This year’s Triple Crown series will start, not finish, with the 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes.
NYRA announced on Tuesday a shorter version of the traditional last leg of horse racing’s premier series will be run on June 20, albeit without fans in the giant Belmont Park grandstand in deference to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It will part of Belmont’s delayed spring/summer meet, which NYRA announced will begin on Wednesday, June 3. The 25-day meet will run through Sunday, July 12.
This year’s Belmont Stakes, originally scheduled for June 6, will now be more of a sprinter’s delight at one and one-eighths miles rather than its traditional, stamina-testing, one and one-half miles, the only time the 3-year-old thoroughbreds run that distance.
A larger field of horses than usual is the likely outcome for this year’s Belmont Stakes because of the shorter distance and the race’s new position in the Triple Crown lineup.
“The Belmont Stakes is a New York institution that will provide world-class entertainment for sports fans during these challenging times,” NYRA president and CEO Dave O’Rourke said in a statement. “While this will certainly be a unique running of this historic race, we are grateful to be able to hold the Belmont Stakes in 2020.”
The Kentucky Derby, typically Triple Crown’s first leg, had already been re-scheduled for Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky instead of the 146th running taking place on May 2 as originally planned.
On Saturday, which was supposed to be the 145th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced the race is now scheduled for Oct. 3.
It will be the first time in Triple Crown history that the Belmont Stakes will be run first. The race has been dubbed “Test of the Champion” for its 1 1/2-mile distance, which was established in 1926.
“I’m just happy we get to run,” trainer Bob Baffert, who saddled Triple Crown winners American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018), told The Associated Press. “I’m just fortunate that they didn’t cancel any of them. A couple of months ago, it didn’t look good.”
Overall, 13 Triple Crown champions have been crowned at Belmont, starting with Sir Barton in 1919.
Typically, the Triple Crown is run over the course of a compact six weeks. This year, it’s a loose, 15-week schedule.
“It’s going to help some, it’s going to hurt others,” trainer Mark Casse told the AP. “You’re going to see a lot stronger, probably a bigger, stronger horse from May.”
Added Baffert, “I think they’re going to be more competitive with that spaced-out time. At the end of the day, the end game is the Kentucky Derby. That Sept. 5 date is what we’re all shooting for.”
The change in the Triple Crown scheduling necessitated the switch to the shorter, nine-furlong distance. The Kentucky Derby is run at 1 1/4-miles – 10 furlongs.
The Belmont Stakes was contested at 1 1/8-miles in 1893-94, when it was run at Morris Park Racecourse.
NBC Sports is planning three hours of live coverage from Belmont on June 20, with the $1 million Grade 1 Belmont Stakes being one of six graded stakes at the track that day.
Usually, the purse for the Belmont Stakes is $1.5 million.
But the altered circumstances, including the loss of video lottery terminal revenues from casinos, has forced NYRA to adjust its purses.
“Without the casino operating and without on-track attendance, we’ve had to make significant purse cuts,” NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations Martin Panza said in a statement. “The purse cuts to the stakes schedule are much more dramatic than the overnight schedule.”
On Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced horse racing could resume in New York state – without fans in the grandstands – on June 1.
“The resumption of live racing at Belmont Park on June 3, with all appropriate health and safety protocols in place, will support the hundreds of small businesses, family-owned farms and thousands of hourly workers who form the backbone of thoroughbred racing in New York,” O’Rourke said. “The return of live sports, especially New York institutions like the Belmont Stakes, is a welcome sign of progress that will bring some sense of normalcy back to our everyday lives.”
NYRA has not conducted live racing since its winter meet at Aqueduct was halted on March 15.
However, work has continued at Belmont Park.
Around 1,400 horses are currently on the 550-acre property with about 800 backstretch workers – almost 600 who live at Belmont Park –maintaining the training regimens.
Overall, around 1,200 people have been working at Belmont throughout the coronavirus outbreak and NYRA has told Cuomo that the resumption of live racing would add just 60 more workers, including camera operators, race stewards and gate crew.
Belmont Park is closed to non-essential personnel and some common areas on site have been closed to encourage social distancing.
All personnel entering Belmont Park are temperature screened and required to wear masks or other facial covering.
NYRA’s spring-summer meet was initially scheduled to open on April 24.
Triple Crown race schedule for 2020
Belmont Stakes: June 20
Kentucky Derby: Sept. 5
Preakness Stakes: Oct. 3