How Will Horse Racing's Revised Triple Crown Series In 2020 Be Viewed?

Tom Luicci

With the dramatic changes made to horse racing’s Triple Crown series this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s fair to ask one question: If a 3-year-old completes the rare sweep under the new format will he still be able to take his place among the sport’s all-time greats?

Or will his accomplishment be viewed much like Roger Maris’ 61-homer season in 1961 – with an asterisk?

“As far as an asterisk, I guess you can say that,” said Jonathan Lintner, editor of the popular horseracingnation.com website. “But if you go back to the early roots of the Triple Crown, obviously it wasn’t what we have come to know it as these days as far as the spacing of five weeks for the three races and the order they’re in.

“I just think everything this year has to be viewed differently. You can put an asterisk next to all of 2020. I don’t think it takes anything away from the accomplishment if we have another Triple Crown winner. It’s still difficult. It’s just different.”

Traditionalists have already weighed in with the belief that this is not a legitimate Triple Crown year. Too many variables have changed in their view.

The Belmont Stakes, normally the final race in the series, will instead kick off the Triple Crown this year on June 20 – two weeks later than originally scheduled. It also won’t be run at a grueling mile and a half, with NYRA officials announcing the race will be at a mile and an eighth instead this year.

And what is normally a five week span between the three Triple Crown races has now become nearly four months, with the Kentucky Derby re-scheduled from the first Saturday in May to Sept. 5 and the Preakness Stakes shifting from May 16 to Oct. 3.

“It’s 2020. I can’t fault anyone for changing anything tradition-wise,” said Lintner. “The Kentucky Derby is on Sept. 5 so it doesn’t really bother me that the Belmont Stakes is at a mile and an eighth. I understand that people care about tradition, but the Belmont Stakes has had a number of different iterations at different tracks and distances. We know it these days as a mile and a half race. I just don’t think it takes away that much considering the circumstances.

“No horse has gone far enough yet to be in any sensible sort of shape that it would take to run a mile and a half in the regular race.”

The Belmont Stakes, in fact, was contested at a mile and an eighth during its early years, then was run at a mile and three-eighths from 1906-1925 before becoming a mile and a half fixture in 1926. And the Kentucky Derby has twice been moved from the first Saturday, the last time in 1945.

The sport, of course, is steeped in tradition, making changes this year harder to embrace for many. But in 1917 and 1922 the Kentucky Derby and Preakness were actually run on the same day.

Perhaps the bigger issue is how many 3-year-olds will still be at peak levels on Sept. 5 for the Kentucky Derby. Maintaining a horse’s form for three races in five weeks is far different than doing so for nearly four months.

“I think the changes might really affect the Kentucky Derby because to me it takes precedence over the other races,” Lintner said. “What kind of Kentucky Derby are we going to have this year? Normally it’s the first time horses from the West Coast, East Coast and Midwest meet. I think by the time we get to Sept. 5, with all of the big summer races out there, we’re going to have a few people who have lost Derby fever, because they will know by then whether their horses are a fit going a mile and a quarter against the best horses in the crop. So I wonder if we’ll even have 20 starters for the Kentucky Derby this year.”   

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