Then heads exploded.
Shrieking faces disintegrated in cascades of blood and melted flesh.
No, I wasn’t watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on Tuesday …
“Welcome to beautiful Belmont Park,” as the standard public address track announcement goes before every card at the home of the traditional third leg of the Triple Crown.
On Saturday, the general public learned from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that horse racing had the green light to run again in New York on June 1, while keeping the doors closed to the general public.
That was hailed as great news and relief for a state craving some racing action (among countless other things), waiting and waiting, while tracks in other jurisdictions got up and running. The New York Racing Association, which hasn’t had much else to do since the COVID-19 shutdown other than plan and plan, took a few more days to polish off a condensed Belmont spring/summer meet schedule and purse structure, and released it on Tuesday.
Belmont’s centerpiece, the Belmont Stakes, was not moved to another table near the restroom, but it was re-arranged, and that’s where the pushback and horrified reaction came from on social media.
The Belmont will not fall in line with the conventional Triple Crown race order this year, remaining in the month of June, while its cohorts, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, have veered off toward the outside rail and will be run in the late summer/early fall. Also, NYRA has adjusted the Belmont distance to nine furlongs, three-eighths of a mile shorter than its traditional mile and a half.
This traditionalist is totally OK with all of that.
And if a horse wins all three legs, I’m pretty sure I’ll be OK with calling it a legitimate Triple Crown, too, which seems to contradict my stance against stretching the three legs out over a longer piece of the calendar than the current five weeks in typical years.
But back to the first part.
NYRA didn’t have many options on what to do with the Belmont, in the event that racing was allowed to resume. Once the Derby moved to Sept. 5, followed by the recent Preakness announcement that the traditional second leg would run on Oct. 5, the Belmont was effectively eliminated as a third leg, based on the position of the Breeders’ Cup the first weekend in November.
So now what do you do? Re-positioning the Belmont to however many weeks before the Derby in an attempt to preserve some semblance of compactness on the Triple Crown schedule … first of all, that’s not NYRA’s problem. Second, there’s a nice little racetrack in Saratoga Springs that NYRA wants to use by the middle of July, so that contributes to the calendar crunch there, too.
As for the Belmont distance change, it does make it a substantially different race. A mile and a half is one lap, two turns; nine furlongs is just one turn, out of the chute.
The pandemic and its byproduct disruption of training and racing has put horsemen with Derby prospects in an awkward position of working their horses in preparation for targets that at first were lost in the fog. Now at least they can see them, but they’re moving, which kills the whole notion of working backwards from a precise goal and attempting to be in peak form when it arrives.
Pretty sure no one has had their 3-year-old on a 12-furlong-race-on-June-20 daily routine this spring. Who would enter such a race at this point?
The argument that it isn’t the Belmont unless it’s a mile and a half is a cousin of the idea that it isn’t a Triple Crown unless it conforms to the Derby-Preakness-Belmont order and the five-week time span. It’s worth noting that seven of the 13 Triple Crown winners did so under a different configuration than the current one.
Again, I consider myself a traditionalist, and have opposed the movement to stretch it out longer, a position that got louder as racing approached four decades without a Triple Crown, until American Pharoah won it in 2015.
It’s supposed to be really, really difficult, and I believe that if a horse wins all three legs this year, the achievement will qualify. It’ll just be a different breed of the same rare species, having faced unprecedented circumstances, handicaps and impediments that are out of everyone’s control.
Maybe it won’t be a neat, tidy Frankenstein monster, with neck bolts squarely jutting out at right angles and forehead staples in a straight row.
But it’ll be our Frankenstein monster.