By Mike Farrell
Thoroughbred racing spent 37 years wandering in the Triple Crown desert, wondering if another horse would ever again sweep all three races.
After Affirmed captured the 1978 Crown, 12 horses won the Kentucky Derby (G1) and the Preakness (G1) only to fail in the Belmont Stakes (G1). I’ll Have Another resides in a separate category. He never made it to the 2012 Belmont, suffering a career-ending injury after winning the Derby and Preakness.
Each Triple try offered hope for deliverance only to become another mirage as the sport trudged on, searching for that elusive Triple Crown oasis. As the memory of Affirmed’s heart-pounding rivalry with Alydar faded, it seemed everyone had a solution to fix the Triple Crown. Owners, breeders, horsemen, turf writers and fans all suggested a tweak here, a shift there.
No less an authority than Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas told the New York Times in 2009 that the Triple Crown should spread out from the first Saturday in May to the Fourth of July.
Little did anyone know at that time we would unexpectedly move in that direction in 2020.
American Pharoah took the sport by storm in 2015, and racing finally polished up another Triple Crown trophy. It took only three more years for Justify to complete another sweep, and the series no longer needed repair.
The recent Triple Crowns disproved the theory that the breed was no longer hearty enough to produce horses with the required stamina. Down went the arguments that the three races were too close together in a five-week span, and that the Belmont was a 1 ½-mile anachronism that needed to be shortened.
All was right once again in the Triple Crown world, thanks to American Pharoah and Justify. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and everything changed. Not just in racing but in every aspect of sports and life.
Which brings us to the Belmont Stakes on Saturday and the belated start of the Triple Crown. In our upside-down world, the traditional concluding race is now the first. The Kentucky Derby doesn’t arrive until Labor Day weekend and the Preakness will be an October attraction at Pimlico.
Several of the discarded suggestions during the 37-year drought have come to life. The argument that the races are grouped too closely certainly doesn’t apply this year. The Belmont winner will have more than two full months of rest before tackling the Derby.
You thought the Belmont was too long? Try on this year’s version, at a slimmed down 1 1/8 miles.
The only thing we know for sure is that it will be a very different Triple Crown.
Let me conclude with one wish, and one prediction.
The wish is that the changes to the Triple Crown are strictly temporary, a one-year accommodation to a health emergency. For racing fans, the Triple Crown has always been a harbinger of spring, and the launch pad into the summer season of coast-to-coast stakes races.
Conditions permitting, let’s greet next year’s Derby on the first Saturday in May, thrill to the Preakness two weeks later and welcome back the Belmont in its usual spot at its tried and true 12-furlong distance.
As for the prediction: no Triple Crown sweep this year. That’s not a knock on Tiz the Law and all the talented colts out there. The series will probably resemble last year with a different winner in each race.
It’s a bow to the reality of the calendar. It will be very difficult for the Belmont winner to maintain peak form over the long hot summer to deliver another top effort in the Derby.
The Preakness faces a different challenge, sitting uncomfortably close to the Breeders’ Cup. The final jewel of this Triple Crown will likely see contenders divert to the Classic (G1) at Keeneland.
If some horse is bold enough to sweep all three, we will tip our hats to him. And probably affix an asterisk to this abnormal Triple Crown.