There will indeed be a 2020 version of the Triple Crown, though this time the last shall be first.
The New York Racing Association has announced the $1 million Belmont Stakes (G1) will be contested June 20 at Belmont Park without fans, making it the opening leg of a series that has been shuffled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aside from a new date and a reduction from last year's purse of $1.5 million, the 152nd Belmont Stakes will also be run at a shorter distance of 1 1/8 miles around one turn, according to NYRA's May 19 statement.
Originally scheduled for June 6 at 1 1/2 miles as the final race in the five-week-long Triple Crown chase for 3-year-olds, the Belmont Stakes will kick off a series typically known as the spring classics that will now span 15 weeks from the spring through the fall.
In response to the pandemic, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) was shifted from May 2 to Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs and the Preakness Stakes (G1) was pushed back from May 16 to Oct. 3 at Pimlico Race Course.
"It's the Belmont Derby. This is, in many ways, the Kentucky Derby because you will have the best horses running in this race who typically would not meet until the Kentucky Derby," said Jack Knowlton, the head of the New York-based Sackatoga Stable partnership that owns leading Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown candidate Tiz the Law. "You will have a whole lot of good horses facing each other for the first time. The excitement you have for the Kentucky Derby, you will have for the Belmont Stakes."
With the Triple Crown beginning on the third Saturday in June instead of the time-honored first Saturday in May, some traditionalists may also look at the longer space between races and the shorter distance of the Belmont with a skeptical eye. But to Knowlton, the 2020 array of races still constitute a Triple Crown regardless of the structure.
"It's a little screwed up but it's still the Triple Crown," he said. "Some people will complain it's not the Triple Crown and if they want to put an asterisk on it, that's fine. And if they don't want to hold the horse who wins all three of the races in the same high regard as the other Triple Crown winners because he didn't race the mile-and-a-half at the end, I get it and I'm OK with that. I would still love to win all three races."
The Belmont Stakes will be broadcast by NBC Sports during a three-hour program that will begin at 3 p.m. ET.
"The Belmont Stakes is a New York institution that will provide world-class entertainment for sports fans during these challenging times," said NYRA president & CEO David O'Rourke. "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. Thanks to our partners at NBC Sports, fans across the country can look forward to a day of exceptional thoroughbred racing at a time when entertainment and sports are so important to providing a sense of normalcy."
Churchill Downs previously announced that the Belmont Stakes would have qualifying points toward a start in the Kentucky Derby attached if the American classic was spotted prior to the Run for the Roses. That criteria calls for the top four finishers in "The Test of the Champion" to receive 150-60-30-15 points.
Even with a new date, the Belmont Stakes figures to attract a field loaded with the top 3-year-olds, including the New York-bred Tiz the Law.
"We had been hearing the Belmont was going to be either the 20th or 27th and we're happier with the 20th because he's coming off a long layoff," said Knowlton, whose multiple grade 1 winner has not raced since his victory in the March 28 Curlin Florida Derby (G1). "He had a bullet work (1:00 1/5 breezing May 9 at the Palm Meadows Training Center) that was a strong work and (trainer Barclay Tagg) will tighten the screws when he needs to."
Trainer Bob Baffert said he is contemplating sending both of his undefeated winners of the split divisions of the Arkansas Derby (G1), Charlatan and Nadal, to New York for the new opening leg of the Triple Crown.
"Now that I have a date (for the Belmont Stakes), I can think about it and maybe I'll make some changes, but as of today I would send Charlatan and Nadal," said Baffert, who will run his other undefeated 3-year-old, Authentic, in the June 6 Santa Anita Derby (G1). "I backed off both colts since the Arkansas Derby, but they are doing fine."
Even if Tiz the Law has to face a double-barreled threat from Baffert in what figures to be a large field with no shortage of dangerous rivals, Knowlton takes comfort from knowing his son of Constitution calls Belmont Park home and captured the Champagne Stakes (G1) there at 2.
"He's won a grade 1 over the track and he's trained over that track for most of his life. It's as good of a situation as it can be for us. Baffert has to bring his horses from California and he's bringing them to our home ballpark. It will be fun. I just hope all the horse stay sound and it doesn't rain," said Knowlton, resurrecting memories of 2003 when Sackatoga's Funny Cide's bid for a Triple Crown ended on a sloppy track in the Belmont Stakes.
According to the conditions of the race, the field for the Belmont Stakes will be limited to 16 starters, with the first eight spots going to horses with the highest earnings in graded stakes at a mile and beyond. The next five will be determined by lifetime earnings in non-restricted stakes and the final three starters will be chosen by the Belmont Stakes Selection Committee.
The announcement of the new date on the calendar for the Belmont Stakes comes three days after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said racetracks in the state can re-open June 1 without fans in attendance.
NYRA tracks have been closed since March 15, after three days of racing without fans, as New York City and Nassau County, where Aqueduct Racetrack and Belmont Park are located, emerged as an epicenter for the spread of coronavirus.
NYRA is expected to announce a date for the opening of the spring/summer meet at Belmont Park and a full stakes schedule shortly.
Aside from forcing a new order for the Triple Crown races for the first time since 1931, the pandemic also disrupted the schedule of prep races for the classics. Since the March 28 Florida Derby, the lone Kentucky Derby Championship Series races have been the May 2 split divisions of the Arkansas Derby (G1), though last weekend's return of racing in Kentucky and California has created new opportunities for Triple Crown hopefuls.
Churchill Downs has scheduled the $150,000 Matt Winn Stakes (G3) for May 23 and the 1 1/16-mile stakes at the Louisville track will offer 50-20-10-5 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top four finishers. In addition, the Santa Anita Derby (G1) has been moved from April 4 to June 6, when the Belmont Stakes was originally scheduled, and will distribute 100-40-20-10 points.