Game of Crowns: Exploring Horse Racing’s Nontraditional—But Not Unprecedented—2020 Triple Crown

It’s unusual, no doubt. Here we are in July, with only one Triple Crown leg having been run (the Belmont Stakes on June 20), and the fans have gone wild—with negative chatter, instead of cheering. This, despite the fact that it’s a global pandemic that’s forced racetracks to go spectator-less all summer, touching a nerve among the horse racing faithful, who live for rooting for (and betting on) their favorites from jam-packed stands. Some have even called for the series to be marked by an asterisk (à la Barry Bonds’ home run record), denoting that this year’s Triple Crown is somehow not the real McCoy. But don’t let the curmudgeons ruin it for you: This won’t be the first time in history that the Triple Crown races have seen changes in scheduling, order or distance. Not by a longshot.

First, a quick refresher on how this year’s Triple Crown schedule unfolded. The traditional three legs—the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, run in that order—started being rescheduled as early as March 17, when the pandemic first hit. The Derby was moved from the first Saturday in May, where it’s sat since 1946, to September 5; followed by the Preakness, traditionally the middle jewel in the crown, to October 3; and finally, the Belmont, which was not only shortened from 1½ miles to 1⅛ miles (something that hadn’t been done since 1925), but also moved to late June, making it the first leg of the Triple Crown for the first time in history. Not a single gussied-up fan set foot inside Belmont Park to watch Tiz the Law take the race in commanding fashion—even the horses’ owners. (Tiz the Law, who is owned and trained at Saratoga’s Sackatoga Stable, became the first New York–bred horse to win the Belmont since 1882, by the way.) Despite this fact, in late June, Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY, announced that it would be allowing a limited number of fans in to watch the Derby. (It’s unclear whether Maryland racing officials will follow suit at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, MD, in early fall.)

If Tiz the Law takes the Derby and there is a Triple Crown on the line, it’ll go down in Baltimore and become perhaps the most significant race in the Maryland Jockey Club’s 277-year history. Or, if the Derby swallows up the Thoroughbred, then the Preakness will likely be relegated to a diminished profile, with the prestigious Breeders’ Cup World Championships being run a month later at Keeneland in Kentucky. It’s a lot to digest—and not even half the story.

Given that the Triple Crown races are normally in the books by the time Saratoga Race Course opens in mid-July, this year, the historic Travers Stakes, which usually runs in late August, has been shifted to August 8 to become a qualifying race for the Derby. The New York Racing Association’s (NYRA’s) original plan had been for the Travers to run on August 29, but with the Derby shifted to the following weekend, moving the Travers became a necessity to ensure the race’s relevance. It would’ve also been out of the question for any of the elite 3-year-olds to participate in the Derby down in Louisville just one week after running at Saratoga. Now that the Travers is a Derby prep, it will be worth 100 qualifying points for the winner towards the Derby, which is capped at the 20 entrants who have amassed the most qualifying points. Another race on Saratoga’s schedule, the Peter Pan Stakes, will be worth 50 Derby points to the winner. The Peter Pan is traditionally held before the Belmont at the Elmont track, but has been moved to Saratoga and will run on Opening Day. 

So, what does the Triple Crown field look like right now? Tiz the Law’s victory in the Belmont earned him 150 qualifying points, the most in the Derby prep series, while second-place finisher Dr Post received 60 points, likely enough for him to crack the Top 20. The Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby, both divisions of the Arkansas Derby, the Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass Stakes and Haskell Invitational are all worth 100 points to the winner, essentially guaranteeing a berth in the Kentucky Derby. Races worth 50 points to the winner include the Fountain of Youth, both divisions of the Risen Star, the Gotham, Tampa Bay Derby, San Felipe, Rebel, Matt Winn, Shared Belief and Ellis Park Derby. There are other races this summer offering qualifying points, including the Ohio Derby (20 points), Los Alamitos Derby (20), Indiana Derby (20) and Pegasus Stakes (20), all run in America; and the Japan Dirt Derby (40) and Ireland’s Ballysax Stakes (30), contested abroad. 

Jockey Manny Franco celebrating Tiz the Law’s win at the spectator-less Belmont Stakes on June 20. (Viola Jasko)

For the traditionalists complaining that a Belmont-Derby-Preakness Triple Crown is no Triple Crown at all, the proof is in the pudding: All one needs to do is take a closer look at the variations to the series that played out prior to Churchill Downs’ executive Matt Winn aligning with the leaders at Pimlico and Belmont to form a cohesive schedule for the series in the 1930s. Before then, the three races were simply individual events and not part of any bigger picture, as they were when Sir Barton won all three in 1919. That year, he won the Derby on Saturday, May 10; the Preakness on Wednesday, May 14; and then squeezed in a victory in the Withers 10 days later, before taking the Belmont at 1⅜ miles on June 11. Sir Barton was never referred to as a “Triple Crown winner” during his racing career, and his name faded into history until other horses began receiving glory for winning the same series of races. The Triple Crown concept didn’t rise to prominence until Gallant Fox swept the three races in 1930. He won the Preakness first, on May 9; then the Derby eight days later; and the Belmont on June 7. He was the first horse to be tagged a Triple Crown winner. Five years later, Gallant Fox’s son, Omaha, won all three races within the month of May.  

Although fans have become accustomed to the Derby being held on the first Saturday in May—and this year’s September run might seem like it came out of left field—the race has actually bounced around the calendar quite a bit. In fact, the Derby has been held on every day of the week other than Sunday. It has been run on Monday eight times, Tuesday nine times, Wednesday 11 times, Thursday four times and Friday twice. The race was also held once in April (1901) and once in June (1945). 

The Preakness has that much more of a jumbled history. The race has been contested at seven different distances and been held at three different tracks. After running from 1873-1889 at Pimlico in Baltimore, it was shifted to Morris Park in Westchester County in 1890 and run under handicap conditions: The 5-year-old Montague won the race, becoming the only horse other than a 3 year old to win one of the classics. The Preakness then went on hiatus for three years before being held at the old Gravesend Track in Coney Island from 1894-1908. It then returned to Pimlico, where it has been run ever since. In both 1917 and 1922, the Preakness and Derby were held on the same day.

The Belmont’s history is also highly inconsistent. The race was first held at Westchester County’s Jerome Park in 1867, which was won by the great filly Ruthless, and remained there until 1890 when it was relocated to Morris Park. That year, a colt named Burlington made headlines by winning the race on June 10 and earning $8,620 for his owners, the Hough Brothers. The Belmont was the fourth race on the card that day, two races after Montague won the Preakness Handicap and netted $1,215 for owner James Galway, who ironically ran his horses under the name of Preakness Stable. Another oddity in the Belmont’s history was the 1895 running, which was held in November “under the jurisdiction of the Westchester Racing Association” because the New York Jockey Club “closed out its affairs,” according to an old NYRA media guide. That edition was won by Belmar, who raced for Galway’s Preakness Stable and also, ironically, won the Preakness earlier in the year. The Belmont moved to the new Belmont Park in 1905 and has been held there ever since, with the exception of 1963-67, when it took place at Aqueduct while Belmont was undergoing renovations. 

So yes, this year’s Triple Crown is going to look a lot different—but the changes to the series aren’t unprecedented. The Triple Crowns won by Sir Barton (1919) and Gallant Fox (1930) were different than those won by Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948), and American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018). Each Triple Crown winner has a unique set of circumstances and story to tell—and has completed one of the rarest feats in sporting history, a coveted trifecta only 13 horses have ever achieved. Will Tiz the Law join this exclusive club in 2020? Maybe. And will he require an asterisk? At least the way history tells it, no.  

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