes will be run before the Kentucky Derby and Preakness for the first time and take place at a shorter distance. It will lead off the Triple Crown on June 20 in New York with no fans in attendance and at a distance of 1 1/8 miles instead of the 1 1/2-mile “test of the champion” that has been the race’s trademark for nearly a century.
“The way it fits in the calendar, it’s a completely different race than the traditional Belmont would be,” New York Racing Association president and CEO Dave O’Rourke said Tuesday. “I think we’re going to have a big field. I think it’ll be a really competitive field. I think the dynamics of the race are different.”
The three Triple Crown races will be run out of their traditional order for the first time since 1931. The Kentucky Derby was moved from May 2 to Sept. 5 and the Preakness from May 16 to Oct. 3 amid the coronavirus pandemic that has upended the sports calendar.
“I’m just happy we get to run,” two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert said. “I’m just fortunate that they didn’t cancel any of them. A couple months ago, it didn’t look good.”
An out-of-order Triple Crown presents another set of challenges and would be a different kind of accomplishment than the one competed by the 13 past champions. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont are usually run during a six-week span in the spring, and 3-year-olds are more mature by the summer and fall.
“It’s going to help some, it’s going to hurt others,” trainer Mark Casse said. “You’re going to see a lot stronger, probably a bigger, stronger horse from May.”
The Belmont is only being run two weeks after it was scheduled, but the shorter distance changes the complexion of the race and the Triple Crown. It has been run at 1 1/2 miles each year dating to 1926 and last ran at 1 1/8 miles in 1894.
It’s not the same going before the Kentucky Derby.
“The Belmont, running after that, the ‘test of champions’ is: ‘How tough is your horse? How can he handle it?’” said Baffert, who trained 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and 2018 winner Justify. “Now, a mile and a half, they can handle it easier the first time. It wouldn’t be as difficult as it would be after running those other two races.
Barclay Tagg would have been fine with running top contender Tiz the Law at 1 1/2 miles, and Baffert plans for elite 3-year-olds Nadal and Charlatan to go to the Belmont.