It was 2015 and a digital photograph that became the cover of the June 15 issue of Sports Illustrated announced that the Internet Era had arrived to all sports by way of the oldest sport in America, horseracing.
As American Pharoah, the horse with a name that combined the New World with one reminiscent of the Dawn of Civilization, decisively crossed the finish line at Belmont Park, spectators in the grandstand can be seen raising their cell phones to capture an image racing had awaited for 37 years—the 12th winner of American racing’s Triple Crown.
It was thought to be a time that would bring a new generation of fans to American racing. Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978. The population of the U.S. had grown from 223 million to 321 million in 2015, a 44 percent increase. In 1978, the few personal computers were 5 1/4-inch floppy-disc machines made by an obscure company named Apple. Cellular technology didn’t even exist. Racing fans were likely to have seen Affirmed’s 1978 Belmont victory on a black-and-white television screen. That was the first year Sony introduced its Trinitron color model.
By 2015, home ownership of personal computers reached 60 percent. Cellular technology and phones were ubiquitous. American Pharoah’s historic win was now in their palms.
Today, the U.S. population has increased by yet another 10 million. Internet penetration in the U.S. is at nearly 89 percent. Personal computer ownership is 75 percent. And Apple is, well, Apple.
That growth in population and technology has not brought in a new generation of fans to change racing, however—notwithstanding even a 13th Triple Crown winner, Justify, a scant three years later in 2018.
It is instead a microscopic particle smaller than 5/1000’s of an inch, a single strand of encapsulated genetic RNA, that has changed the world and racing along with it: Coronavirus.
The global pandemic that resulted in a shutdown of racing in March has rippled worldwide. While some racecourses, notably those in Hong Kong and a few in the U.S. never ceased racing, virtually every other racecourse in North America, continental Europe and the United Kingdom suspended operations. Some racing seasons were cancelled in their entirety.
Most racetracks worldwide have returned to racing, but the unwanted changes wrought by the COVID-19 global pandemic are massive and visual. There are no spectators in the stands. Jockeys can be seen wearing facemasks. Media are absent from the track. Wagering, the financial lifeblood of horseracing in most countries, has gone entirely online.
This week at Royal Ascot, Queen Elizabeth was quarantined from attending the races in person for the first time during her longest-in-British-history 68-year-reign. Her Majesty, who still rides almost daily at age 94, instead watched from Windsor Castle as her horse, Tactical, won the aptly named Windsor Castle Stakes under jockey James Doyle.
It was a soothing first win in four years at Royal Ascot for one of the Queen’s prized horses, easing the loss of the usual Ascot pageantry and her absence from the course.
Champion jockey Frankie Dettori was in a similar funk. He did claim his 68th Royal Ascot victory with a thrilling win on speedy Frankel filly Frankly Darling in the Ribblesdale Stakes on Tuesday, but thought the atmosphere was different without spectators.
“Before the first race, it was very hard to pick myself up,” admitted Dettori. “I usually walk in and am signing autographs. Everybody is slapping me on the back and shouting my name. It was the opposite today. I think I had to have two or three espressos to get me going for the first race.”
Dettori and trainer John Gosden, the team hoping to bring Enable to a third Arc victory in October at Longchamps in Paris, would win a third consecutive Gold Cup with superstar marathoner Stradivarius.
But the new world of racing can be seen on the winning jockey’s masked face.
A new Triple Crown for a changed racing world
That funk may extend to the American Triple Crown, which starts later today at 5:42 EDT with the 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes.
The 1 1/2-mile “Test of Champions” has been shortened to 1 1/8 miles, now the shortest of the three Triple Crown races. It is being run two weeks after its “normal” date and absent the preceding Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
The changes to the Belmont are controversial and, for many, call into question whether this year’s shuffled Derby, Preakness and Belmont can truly be called a Triple Crown should one horse win all three races.
The entire racing calendar was upended when Churchill Downs decided to move the May 2 Kentucky Derby a full four months later to Sept. 5 out of health concerns and in the hope up to 170,000 fans could be in the stands on Derby day.
Pimlico responded by moving the 1 3/16 mile Preakness, second of the three Triple Crown races, to Oct. 3, a month later than the newly rescheduled Derby. It is traditionally run two weeks after the Derby.
The New York Racing Association (NYRA) was faced with a difficult decision. It could keep the Belmont at its traditional length and order, three weeks after the Preakness on Oct. 21. That change would crash headlong into its fall racing season, including important Breeders’ Cup preps like the Jockey Club Gold Cup. It could have moved the Belmont to August, perhaps at Saratoga, but that would interfere with the important Travers Stakes—“The Summer Derby.” Or, it could move it a bit later in June, hoping the health crisis would ease.
The NYRA settled on the latter, perhaps unhappily. But that meant three-year-olds would have been racing the likely longest distance in their careers without sufficient preparation.
Then there was the question of distance. They could have shortened the race and maintained a classic length of 1 1/4 miles. But that would have meant starting on the large wide turn at The Big Sandy, disadvantaging horses drawing the outside post, particularly in a full 16-horse field.
Incidentally, it has been done in the past. Both Cigar and Tiznow won 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classics at Belmont. Cigar, in 1995. Tiznow, in 2000 with a consecutive Breeders’ Cup Classic that was dubbed a “Win for America,” boosting New York and the U.S. following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But those were experienced older horses.
In the end, the NYRA made what might have been its best possible compromise decision. Shorten the Belmont to 1 1/8 miles, but keep the Aug. 8 Travers Stakes (G1) and the Alabama Stakes (G1) for fillies on Aug. 15 at 1 1/4 miles, essentially making those races the de facto Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.
Feelings about the decision to alter the Belmont, never run at so short a length, are mixed.
“It doesn’t feel like the Belmont Stakes at all,” says trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle two Belmont entrants, Dr. Post and Farmington Road.
“We’re excited about the race and excited about two horses who are coming into it in good form. But there is a different feeling as the first race in the series. In its traditional spot, especially when there’s a Triple Crown on the line, I think there’s no more exciting moment in sports,” concludes Pletcher.
Already, there have been significant defections. The owners of Honor A.P. and Bob Baffert-trained Authentic opted to keep their horses in California and run in the June 6 Santa Anita Derby, where they finished 1-2. Gouverneur Morris was re-routed to the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, a G2 race with a $600,000 purse instead of the $1 million waiting at the finish line of the revamped G1 Belmont.
“Even though it’s the Belmont Stakes, it’s not the Belmont Stakes,” reasons Barry Irwin, founder and CEO of owner Team Valor. “Whatever prestige would have come from it is lacking this year. If your goal is to get into the Kentucky Derby, why do you want to get your socks knocked off by (favorite) Tiz the Law when you can go elsewhere?” For Irwin then, it came down to having a better chance of winning.
Injuries have also taken a heavy toll this year. Baffert’s Triple Crown hopeful Nadal suffered a training fracture after the original Derby date and was retired. Barely a week later, stablemate speedster Charlatan was taken off the Derby trail with an ankle injury. Last week, Maxfield suffered a condylar fracture and, while he may return to racing, is off the Triple Crown trail.
The final field for the Belmont still boasts some fine racehorses in what has been a good and competitive three-year-old crop. Tiz The Law will leave from post 8 as the 6-5 favorite. This is the entire 10-horse field:
In the end, a horse that could win a shortened Belmont, a classic Derby and an autumn Preakness will have had to remain in training, focused and sound for nearly four months. It would prove especially challenging for horses that run in the Travers between the Belmont and the Derby.
Speculation is that a horse like Tiz The Law could win all three Triple Crown races as well as the Travers.
“It’s not without possibility that he could sweep them,” says Jack Knowlton of owner Sackatoga Stable about this year’s revised Triple Crown races. “We don’t know how good he is. ‘Tiz’ has every reason to develop and become even better.”
Would that qualify him as the 14th Triple Crown winner?
“In many ways, it’s harder having to win races from June to October,” Knowlton says. “If he does what we want him to do, if he wins the Belmont, the Travers, the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness—if he runs that gauntlet—that to me is pretty darn impressive.”
As it is for the rest of the world, perhaps the Triple Crown in Coronavirus year 2020 is about both endurance and survival.