There are great sports debates — Mays, Mantle or Snider can still rile up folks in these parts — and then there are forced ones. So trying to assign perspective and context to this Belmont Stakes and this Triple Crown run is an unwanted task.
But if we must, here goes: Asterisk required, whether placed there in ink or by our memories of these crazy times. And that surely will anger veteran trainer Barclay Tagg, who told Newsday six days before his 4-5 favorite Tiz the Law dominated down the stretch that “what will bother me is if they put an asterisk after it. If it’s the Belmont Stakes, let it be the Belmont Stakes. There are good horses in it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the sports world and mostly put a stop to it. So, surely, it should have been enough to just appreciate Tiz the Law’s win in the 152nd running of the $1 million Belmont Stakes on a picture-perfect Saturday. The first day of summer brought the first major sporting event in New York since St. John’s-Creighton was called off at halftime and the rest of the Big East Tournament canceled on March 12.
Just the fact that there was a Belmont Stakes Day — six graded stakes among the card’s 12 races — was a victory for horse racing fans, sports fans in general and a testament to the work New York state and the New York Racing Association have done to create and adhere to health and safety protocols.
But wandering through the giant Belmont Park grandstand without being jostled, without feeling like you were in a crowded subway car at rush hour, was a stark reminder that COVID-19 meant no fans or owners were allowed. Heck, it was downright odd to not be stuck in Cross Island traffic all the way from the Throgs Neck Bridge to Hemptstead Turnpike, then to be able to find a parking spot within 30 seconds of having a temperature screening at the main gate.
Likewise, it was hard not to notice the necessary changes to this Belmont Stakes and to the horse racing calendar overall. Years from now, when, presumably the world has returned to what we knew as normal, Tiz the Law’s accomplishment will be debated in contrast to normal Triple Crown runs if he’s able to also win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
This Belmont Stakes led off the Triple Crown rather than being the final leg. It was run at 1 1/8 miles, a straight shot on the backstretch into one, sweeping curve and the turn for home, instead of a full lap and two turns around the 1 1/2-mile main track.
The Belmont Stakes is dubbed the “test of the champion” because its unusual marathon distance fully stamps the Triple Crown worthiness of any horse that can win three Grade 1 stakes within five weeks.
But this race was pushed back from June 6 — NYRA’s spring/summer meet at Belmont opened on June 3 rather than on April 24 as scheduled — and now there is another 11-week wait until the Derby on Sept. 5 and then another month until the Preakness on Oct. 3.
In effect, the Belmont morphed into a Derby prep and that messes with the Triple Crown mojo.
Still, Tagg must now figure out how to keep Tiz the Law in top form for that long duration rather than figuring out the magic to winning three races in five weeks. Tiz the Law will likely run the Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 8, a 1 1/4-mile run like the Derby.
The real Triple Crown run this year could be considered the Derby, Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 7 at Keeneland.
It will still be a feat if Tiz the Law can also win the Derby and Preakness, just a different kind of feat than accomplished by the 13 Triple Crown winners. Justify was the most recent in 2018 but the long Triple Crown drought between Affirmed in 1978 and American Pharoah in 2015 had sparked debate as to whether a change in schedule and distances was needed.
“I appreciate the tradition of the Triple Crown series and the way it is and that’s part of what makes it so difficult,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, a three-time Belmont Stakes-winner whose Dr Post ran second by 3 3/4 lengths on Saturday and whose Farmington Road was a distant eighth. “I would hope that it would go back to its traditional order and timing next year.”
Here’s to the day that’s possible.
And here’s to Tiz the Law and the winning connections and to NYRA and the state for pulling this all off.
But through nobody’s fault, just circumstances, this one comes with an asterisk.