Horse racing, like most major sport around the world, has had to deal with the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. While some races continued to be held without trackside fans, the majority of high-profile meets have either been cancelled or postponed.
Fortunately, the Triple Crown and Road to the Kentucky Derby have managed to escape relatively unscathed, thanks to smart rescheduling and a few key adjustments.
The most notable changes have been the order in which the Triple Crown races will be run: the Belmont Stakes is up first, on June 20, two weeks later than initially planned and it will be contested over 1 1/8 miles instead of its traditional 1 ½ miles – the shortest race in its history and the first time it will be first instead of last in the Triple Crown.
The Kentucky Derby has moved from its usually cemented date of first Saturday of May (this year May 2) to September 5, and the Preakness Stakes has been rearranged from May 16 to October 3, ensuring the first Triple Crown race is now the second and the second is now the last.
While admitting the new schedule will take some getting used to, famed trainer Bob Baffert welcomed the news that the Triple Crown has found a way to proceed in the current climate.
“Would have preferred the traditional Triple Crown but we are all just trying to get through this,” Baffert said to Sports Illustrated. “Glad they didn’t cancel them. It will still be very exciting races and probably tougher because of the time between races.”
Baffert made those comments in the middle of May. If his views have changed since it would be understandable given the fate bestowed on two of his frontrunners for the Triple Crown.
Firstly, Charlatan – widely considered the favorite for the Kentucky Derby based on the latest Kentucky Derby news and notes – tested positive for the banned substance lidocaine, a punishment that could carry a suspension between 15 and 60 days. While Charlatan would be back in time to run the Derby, it would rule the horse out of the Belmont Stakes and scupper his Triple Crown hopes.
If that was bad enough for Buffert, he was dealt a double dose of negative news when Nadal – leader of the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings – was suddenly retired and sent out to stud at the end of May after suffering a leg fracture.
“We’re lucky. We got four great races out of him,” Nadal’s co-owner George Bolton said. “The good news is this injury was found. It could have been catastrophic. [Baffert] called me this morning and said, ‘He’s done.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Both Charlatan and Nadal were undefeated, and these twin setbacks have left Baffert’s Triple Crown hopes in tatters. Based on the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s ratings, Nadal was the top-rated 3-year-old thoroughbred in North America, while Charlatan is No. 3 – so both would have provided the trainer plenty of Triple Crown optimism.
Baffert has twice landed the Triple Crown, first in 2015 with American Pharoah – who also won the Breeder’s Cup that year to become the only horse to win this version of the Grand Slam of Thoroughbred Racing – and in 2018 with Justify. In total, Baffert has clinched 15 victories in Triple Crown races: seven Preakness Stakes, five Kentucky Derbies, and three Belmont Stakes.
For a trainer synonymous with success in Triple Crown races, the situations revolving Charlatan and Nadal will be a difficult challenge for Baffert to handle.
Not all hope is lost for the 67-year-old from Nogales, Arizona: he still has the fourth-ranked Authentic in contention. Baffert had not planned to run Authentic in the Belmont Stakes, instead entering him into the Santa Anita, but the absence of Nadal and Charlatan (probably) could force a rethink. That is highly unlikely, though, so Baffert’s Triple Crown hopes look over for this year.
While Baffert will no doubt be reeling at his current predicament, even he will be able to apply some perspective to the current context. The fact that the Triple Crown and most of the prep races are still going ahead, albeit in unique circumstances, should be considered a big win for North American horse racing when so many other races – and indeed other sports – have been severely disrupted.
While the Triple Crown looks done for this year for Baffert, he will likely take great comfort in Charlatan’s chances for the Kentucky Derby, which is certainly not such a bad consolation prize.