BELMONT, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) —The Belmont Stakes, set to run this Saturday, June 20, at Belmont Park will look quite different compared to races from years past. To start, the race known as “The Test of the Champion” is being run at a shorter length of 1 mile and 1/8 because it is now the first race in the Triple Crown due to the schedule reshuffling caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Once they put the Derby to September 5 and the Preakness came at October 3 beyond that. Belmont was left with not really being able to run a mile and a half race, which is their usual distance, because it comes at the end of building up these horses running the Derby at a mile and a quarter and the Preakness at a mile and 3/16,” said Sid Fernando, president of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants. “None of these horses would have run a mile and a quarter to begin with in order to be able to run a mile and a half five weeks later.”
The Derby and Preakness are staying at their normal lengths, but with prep races rarely reaching those lengths, having the Belmont stay at a mile and a half would have been unrealistic for the horses in the field. So, the reshuffle has changed the distance of one leg of the Triple Crown, but perhaps more importantly, it has changed the layoff time between each race.
Typically, the three Classic races are run over the course of a five week stretch beginning the first Saturday in May with the Derby and ending in June with the Belmont. Now, after the field takes on Belmont Park this Saturday, horses and trainers will have 11 weeks until the Derby is contested on September 5. That’s followed by another four weeks between the Derby and Preakness on October 3.
Fernando points out that the normal Triple Crown season is taxing as is with trainers walking a fine line between keeping horses in shape and good form while also not overworking them in the time between races. Now, with nearly three months between the Belmont and Derby, it’s going to be, in Fernando’s words “extremely tough”.
In some people’s eyes, the setup for this year’s Triple Crown may require an asterisk for any horse able to complete it. Former champion jockey and Fox Sports/New York Racing Association analyst Richard Migliore disagrees.
“In some respects, spreading the Triple Crown out over this amount of time makes it just as difficult but for other reasons. Keeping a horse good and sound for that long, horses have peaks and ebbs, the ebbs and flows of their form,” said Migliore. “If a trainer is able to keep a horse good for this length of time through the summer and avoid pitfalls, I think in some respects it will be just as tough as cramming in three races in five weeks.”
In order to even get into a conversation about a potential Triple Crown winner, we first need a horse to win Saturday’s Belmont. Heading into the weekend, the consensus appears that one horse in particular, Barclay Tagg’s Tiz the Law, is expected to come away on top.
“It’s his race to lose. He is just training so well on top of being what I consider to be the best 3-year-old this year. Tiz the Law has been doing everything extremely professional. Could not look better in the morning,” said Migliore. “His last work, I know some people will pan it and say it was a little on the slow side but, I don’t judge works on time, I judge them on how a horse is doing it, the way they look on the racetrack and honestly he could not look any better.”
Fernando agrees, pointing out that some of the potential challengers to Tiz the Law have gone down with injuries in recent weeks. Nadal and Charlatan, both Bob Baffert trained horses, suffered injuries following this year’s Arkansas Derby. Nadal’s owner retired him after the diagnosis while Charlatan may be able to return, though it’s unlikely he’d be back even for the Preakness in October. Maxfield, another hopeful, suffered the same injury as Nadal.
“This horse will be a heavy odds-on favorite. He’s the only Grade 1 winner in the race. He really should have been the champion 2-year-old last year,” said Fernando. “He’s trained by Barclay Tagg and Barclay’s assistant Robin Smullen two of the very best in the game in terms of craftsmanship, horsemanship. This colt is highly talented.”
As of Wednesday morning, Tiz the Law was indeed the heavy favorite at 6-5 odds. That came before he drew the 8th position in the race, close to the 5-7th spot that his trainer Tagg said he was hoping for. The 2019 Champagne Stakes winner, Tiz the Law installed himself as the Derby favorite by winning the Florida Derby back in March. With several high profile competitors going down with injuries, it seems that the road is clear for a win at Belmont Park. But, Migliore is intrigued by what one competitor brings to the race and how that could affect Tiz the Law’s run.
“The one horse that I think everybody has to respect is Tap it to Win. He’s coming back on a short turnaround, not that much different from what it would be from the Derby to the Preakness in a normal year. He’s got 16 days not 14 days,” said Miglore. “But, if you weren’t impressed by his run at Belmont going a mile and a 1/16th, it was one of the most dazzling 3-year-old performances so far this year. I really think you have to respect him. And, I think he adds intrigue to the race. Tiz the Law possesses speed but he’s not a speed horse, he’s not a pace setter. He has to respect Tap it to Win enough that he can’t let him out of his sights.”
That speed will be needed as trainer Mark Casse’s horse drew the 1st position Wednesday, so he’ll need to get out fast in order to avoid being squeezed out by competitors at the turn. Migliore is going to be watching closely how Tiz the Law’s jockey, Manuel Franco, manages the race because while Tiz the Law has speed, he’s not a speed horse. The danger, as Migliore puts it, is finding that line between getting out too fast and being overtaken late and letting Tap it to Win get out too far ahead and not being able to reel him back in.
As for what fans can expect when they tune in on Saturday, Migliore says that it’s likely to be a fast race, particularly given the shorter distance.
“What tends to happen in those races is, because of the length of the straightaway down the backstretch, the race seems to heat up a lot in the middle in these elongated one turn races. I think you’ll see a much faster run race,” said Migliore. “I think you’ll see the second quarter (mile) quite a bit faster than the first, with the third quarter (mile) likely the fastest as things heat up a little earlier. It will, to me, make it a truly run race. I don’t think it gives an advantage to speed types, or closers, it’s just going to be about position and who is in the right position to strike.”