This won’t be the Belmont Stakes as we know it, the first leg instead of the last, no potential Triple Crown on the line, no screaming New York horse racing fans socially sardined together, but the sport deserves a standing ovation in these parts anyway.
Because at a time when Major League Baseball is shooting itself in the cleat and alienating fans with a ghastly display of greed during a pandemic, horse racing is giving New York the only game in town, giving bettors a seductive siren call, giving the sport an opportunity to perhaps win back fans it has lost over the years.
“I do think the fact that we’re one of the few sports that was conducting live-action give an opportunity maybe for some people who haven’t been following racing to follow it, or people maybe haven’t been following it recently to come back,” trainer Todd Pletcher said.
Between Saturday’s Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5, the NBA, NHL and college football will have come back, the NFL will have opened training camps, but all bets are off as to whether the continued animosity between the owners and players will cancel the MLB season entirely.
In the meantime, horse racing is making hay where the sun shines. Belmont’s June 3 reopening signaled a return, however small, to normalcy and provided a ray of hope.
The Sport of Kings: King For A Day.
“Hopefully we’ve made a good impression,” Pletcher said. “I think they’re very well-televised, and hopefully can carry some momentum.”
Pletcher has won three Belmont Stakes (Rags to Riches in 2007, Palace Malice in 2013 and Tapwrit in 2017). When Rags to Riches became the first filly in 105 years to win the race, a crowd of 46,870 watched. That was 46,870 more fans than will be at this Belmont Stakes.
“It’ll certainly be far different,” Pletcher said. “I’ve always said the Belmont Stakes, especially when there’s a Triple Crown at stake, is one of the most exciting sporting events in the world. Match it up there with Super Bowls and World Series and everything else. So when you take that traditional 90-100,000 fans out of the grandstand, it’s gonna be a far different scene for sure.
“It’s sad in some ways, but we’re grateful that we’re getting the opportunity to run. … One thing I think we’ve all seen from the [NBC] coverage is that horse racing makes good TV, so hopefully we can build on that.”
Because of NYRA health protocols, the owners will have no option other than watching the race on TV.
“It’s still the Belmont,” said Tap It To Win trainer Mark Casse. “Just that we’re running it speaks volumes. Disappointing, but I can tell ya, it’s not gonna make us want to win it any less.”
Tiz The Law is the prohibitive Favorite, but you count out a Pletcher horse at your own peril.
His Dr. Post didn’t make his 3-year-old debut until March 29 before overcoming some adversity and winning the 1 1/16 mile Unbridled Stakes at Gulfstream by 1 ¹/₂ lengths on April 25.
“He’s a horse that’s probably benefited from the changing of the traditional Triple Crown calendar,” Pletcher said.
Farmington Road, not as much. “He’s probably a horse who would have benefitted from the traditional distance,” Pletcher said.
The one-turn nature of the race could help Farmington Road. “I think you’ll see the group kind of a little closer together,” Pletcher said, “so hopefully that’ll be to the benefit of Farmington Road, who instead of being way out of contention early on will hopefully be in contact with the main part of the field.”
Belmont serves as Pletcher’s home base. The track announcer and race caller the day that he captured his sweetest New York win with Rags to Riches was Tom Durkin. At Belmont Stakes 2020, it will be John Imbriale, and it will not be difficult to hear him. But the silence of all the NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB voices will be deafening.
“If we have to do without fans,” Casse said, “then so be it.”
A home run of sorts for horse racing. Much better than a shameful called third strike on MLB.