The first leg took the first step on Tuesday.
How the other two follow is complicated.
Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI) officially announced at 9 a.m. that the 146th Kentucky Derby has been rescheduled from the first Saturday in May to the first Saturday in September, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is just the second time since the race was inaugurated in 1875 that the Derby will have been run outside the month of May — the other was in 1945, due to World War II.
Since 1969, the order and spacing of the legs of the Triple Crown series has been the Kentucky Derby followed by the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore two weeks later, followed by the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in New York three weeks after that.
With the Derby moved to September, organizers of the second and third legs face the prospect of rescheduling those races, as well as overall adjustments to a calendar that includes the 152nd Saratoga Race Course meet from July 16 to Labor Day, Sept. 7.
The Derby, scheduled for May 2, has been moved to Sept. 5, just seven days after Saratoga’s biggest race, the Travers, which has been loosely considered a fourth jewel of the Triple Crown and now could become a Derby prep race.
The New York Racing Association and the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico, are in the process of looking at altering their schedules because of the Derby move.
“It wasn’t a surprise, given the state of the world right now,” trainer Mark Casse said during a national teleconference Tuesday afternoon. “There’s drastic measures going on every day. Maybe a little disappointed, but there are things right now that are much more important than horse racing.
“So we’ll have the Kentucky Derby in September, and that’s OK. It’s going to change a lot of things. We’ve geared our horses to be ready for the first Saturday in May, but this is new territory for all of us, and we’ll get through it.”
The Preakness is scheduled for May 16, and the Belmont is June 6.
If those two races were moved to keep the current Triple Crown format, the Preakness would be Sept. 19, followed by the Belmont on Oct. 10.
One motivation for CDI to move the Derby was an attempt to keep it as a weekend event that fans can attend. Tracks currently running live races, including Aqueduct operated by NYRA in Queens, have closed their doors to spectators to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The Derby is a significant economic driver at Churchill Downs and the city of Louisville, though, because of on-track attendance as well as betting handle. The Kentucky Oaks, traditionally run the Friday of Derby Weekend, draws over 100,000, and the Derby regular gets over 150,000, as it did last year despite rain and muddy track conditions that affected the racing.
“We feel confident that we’re going to run the Kentucky Derby, and we are going to run it with a crowd,” CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen said during a separate conference call earlier Tuesday. “The Kentucky Derby is a participatory event. It’s energy and its magic really come from everybody being there to enjoy it. This race has happened for 145 years in a row, and it’s going to happen for 146. We will roll with the punches, but we feel very, very good that September’s the right date.
“We’ve moved past the fact that we are changing a time-honored date that hasn’t been touched in 75 years. It had to be done, we own it, and we’ll make it a really special day.”
Carstanjen said CDI alerted NYRA and Pimlico officials as they approached the scheduling decision, and that he hopes they’ll choose to accommodate a Triple Crown with the same configuration, but in the fall instead of the spring.
NBC, which holds broadcast rights to all three legs of the Triple Crown, also was a key player in the discussion.
“We gave them a heads-up as we got close to finalizing an arrangement with NBC,” Carstanjen said. They were receptive. They have their own questions. I know they’re talking to NBC right now. Certainly there is time on the calendar that NBC can make available so it could be a pretty similar spacing that we normally have. It’s all possible, they just have to work it out together, and I hope they do.”
NYRA and the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) each released statements in response to the Derby news.
“NYRA is working closely with all appropriate parties, including media rights holder NBC Sports, to make a determination about the timing of the 2020 Belmont Stakes. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend American life, decisions about large-scale public events must prioritize public health and safety above all else. NYRA will deliver an announcement only when that process has concluded to the satisfaction of state and local health departments. The Belmont Stakes is a New York institution with wide-reaching economic impact. We look forward to its 152nd edition in 2020.”
“Our first priority in these difficult times is the health and welfare of our industry participants and the public at large,” the MJC said. “We are working with state and local governments, our industry participants, media and other affiliates to determine the most appropriate time to conduct the Preakness Stakes. While we are mindful of the challenges these times present we also know that events like the Preakness Stakes can help restore our sense of place and economic well-being to our communities and state. As soon as we have further clarity on these matters we will inform all.”
Besides stakes races this spring that offer qualifying points toward the Derby, Carstanjen said CDI expects to add summer races to that series.
There is obvious speculation that the 151st Travers would be moved to earlier in the Saratoga meet and serve as a Derby prep with points on the line.
“Our intention is to really pick up Derby Week starting from Tuesday, using that Tuesday-through-Saturday footprint, Sept. 1 to Sept. 5, and really replicate the racing that we would’ve had leading up to the first Saturday in May,” Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery said.
“We will identify races over the course of the summer to supplement opportunities for horses to attain points to be in the Derby. We’re going to adjust so the best horses in the best form compete in the Kentucky Derby.”
Another consideration for the Belmont and Preakness are that September and October dates would be pushing up against the Breeders’ Cup, which is scheduled for the first weekend in November.
The Triple Crown schedule has evolved over the years, since Sir Barton was recognized as the first to win one, in 1918. In fact, when Gallant Fox won all three legs in 1930, the Preakness was held a week before the Derby.
“I would be shocked if the Travers would be so close to the Derby,” said Casse, who has two horses entered in Saturday’s big Derby prep, the Louisiana Derby in New Orleans. “These are things that can be worked out, and I don’t think they’re that difficult. Given the situation we’re in, if that’s the biggest problem we run into, then we’re very, very lucky.”
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