The Week in Review: Not the Test of a Champion, but Belmont Won’t Lack for Star Power

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2019 Belmont Stakes | Adam Mooshian

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To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want. But sometimes, you get what you need.

That might end up being the case regarding the retooled GI Belmont S. announced last week by the New York Racing Association (NYRA). For its 2020 running, COVID-19 has transformed the $1.5-million, 12-furlong “Test of Champions” concluding leg of the Triple Crown into a one-turn, nine-furlong prep for the other two Classics with two-thirds its original purse. The revised Belmont S. will be run June 20 in a spectator-free Belmont Park but televised on NBC.

Certainly, no one wanted such a jarring departure from history and tradition. But even the most vocal critics have to concede there were few truly desirable “win-win” choices to salvage the meet’s signature stakes. NYRA vice president of racing operations Martin Panza detailed to the TDN last week all of the various reasons for the distance, purse, and placement changes, and most of them make sense as one-year exceptions considering the racing world is trying to emerge from a pandemic.

The tradeoff–and this is the part about getting what’s needed–should be a sizable infusion of star power in the form of headline horses.

On the day the revised Belmont S. was announced, trainer Bob Baffert told TDN he will likely ship two of his undefeated California-based stars, Charlatan (Speightstown) and Nadal (Blame), across the country for the Belmont S. The connections of GI Florida Derby winner and current TDN Derby Top 12 kingpin Tiz the Law (Constitution) also want in. And number six-ranked contender Sole Volante (Karakontie {Jpn}) is aiming for the race.

After Saturday’s adversity-overcoming effort by the comebacking Maxfield (Street Sense) in the GIII Matt Winn S. at Churchill Downs, you can add another undefeated sophomore to the potential talent pool for the Belmont.

Maxfield had been patiently conditioned while recuperating from November surgery to remove ankle chips, and the 10-horse Winn S. came up tougher than your average Grade III stakes because of the pent-up demand for racing opportunities. He broke running, didn’t seem to mind some shoulder-to-shoulder jostling for position into the clubhouse turn, but had to settle for the four path amid a tightly packed bunch.

On the backstretch, Maxfield bided his time in eighth while only about three lengths off the lead. But the tempo was moderate (:23.98, :48.21), so he had his work cut out for him, and when Jose Ortiz nudged him for more leaving the half-mile pole, Maxfield didn’t immediately bound into a higher gear.

The colt still looked like he was not making up significant ground 2 1/2 furlongs out, but Maxfield began to pick up both speed and interest once Ortiz committed to an overland route that left them six paths adrift while splitting foes off the final turn.

At the eighth pole, Maxfield locked in and focused, and he was unfazed by an outward-drifting foe as the momentum he built over the course of a half-mile drive carried him past the only two horses between him and the wire. Ortiz quickly glanced back left and right for late-lane company; finding none he took “Max” in hand and coasted clear by a measured length.

Maxfield is now 3-for-3, and a start in the Belmont S. would give him four weeks between races. His connections are reportedly mulling that option.

Unsung Hero of the Churchill Backstretch

As impressive as Maxfield’s victory was, it wasn’t the news event that got Churchill Downs on the front page of the New York Times business section last week.

Rather, that distinction was earned by 22-year-old Isai “Izzy” Sanchez, the can-do youth program coordinator at the track’s nonprofit Backside Learning Center (BLC).

One of the ways the BLC has been assisting the families of Churchill horse-care workers is by helping them obtain discounted internet access so children can participate in distance learning studies. According to a Friday Times article about the hurdles facing poor Americans seeking online access, the BLC helped more than 30 backstretch families, one by one, get pricing breaks. Sanchez said he waited on hold for six hours trying to sign up one family for discounts offered by a service provider.

All was well until the first-month bills started showing up from internet provider Charter, which operates in Louisville under the Spectrum brand name. Backstretch families were getting charged for services they didn’t sign up for, and in some cases the discounts they had been promised by the company never got applied.

“This is a fear for our families,” Sanchez told the Times. “Like, ‘How am I supposed to pay $120 right now for a service that I can’t afford?'”

Sanchez and his BLC colleagues again worked the phones with the families to get some of the charges removed. The process wasn’t easy, and Charter cited “miscommunication” for the surprise bills.

Sanchez remains undaunted. After the billing crisis was largely settled, he went back to another BLC advocacy project he recently cooked up. He’s spent weeks collecting and learning to refurbish old laptop computers and tablets, which he then distributes to the children of Churchill’s backstretch workers.

Smaller Circuits Hit Hard by Closures

Over the past week or so, the number of North American racetracks running live race meets has doubled, from five to 10. Numerous other return-to-racing dates have been established for the near future, and the list is growing, primarily among larger tracks.

But some of the nation’s tiniest and most rural venues have already missed their windows of opportunity for live racing in 2020. Others have canceled summer meets because of the projected difficulty in getting horses, the challenges and costs involved in providing safety protocols, or the outright abandonment of county or state fairs that operate in conjunction with their races.

A number of these venues were already on the endangered racetrack list well before COVID-19 altered our industry. Even though most managements are gamely saying the closures are for 2020 only, not all of these tracks will make it back. Their absence will leave large swaths of middle and western America without any forms of live horse racing, which is a blow to the sport that can’t be measured in handle and attendance numbers.

Oregon took a big hit last week when the state’s racing commission announced that Harney County Fair in Burns and Tillamook County Fair in Tillamook have called off July and August race dates. The 2020 cancellation of the other two stops on the Oregon fairs circuit, the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show at Union and the Crooked River Roundup in Prineville, had previously been announced earlier in the month.

Grants Pass Downs will still run dual meets June 16-July 8 and Sep. 20-Nov. 9. The refurbished south Oregon track at the Josephine County Fairgrounds took over as the main commercial stop on the circuit last season after the closure of Portland Meadows. Now it’s the only one in the state running at all in 2020.

In Idaho, all five mixed-meet venues covering 29 dates in the state have had their meets “suspended at this time,” according to a notice on the state racing commission’s web site. And both of Montana’s venues are out of action for 2020: three May dates at Miles City were lost and the five-date Great Falls meet in July has also been called off.

Arizona’s four April and May dates at Douglas and Sonoita were abandoned after Rillito Park’s 14-date meet got cut short by four dates in March. Sun Downs in Washington didn’t run its six April and May dates because of the COVID crisis. Millarville in Alberta isn’t racing its lone July 1 date this year.

In Nebraska, the meets at Horsemen’s Park, Lincoln Race Course, Fairplay, and Columbus are all off the calendar for 2020.

So which small tracks and county fairs are still trying to make a go of it?

California’s fairs circuit is likely to remain intact even if some of the fairs themselves have already canceled. The state is already conducting spectator-free racing at its commercial venues and it would be well-positioned to implement that practice at its fairs tracks.

In North Dakota, Chippewa Downs has revised its schedule, pushing back June dates to August, according to the track’s web site. The North Dakota Horse Park site still lists four weekend dates in July.

In Nevada, both the White Pine County Fair in Ely and the 100th anniversary Elko County Fair meets are still on for August and September, according to social media posts from each venue.

Timonium, the lone remaining pari-mutuel Thoroughbred fair track East of the Mississippi, is in limbo for its 2020 meet. According to the Maryland State Fair web site, events at the venue are currently on hold because of COVID-19 executive orders, but the calendar page still lists Aug. 27-Sep. 7 dates for racing.

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