With the Kentucky Derby being uprooted from its traditional date of the first Saturday in May to the first Saturday in September (Labor Day weekend) because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the logistics of Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown series and the sport’s traditional meet schedules are in a state of flux. At press time, no decision had been made on the status of the Preakness Stakes or Belmont Stakes. All options are on the table for those races, as well as the Saratoga Race Course summer season.
Racing has continued without fans in attendance at many tracks throughout the country since the pandemic began, with the canceled prestigious spring meeting at Keeneland in Kentucky being a notable exception. The New York Racing Association then announced it was suspending racing indefinitely on March 19 following the news of a backstretch worker at Belmont testing positive for COVID-19. What will happen in the next few months for the sport is difficult to foresee.
Sports certainly don’t rate among our highest priorities during healthcare crises of this magnitude. But when racing venues are eventually given clearance to accept spectators again, it will be a welcome return to say the least. For fans of the Sport of Kings, my glass-half-full scenario for the Triple Crown would look something like this: the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course would take place on Saturday, September 12 and the Belmont Stakes on Long Island three weeks later on October 10. This potential schedule maintains the traditional spacing between the three Triple Crown events.
So where would that leave Saratoga? If this schedule is adopted, there’s little chance of the Travers Stakes taking place on August 29, as currently slotted. I think it makes a lot of sense to completely revise the stakes schedule at the Spa, moving major races such as the Travers, as well as the Alabama for fillies, to early in the meet and have them serve as “super preps” for the Derby and Kentucky Oaks, respectively. If the Travers and Alabama stay on their current dates, they would be unlikely to attract top fields with their close proximity to the major races at Churchill Downs. The Oaks, the most prestigious three-year-old event for fillies, is scheduled for Friday, September 4.
Another thing to consider would be the race distance of the Travers and Alabama, both of which cover 1¼ miles. It will be interesting to see if those races maintain their traditional length, or will be shortened to better serve as preps. The Derby is contested at 1¼ miles, and the Oaks is a furlong shorter than the Alabama at 1⅛ miles.
There are certainly a lot of moving parts for racing’s leaders to consider, and the situation will likely remain fluid throughout the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak. Hopefully, this Labor Day weekend, we’ll be looking back on another spectacular Saratoga racing season and can turn our attention to Churchill Downs for one of America’s greatest sporting traditions and the beginning of a unique Triple Crown series. I’ll happily raise a mint julep to that!