Baltimore – Nothing about the 2020 Triple Crown series is normal.
The first leg will be run two weeks after the last was originally scheduled to be completed. We’ll begin in New York and end in Baltimore, with the Kentucky Derby squeezed in the middle. The races will be strung over three and a half months instead of the usual five weeks.
Many racing fans and writers question whether it’s appropriate to call it a series at all, given the changes wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
But the Belmont Stakes will go off June 20, and it will feature some of the best 3-year-old thoroughbreds in the world. So with that in mind, here are five stories to watch as we embark on the Bizarro-World Triple Crown:
►1. Can Tiz the Law stamp himself as the clear star of a troubled 3-year-old class?
When the New York Racing Association rescheduled its signature race and placed it at the front of the Triple Crown, it seemed we might get a Kentucky Derby-style showdown between the most-hyped horses in the 2020 class.
That hope has dissolved, for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment, leaving just one horse who would have gone into the first weekend in May with a serious case to be the Derby favorite. That’s Tiz the Law, trained by Barclay Tagg, the tight-lipped 82-year-old Pennsylvanian who prepared Funny Cide for victories in the 2003 Derby and Preakness. Tagg built his training career in Maryland before moving his stable to New York in 2002.
Tiz the Law hasn’t done much wrong on his way to favorite status in the Belmont. He won his first two starts as a 2-year-old, including the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park in October. He looked good in winning his two prep races, the Feb. 1 Holy Bull Stakes and the March 28 Florida Derby, and has trained well since. With the Belmont slated to run at 1 1/8 miles, he will not have to extend beyond a distance he’s already handled.
Tagg’s horse has been the best 3-year-old on the East Coast, no doubt about it, and he’s sure to be a heavy favorite at Belmont Park. But with none of the top West Coast contenders coming to New York, it’s fair to ask how much he can prove by winning. In that sense, the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby still looms as his defining test.
►2. Is this 3-year-old class already cursed?
Setting the pandemic scramble aside, this has been a rough spring for would-be Triple Crown contenders.
The sport’s most famous trainer, Bob Baffert, seemed to have at least two stars coming out of the May 2 Arkansas Derby. Since then, he’s had to retire Nadal because of a condylar fracture and pull Charlatan out of Belmont and Derby contention because of an ankle injury. Not to mention reports that the undefeated Charlatan tested positive for the banned medication lidocaine, with results of a split-sample test still pending.
Both horses were serious challengers to Tiz the Law.
The troubles did not stop at Baffert’s barn. Last week, trainer Brendan Walsh pulled undefeated Maxfield off the Derby trail (he was not slated to run in the Belmont Stakes) because of, yes, a condylar fracture.
Other contenders such as Honor A.P., King Guillermo and Baffert’s remaining pair of Authentic and Cezanne are simply skipping the Belmont.
Between injuries and scheduling oddities, the picture around Tiz the Law could not look muddier.
►3. Which horses might upset Tiz the Law at Belmont Park?
Of the other Belmont prospects, Sole Volante has received the most respect from racing writers, who voted him the seventh-best 3-year-old in the class in their most recent poll. Trainer Patrick Biancone made the interesting choice to stick his horse in a June 10 allowance race at Gulfstream Park, where he picked up his fourth win in six career starts.
Sole Volante is a closer who’s impressed handicappers with his acceleration. If he gets the right set-up, he could threaten the favorite.
Steve Asmussen-trained Basin is another solid contender, coming off a second-place finish behind Charlatan in the Arkansas Derby. He hasn’t won in three 2020 starts, but his last was his best.
Todd Pletcher has won three Belmont Stakes and can never be counted out at his home track. The Hall of Fame trainer will take Dr Post into the race off of two recent victories and an impressive workout. The colt is untested against elite competition, but perhaps he’s coming on at the right time. Pletcher will also saddle Farmington Road for the Belmont.
Fellow New York fixture Bill Mott will try to win his second Belmont with Modernist, who won the Feb. 15 Risen Star Stakes and finished third off a wide trip in the March 21 Louisiana Derby. Recently elected Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse will try to repeat his 2019 Belmont victory with Tap It to Win, who looked good in a June 4 allowance win at Belmont Park.
►4. Will this feel anything like a typical Belmont Stakes?
The obvious answer is no.
When there’s a Triple Crown on the line and New Yorkers stream off commuter trains to pack the hulking grandstand, the Belmont Stakes feels like a massive event.
This year, we know there won’t be fans or a Triple Crown at stake. The race won’t be run at 1 1/2 miles, so it won’t pose a unique endurance test for inexperienced horses. Even the $1 million purse will be 33% lower than in 2019.
Trainers and racing fans have generally agreed they’ll be happy to experience the Triple Crown in any form amid the most unsettling news event in recent history. But whatever we see on the NBC broadcast when post time arrives, it won’t be a typical Belmont Stakes.
►5. Will the Belmont feel like old news by the time we reach the Kentucky Derby?
It’s the question that hovers over this Triple Crown season, if you’re even willing to call it that. The electric charge that runs through the series is created by the tight turnaround from one race to the next. Each event feels different, but the narrative flows across all three.
It’s not at all clear that will be the case in 2020.
For one thing, owners and trainers are not treating the Belmont like they would the Derby in a typical year. Several have pointed their horses to lesser stakes races in hopes of peaking Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs instead of June 20 at Belmont Park. If we’re to see a match-up between Tiz the Law and California-based Honor A.P., for example, it will have to wait for the second leg of the Triple Crown.
As we’ve seen with the recent spate of injuries, two and a half months is forever in horse racing time. Who’s to say the 3-year-old class of early September will even resemble the one we see right now?
If Tiz the Law romps at Belmont Park and shows up as the favorite in Kentucky, the Triple Crown could regain some sense of cohesion. But we’re a long way from that.
2020 Triple Crown races
June 20: Belmont Stakes
Sept. 5: Kentucky Derby
Oct. 3: Preakness Stakes