On Tuesday, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) announced that the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, which was originally scheduled to be run on June 6 at a mile and a half on the dirt, will now be run on June 20 at the distance of a mile and an eighth. The decision has created an uproar with fans, especially traditionalists who wanted to see the race at least run at its original distance, even if it was not going to be run after the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby (Sept. 5) and the Preakness (Oct. 3).
Both sides of the argument about changes have merit. Traditionalists wanted to keep the sanctity of the Triple Crown in place despite the forced change of dates due to the pandemic. They now say the Belmont Stakes, known as the “Test of the Champion”, is not truly that now. Some even say it is a glorified version of the Peter Pan or the Dwyer Stakes.
People that have no problem with the change will say that horses are not ready to go a mile and a half at this time of year, especially with the lack of preps coming into the race. Some will also say that if you wanted to get the best horses into the race, you had to cut back in distance.
A brand new race?
The change of distance will affect the way we handicap this race and how the jockeys ride their mounts in the race. Originally the race is at a mile and a half, which is one lap around the Belmont Park oval. The horses would break from the gate and go into a gallop with slow fractions.
Now the race starts out of the mile and an eighth chute, which is located by the Belmont training track. There is a long run down the backstretch and the pace will be much faster. For most of these horses, they are also switching from a two-turn race to going one turn, which for some is a huge adjustment.
The Baffert effect
There are critics who say that NYRA made this move in order to get Bob Baffert to send at least one of his three California-based Triple Crown nominees in the race. According to this week’s NTRA Top Three-Year-Old poll, of which I am a voter, Baffert trainees occupy three of the top four spots: Nadal (1st), Charlatan (3rd) and Authentic (4th).
Baffert had said that if the Belmont Stakes were to be run in late June at the original distance, he probably would not run any horse in the race. With the cutback in distance, Baffert may elect to run one or possibly two horses in the race. He had already said that Authentic would run in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on June 6. Nadal and Charlatan are both coming off victories in divisions of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on May 2, so they are the likely Belmont Stakes runners for Baffert.
Top contenders against Baffert’s trio
The horse that is listed as number two in the poll (my top choice in the poll) this week is Tiz the Law. The New York bred is owned by Sackatoga Stable and trained by Barclay Tagg, the same connections of 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide.
Tiz the Law has a home-field advantage as he won the Grade 1 Champagne at a mile at Belmont Park last October. He has been training in Florida all winter and is scheduled to return to Belmont Park around June 1. He looks like he can run all day and with a horseman like Barclay Tagg calling the shots, he might be the horse to beat in the Belmont Stakes. He is usually ridden by Manny Franco, the leading jockey in wins on the NYRA circuit the past two years.
Another horse that will be major contender for the Belmont Stakes is King Guillermo. Owned by former major league baseball All Star Victor Martinez, King Guillermo came on the national scene with an impressive victory in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby at odds of 49-1 on March 7. He then proved that race was not a fluke as he finished a competitive second to Nadal in the second division of the Arkansas Derby. The horse has gotten good at the right time and still has room for improvement. Trainer Juan Avila has done an outstanding job with him and the skies the limit for fulfilling his potential.