First it was the iconic Kentucky Derby getting pushed from its traditional date on the first Saturday in May all the way back to Sept. 5, with the Preakness Stakes eventually landing on Oct. 3.
The final straw came with Tuesday’s announcement that the Belmont Stakes, the grueling 1 1/2-mile test, had been officially reduced to a 1 1/8-mile race on June 20 with no fans in a cavernous Belmont Park grandstand, a stark contrast to the 90,000 who showed up in 2015 to see American Pharoah become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered an uppercut to sports at every level, the deconstruction of the Triple Crown has been a particularly cruel blow to an industry already reeling.
Instead of a five-week stretch that can draw huge ratings and create some of the year’s most memorable moments, the races will be drawn out over 3 1/2 months, with horses needing races in between to bridge the gap.
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And the ripple effect will be felt from farms in Upstate New York to racetracks in Maryland and beyond, even if you don’t have a top 3-year-old in the barn, with horsemen in the same situation as other small business owners seeking to reopen in the wake of the economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus.
So while it’s a great sign that the Belmont Stakes will be run, the seismic shift in the racing calendar could not have come at a worse time for an industry struggling to rebound from a disastrous 2019.
It began when a series of horse deaths at Santa Anita sparked year-long national debate on equine safety, while continuing to seek a path forward in terms of improving both animal welfare and its tattered image.
This time last year the buzz surrounded Maximum Security’s controversial disqualification after winning the Kentucky Derby, while September brought a report that Justify, the Bob Baffert-trained Triple Crown winner, had tested positive after winning the Santa Anita Derby prior to his victory at the 2018 Kentucky Derby.
Then came the events of March 9, when Maximum Security trainer trainer Jason Servis and trainer Jorge Navarro, both fixtures in New York and New Jersey, and with the two highest winning percentages in the country, were arrested as part of an alleged scheme involving performance-enhancing drugs.
Now the sport must try to push forward, at a time when the only certainties appear to be decreased revenues and visibility.
As for the Belmont Stakes, it will be the first major sporting event held in the area, with racing scheduled to resume on June 3 at Belmont Park, without fans.
The 800 workers on the Belmont Park backstretch, where nearly 600 reside, are the frontline workers in this industry, caring for the 1,500 thoroughbreds that have been stabled there throughout the pandemic even though there has been no racing since March 19. Since then, one backstretch worker reportedly died of COVID-10, and five others have been hospitalized.
Their safety must continue to be the top priority as the resumption of racing looms.
As tracks continue to open up across the country, including Churchill Downs last weekend, racing, along with virtually every other industry, will try to find its footing on the new landscape. But the thought of a Saratoga meet without fans hammers home the reality of how much tougher the pandemic has made the path forward.
Stephen Edelson is a USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey sports columnist who has been covering athletics in the state and at the Jersey Shore for nearly 35 years. Contact him at: @SteveEdelsonAPP; [email protected]