In the simplest of years, training a racehorse is “like putting a puzzle together,” according to Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse.
But training a racehorse during the coronavirus pandemic for a Triple Crown that will be run in a different order, over a different stretch of time and at different distances?
“This year it’s been putting a puzzle together with no edges or a picture,” Casse said Monday. “It’s been crazy.”
But Casse will take crazy, because while things may look and feel different this year, the Triple Crown is still scheduled to happen in full, beginning with Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
Instead of being the last leg of the Triple Crown in a span of five weeks, it will be the first leg in a span of nearly four months. Rather than being the longest race at 1 ½ miles with two turns, it will be run at 1 ¹/₈ miles with just one turn — shorter than the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. And the sound of 90,000 fans going wild will be replaced with only hoofs beating down on the dirt and the call of the race echoing off the empty grandstands.
“I don’t think there’s any question that at the end of 2020, you can put a big asterisk by the whole year, and the Triple Crown is certainly part of that,” said veteran trainer Todd Pletcher, whose horses have won two Kentucky Derbys and three Belmont Stakes. “It’s a nontraditional Triple Crown series. I don’t think it would take away from the accomplishments of a single horse if they were able to win one, two or three legs of it. These are still very difficult races to win. But it’s clearly not the same as trying to do it all in five weeks at three different distances culminating with a mile and a half in the Belmont.”
Typically, the first leg of the Triple Crown features the biggest field — with 19 horses in last year’s Kentucky Derby. This year, it is expected to begin with an eight- or nine-horse field at the Belmont Stakes.
It was initially expected to include at least one Bob Baffert-trained thoroughbred, but both of his candidates have since been declared out — first Nadal, then Charlatan, both because of injuries. Another Grade 1 winner, Maxfield, opted to pass on Belmont because of the reconfiguration and instead ramp up with an eye toward September’s Kentucky Derby.
“I had spoken to people three or four weeks ago and said that in many ways, I felt that the Belmont Stakes this year was going to be the Kentucky Derby — the first time the best horses in training were going to be meeting each other, the West Coast and the East Coast and in between,” said Jack Knowlton, owner of betting favorite Tiz the Law. “Clearly, because of the injuries of Bob’s two horses and now with Maxfield out, there isn’t quite the star power that we all expected.”
Instead, the revamped schedule and distance has allowed other horses a chance they might not have otherwise gotten in a typical Triple Crown season.
Dr. Post, one of Pletcher’s two entries along with Farmington Road, likely would not have been ready for any of the Triple Crown races had they been run as normal. Casse’s Tap it to Win was not even nominated for the 2020 Kentucky Derby, after undergoing surgery in the offseason, and likely wouldn’t even be racing in the Belmont Stakes if it hadn’t been shortened by three furlongs.
But that’s the way the puzzle has been pieced together in this strange year, and those that are involved in it are not complaining.
“I’m just happy that we’re gonna have a Belmont and we’re gonna have a Preakness — at least I hope we’re going to have a Preakness — and a Derby,” Casse said. “So whatever order it’s in, I’m fine with that.”
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