Trainer Mark Casse always has likened the task of putting together a proper training and racing schedule for a thoroughbred to doing a jigsaw puzzle.
It’s difficult in the best of times.
But more so this year with the COVID-19 pandemic radically altering the horse racing schedule, Triple Crown or otherwise.
“It’s like there are no edges or no picture,” Casse said Monday on a National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference with the media.
Casse will have Tap It to Win entered in Saturday’s 152nd running of the $1 million Belmont Stakes after winning last year’s race with Sir Winston.
Of course, what a difference a year makes.
The Belmont Stakes is traditionally the last leg of the Triple Crown series and dubbed the “Test of the Champion” for its marathon 11/2-mile distance, typically the only time the horses will run that far. This year, the Belmont Stakes, originally scheduled for June 6, will be the Triple Crown’s first leg and, accordingly, run at 11/8 miles without fans in the sprawling grandstand.
The Kentucky Derby was pushed back from May 2 to Sept. 5 and the Preakness, typically the middle leg, will now be the Triple Crown’s final race after being postponed from May 16 to Oct. 3.
“In 2020, you can put a big asterisk by the whole year,” said Todd Pletcher, who has trained three Belmont Stakes’ winners and has Dr Post and Farmington Road in this year’s race. “The Triple Crown will be part of that. It’s not the same. It’s spread out over a different time frame, different distances, different order. It goes without question it’s a different Triple Crown series.
“I don’t think it would take away the accomplishments of a single horse being able to win one or two or three legs of it,” Pletcher added. “But it’s different than being over five weeks culminating in the Belmont.”
Pletcher said he hopes the Triple Crown will be able to revert to its usual order and timing next year. He added he was expecting a more crowded field than the eight horses entered for the Belmont Stakes, with a ninth horse possible.
Casse said he doubts he would have entered Tap It to Win in the Belmont Stakes had it been run at its usual distance. Instead of being run in a full lap around Belmont Park’s giant main track, the Belmont Stakes will feature just one turn.
“The key is one turn and his ability to get himself together down the backside,” Casse said of Tap It to Win.
The trainers are also a bit up in the air on how to point their horses during the long gap between the Belmont Stakes and the Derby.
The Grade 1 Travers Stakes was scheduled for Aug. 29 at Saratoga Race Course. The Grade 1 Haskell Stakes is set for July 18 at Monmouth Park.
“The biggest question is what do you do between the Belmont and the Derby, if you’re on that path,” Pletcher said. “I don’t even know what alternatives are even there. Saratoga has not put out its schedule. There’s a lot to be decided once we see what the options are.”
New York-bred Tiz the Law, trained by Barclay Tagg, is the presumptive favorite for the Belmont Stakes and both Pletcher and Casse said it does not appear the altered racing schedule has affected that horse.
“I think if you beat him, you win,” Casse said of the speedy Tiz the Law.
Added Pletcher, “It’s not been an ideal scenario for anyone. But there’s no doubt to me that Barclay will have his horse ready to go.”