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The 'Belmont Derby?'

CRAWFORD | Belmont set to shape the Kentucky Derby picture in Triple Crown leadoff role

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Belmont Stakes start

The start of the 2018 Belmont Stakes, with eventual Triple Crown winner Justify breaking from the inside.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- They're calling it the Belmont Derby. Judges also might accept the Covid Crown. The announcement out of New York that the Belmont Stakes will run on June 20 at a reduced distance and purse -- and without fans -- further changed an already altered Triple Crown campaign for this unprecedented year.

The Belmont will lead off the festivities, and then trainers will have to navigate the 11 weeks until the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby.

It's not the first time a Triple Crown winner would've run the races out of the modern order. When Gallant Fox accomplished the feat in 1927, the Preakness was the first of the three races, as it was for most of the 1920's and early 30's.

But this year's shakeup is unlike any other. In the Belmont, some of the nation's best 3-year-olds will clash for the first time since late last year. Without the traditional prep races to build up to the race, organizers wisely shortened the length from its traditional 1 ½ miles to a 1 1/8 miles. The maximum field size is 16.

"Because of the way the race is now positioned, it's the right distance," NYRA president and CEO Dave O'Rourke said. "We respect the tradition of it, but it's not the third leg in a five-week series anymore for 3-year-olds early in the year. It's a 3-year-old race in June before any of the others, so the distance makes sense. It will be a big field. This will be the year everything goes out the window. If there is ever a time to do something different, it is this year."

One thing isn't different. Bob Baffert will bring some of the top contenders. He said Tuesday that his contenders Charlatan and Nadal will show up, if they're training well, and he hopes to be in New York, too. Lying in wait for them -- Tiz the Law, a New York-based son of Constitution who likely will be the favorite in the Belmont, after wins in the Grade 3 Holy Bull and a romp in the Florida Derby. Trained by Barclay Tagg, who won the Kentucky Derby with Funny Cide, he should be in his element in late June.

His owner, Jack Knowlton of Saratoga Stables, put the race into a good perspective when he told "In essence, in some ways, the Belmont is going to be the Derby this year. All of the good horses, and anyone who has aspirations of the Triple Crown will be there. Everyone who had what they thought was a Kentucky Derby horse will be a Belmont horse this year."

That won't change Derby Fever in September. The Kentucky Derby won't lose its luster, or its purse. It'll just have more mature 3-year-olds who have been through a pretty substantial schedule.

Because of tweaks to the Road to the Derby points structure, the winner of the Belmont, with 150 points, is assured a spot on the first Saturday in September, as is the runner-up, who will earn 60 points. The third- and fourth-place finishers, with 30 and 15 points, will be well on their way.

The Belmont will shape the upcoming months in terms of Derby expectations, but it won't completely decide them, as a revamped stakes schedule provides ample opportunity for other contenders.

There's no reason to think the Derby still won't draw a field of 20. The bigger question is where the sports world will stand when it does -- and whether anyone will be able to be in the stands to watch.

A Triple Crown winner in 2020 surely would come with an asterisk – but the feat shouldn't be diminished. While the additional time between races takes away some of the endurance test of these three races, the difficulty in facing more mature competition in the fall helps make up for that.

Arrogate, West Coast, Will Take Charge and Curlin are among the non-Derby winners in the past 15 years to go on to be 3-year-old champions.

Like everything else in this virus vexed year, the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown have been turned on their heads. But there is change in this that horse racing can embrace. And if ever a sport needed a shakeup, this is one. Perhaps it can make the best of it.

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