Crupi (7), with Irad Ortiz Jr. up, races through the...

Crupi (7), with Irad Ortiz Jr. up, races through the first turn during the sixth race of the day during the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, Saturday, June 8, 2024, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Credit: AP/Julia Nikhinson

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Around noon, the media typing in early copy were asked to assemble for a group photo, one intended to be displayed for years to come on the press box wall to commemorate those who covered the first Belmont Stakes at venerable Saratoga Race Course.

Indeed, Saturday was a historic day at the nation’s oldest thoroughbred track, opened in 1860, when James Buchanan was the U.S. president and the Civil War was on the horizon. Stepping onto the grounds at Saratoga feels special, always has during its summer session. But the question leading up to this version of the Belmont Stakes — and perhaps still to be debated — is how does a 1 1/4-mile contest upstate compare with a grueling 1 1/2-mile trip on Long Island?

Because it’s certainly not the same thing.

Still, that does not diminish 17-1 shot Dornoch’s win in 2:01.64. But it does make one wonder whether 5-1 Mindframe would have overcome Dornoch in the down-the-stretch battle between the two if the horses had to run another quarter mile.

The 156th running of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown was moved from its namesake home in Elmont as Belmont Park undergoes a planned, two-year reconstruction, with $455 million budgeted to tear down and replace the cavernous grandstand with a smaller, modern facility and another $100 million to be spent on updating Belmont’s four tracks.

So it’s expected the Belmont will be at Saratoga for at least next year, too, pending final approval.

The scene at Saratoga was a decent approximation of a Stakes Day at Belmont. People crowded the rail, many in fancy hat and dress. Others, many also in fancy hat and dress, crowded the grounds with folding chairs, enjoying the tailgating/picnic-y feel. The line to enter at 7:30 a.m. went down Union Avenue. “New York, New York,” was sung and Gov. Kathy Hochul was booed as she presented Dornoch in the winner’s circle.

Looking in to the infield could seem, to a casual observer, somewhat the same as Belmont, with a mini-lake, trees and well-manicured grass. There was a scoreboard to display up-to-the-minute odds and three others to show the race.

Saratoga is just smaller but, then again, everything is small compared with Belmont, where the grandstand that once allowed 120,000-plus to attend in 2004 is in an advanced state of demolition.

The main track at Belmont is 1 1/2 miles around. That nearly unique long distance at Big Sandy has earned the Belmont Stakes the nickname, “The Test of the Champion.”

Thirteen horses have won the Triple Crown — the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby, the 1 3/16-mile Preakness and the Belmont — the last being Justify in 2018. It truly is a test of stamina to run three Grade 1 stakes in five weeks, finishing at a distance at which almost every entrant is unaccustomed.

Though the big, sweeping turns and manageable fields are easier to navigate at Belmont, certainly much more than the 20-horse traffic jam that is the Derby, it’s rare that the winner is a horse that doesn’t break with the pack and stay near the lead the whole way.

The Saratoga main track is 1 1/8 miles, hence the change in distance for the Belmont. But the turns are much tighter, which changes the racing strategy in terms of how best to use a horse’s speed. Derby runner-up Sierra Leone pushed for a third-place finish after running 10th to the mile pole.

The Belmont at Saratoga still carried the gravitas of one of the sport’s marquee events with Derby winner Mystik Dan, Preakness winner Seize the Grey and Sierra Leone all running.

Other championship events, such as golf’s three majors other than the Masters and the Breeders’ Cup, change venues on a yearly basis and nobody questions their legitimacy.

To be fair, Saturday’s Belmont at Saratoga seemed more like the typical Belmont Stakes than a recent edition in Elmont.

In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting all aspects of life, the Belmont was run as the first leg of the Triple Crown, nearly three months before the Derby and four before the Preakness. No fans were allowed at Belmont Park to watch the race, which was run at 1 1/8 miles, starting on the backstretch and going through just one turn.

That was hardly the only time the Belmont — named for financier August Belmont Sr. — was not run at 1 1/2 miles. In fact, the first Belmont Stakes was contested at Jerome Park Racetrack in the Bronx in 1867. It was not run at 1 1/2 miles until 1874 and Belmont Park did not open until 1905. The Belmont Stakes was also run at Aqueduct from 1963-67 while Belmont Park underwent renovations.

In all, it’s been run at five different distances, with Saturday being the seventh time at 1 1/4 miles.

So, no, Saturday’s race was not the same as a Belmont at Belmont Park.

But it was still a Belmont Stakes in more than name only.


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