The Preakness Stakes is usually the Triple Crown's overlooked leg, sandwiched between the prestigious Kentucky Derby and potential championship-crowning Belmont Stakes. But in the "Year of the Sports Asterisk," Old Hilltop gets the final say after New York opted to go first instead of last. For the first time since Sir Barton first swept the spring classics in 1919, the COVID-19 Crown sees the Belmont begin the three-race series on June 20. Instead of two weeks till the second leg traditionally, it's 2½ months until the first fall Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5, and then a month before the Preakness Stakes on Oct. 3. Good luck with anyone sweeping that lengthy task. While only 13 horses have ever swept the five-week competition, this one-time walk-off asks incredible amounts. First, trainers have a roller-coaster training season. Just as they were ramping up runners for the traditional May 2 start of the Derby, the pandemic forced a shutdown.
Now they're once more escalating to the Belmont only to either race elsewhere over the summer or shut down once again, because a 2½-month gap is too much to remain sharp just on the training track. That means a harder campaign just to get to the Derby. The Belmont was shortened from its traditional 1½ miles to 1 1/8 miles to accommodate the inexperienced three-year-old runners. Otherwise, the nation's longest race would have been a knockout for many and forced them to take the summer off. It was a smart move just to prevent diminishing the field.
Instead, many trainers will fill the Belmont starting gate hoping to win the prestigious race and not worry about the other two races. With the Belmont being a shorter race, it invites cheaper horses to win the traditional "Test of a Champion." This isn't to blame Belmont for staying in June. While it would have been better to race three weeks before the Derby, the track is then closed. That would have meant moving the Belmont to Saratoga. The June 20 race may be still before most sports return, providing more attention and wagering on it.
The race couldn't remain as the Triple Crown's final leg because a late October date would have been too close to the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 7. The Classic's $7 million purse would have decimated the $1 million Belmont's field.
NBC televises the races and surely had an impact on dates. The network's deal with Notre Dame likely gave racing two windows in a crowded fall sports calendar. Notre Dame doesn't play on Sept. 5, so the Derby fills in nicely while the Fighting Irish play at night on Oct. 3 to allow the Preakness an afternoon lead-in. That the Preakness has the potential to be a big deal rather than a middle child has some energy, but who knows if the massive infield crowd can even attend. The aging track that will soon be replaced gets one more legendary moment, even if the runners will be completely different than the Belmont field.
One upside – traditionalists can finally be defeated by ending the crown's usual schedule. Some racing leaders have long wanted to run the Derby in early May, the Preakness on Memorial Day and the Belmont on the Fourth of July. It would be easier on the horses and gain maximum attention. At least something good could come from this mess.