By T. D. Thornton
Keeneland Race Course will be seeking a short summer race meet after losing its spring season to COVID-19 closure. Yet management at the Lexington track is trying to be mindful that such a move would have a ripple effect not only on Ellis Park, which traditionally has the Kentucky circuit all to itself during that time frame, but also the horse populations and stakes programs at Saratoga and Del Mar, the bi-coastal heavyweights that dominate American racing in the mid-July through Labor Day window.
“We're looking to run an abbreviated meet, probably in July,” Bob Elliston, Keeneland's vice president of racing and sales, told TDN Saturday. “Unfortunately, it won't be the 17 days that we lost in the spring. I know it won't be 17 days and I know it won't be a single day. We'll be trying to give out as much of our purse money as we can, but also respecting that there's a footprint existing.
“Because we run such a stakes-rich program in the spring with 18 graded stakes, we won't be running all of those,” Elliston continued. “We are hopeful to run a significant number of them. I've been in contact with [senior vice president of racing operations] Martin Panza and the folks at the New York Racing Association [NYRA] to try and coordinate it so as not to be in conflict with their stakes program. The same thing with Del Mar.
“We're not in that space at that time customarily, so if we bring 10 Grade I and II stakes to that time frame, we're trying to be respectful of their stakes as well and to try to coordinate it so they can compliment each other with three-and four-week gaps that can prep into each other,” Elliston said. “Wherever we land on dates, we'll try to avoid as much of that conflict as we can.”
Elliston said Keeneland will be emphasizing 2-year-old racing if it runs a summer meet. He forecasted there will be pent-up demand for juvenile maiden races, because the near-nationwide shutdown of the sport through the spring means top-level 2-year-olds will have missed starting opportunities in Kentucky, New York and California.
“No question about it,” Elliston said. “They would have started already at our meet and at Aqueduct and elsewhere. That didn't get done, so now you're seeing [robust MSW entries] at Gulfstream, and you will at other tracks, too. We're going to have a significant component of 2-year-old racing with whatever we do, and we'll focus on MSW races for 3-year-olds as well. We want horses started as quickly as we can so they make it through their conditions and be prepared for stakes programs around the country later on this summer.”
Another sector of the horse population might be out of reach: The horses with international aspirations that might have prepped at Keeneland before shipping to Europe for elite summer stakes.
“We have a lot of international-bound horses that come to Keeneland in April, not only 2-year-olds, but turf horses who prep here for Royal Ascot, for example,” Elliston said. “A lot of that has been pushed back as well [and we recognize] that it's been difficult for folks to make plans, no doubt about it.”
Elliston explained in a Sunday TDN article how Keeneland has a dual focus on preparing for potential race meets in July and October/November with the iconic September yearling sale sandwiched in between.
“The important thing is we're contingency planning for whatever environment we find ourselves in come September,” Elliston said. “To suggest we know exactly what it is going to be like is insane. But we know kind of what the options will be, and we're evaluating every single one of them to ensure we mitigate the disruptions as best we can.
“I'm hopeful–very hopeful, actually–that we will be able to have people on the grounds being able to look at and buy horses from the auction ring. But we're probably going to have to build out our remote bidding options and expanded phone bidding capabilities, as well as internet-based options, too.
“The optimism I have about people being able to come on the grounds and see horses and do their business, it's because we're spending a great deal of time developing safety protocols, making it such that they will feel comfortable coming on the grounds. We have to feel comfortable that we're doing our part to not contribute to the spread of the disease,” Elliston summed up.
Two Jewels Still Missing from Triple Crown
Prior to the announcement by Churchill Downs in March that the GI Kentucky Derby would be moved from the first Saturday in May to Sep. 5, there was speculation that all three associations that host Triple Crown races would come up with a retooled schedule in unison to preserve some semblance of spacing and order for the sport's signature race series.
But that joint announcement never came. Now, nearly two months later, both the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) and NYRA have yet to announce when, where, or if the GI Preakness S. and GI Belmont S. will be run.
That's understandable–we're in the middle of a pandemic, after all. And neither track has the state-approved go-ahead to resume any form of racing at this juncture.
But the longer the Triple Crown remains in flux, the clearer it becomes that too much tinkering will scuttle the spirit of the series.
Churchill's idea of running the Derby on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend isn't ideal, and however the endeavor turns out, the 2020 Derby will be saddled with asterisks.
But by pinning a target date on America's most important horse race, it at least gives the racing world an achievable goal to look forward to. That's important, and so is the obligation Churchill has to follow through with the Derby on behalf of every owner who bred a foal of 2017, because Derby dreams drive the bloodstock marketplace.
Winning the Preakness and the Belmont are stellar accomplishments. But no one should pretend they're on par with the Derby. In fact, the farther away those Classics gravitate from the Derby's orbit, the less drawing power, energy, and stature they have.
Last week the Associated Press reported that Oct. 3 was the most likely out of three possible Preakness dates under consideration based on available Saturday TV time slots at NBC, which broadcasts the Triple Crown. The MJC denied that any date has yet to be locked in.
But that Oct. 3 date–four weeks after the Derby–would be preferable to the other possible dates, one each in July and August. That's because the Preakness almost always has a marketing edge that the other two Classics can't match: The presence of a Derby winner chasing the Triple Crown.
With the exception of Country House last year and Grindstone in 1996, no Derby champ has missed the Preakness in the last quarter-century.
If you run the Preakness in the middle of summer without a “headline horse” to drive interest, that lack of promotional spark will be evident in ratings and betting handle.
As for the Belmont S., last week's rumor du jour suggested that a shorter version of it might still get carded for later in June if Belmont gets permission to resume racing, potentially making it the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Yes, the Triple Crown races have switched order before and the world didn't tilt off its axis. And the Belmont S. changed distances several times prior to 1926 before landing on the current 1 1/2 miles version that merits its “Test of a Champion” billing.
But if NYRA is intent on having a meaningful 3-year-old stakes in June at, say, nine furlongs, why not just beef up the existing GIII Peter Pan S., which was supposed to have been run this weekend and already serves as a respectable 1 1/8-miles prep for longer 3-year-old stakes?
The Belmont S. itself could then come back as a late October race, possibly falling in line with an Oct. 3 Preakness to more or less preserve the traditional race order of the series (although this creates the separate problem of bumping up too close to the Nov. 6-7 Breeders' Cup).
If the Preakness has to be run at Laurel instead of Pimlico for logistical reasons, that's fine. And if the spacing of the races has to get bent a bit for this year only, it's no big deal considering the duress of the pandemic.
But an abbreviated Belmont in June, a mid-summer Preakness, and then the Labor Day weekend Derby? That's too much of a forced fit.
The sport can handle a slightly altered Triple Crown in autumn anchored by the Sep. 5 Derby. But a twisted version that loses cachet by back-tracking the series over the summer and running the longest leg at an abbreviated distance might not be worth the effort.