For people who work in horse racing, the pull of the Kentucky Derby is so strong that running it on the first Saturday in September rather than the first Saturday in May is a relatively minor obstacle.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s in January, March or November,” said trainer Mark Casse, who typically has a few Derby hopefuls in his barn every spring, including this one. “It’s something everybody wants to win.”
But moving America’s most famous and important Thoroughbred race to Sept. 5 this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic is going to have some unusual consequences for the horse racing calendar, including perhaps to the entire Triple Crown setup itself.
For nearly every owner and trainer that has a promising 3-year-old, everything is geared toward giving that horse a chance to compete in the Kentucky Derby, which is traditionally followed by the Preakness Stakes two weeks later and the Belmont Stakes three weeks after that.
These days, it’s rare that horses will run in all three races unless they have a chance to win the Triple Crown because the physical demands are so great. Owners and trainers might take a shot at one or two of the classics, but if they don’t win the Derby, many of them would rather have a well-rested horse ready for big money races in the summer and fall.
But a Kentucky Derby in September changes everything, particularly because the Breeders’ Cup — horse racing’s end-of-year championship event — is anchored to Nov. 7 with a $7 million purse being offered for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
KENTUCKY DERBY: Easy to postpone, much harder to reschedule
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If the rest of the Triple Crown simply falls in line behind the Derby with the Preakness on Sept. 19 and the Belmont on Oct. 10, that’s going to put a huge squeeze on trainers who are also eyeing the Breeders’ Cup for their horses.
“That would make the Breeders’ Cup almost impossible if you wanted to run the Triple Crown,” said Casse, who won the Preakness with War of Will and the Belmont with Sir Winston last year. “That’s just another piece in the puzzle but it’s a very good question.”
As of now, it’s unclear when the Preakness and Belmont will be run. Statements from the Maryland Jockey Club and New York Racing Association on Tuesday indicated that they were working with each other and various other entities to come up with a solution that makes sense for everyone.
A statement from NBC Sports through a spokesperson indicated the network was open to just about anything, including running the three races in a different order: “The health and safety of our employees are our highest priority. We will continue to follow the guidance of numerous health and government authorities. We worked closely with Churchill Downs on this scheduling. While we appreciate the traditional sequencing of the Triple Crown races, these are uncharted waters. We will work with our partners who run the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes to determine the most appropriate timing.”
Luis Saez aboard Maximum Security leads the field at the start during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (Photo: Jamie Rhodes, USA TODAY Sports)
Here’s why the spacing of the races matters so much.
Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso and second-place finisher McKinzie both ran prep races Aug. 3 and Sept. 28. Third-place finisher Higher Power ran Aug. 17 and Sept. 28. That’s a fairly common pattern heading into a $7 million race Nov. 7.
In other words, anyone pointing toward the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup will have some difficult decisions to make about the Preakness and Belmont, both of which offer $1.5 million purses. And if that’s the case, does it even make sense to run the three Triple Crown races in order?
There is some precedent for the Preakness being run before the Derby prior to 1930, at which point the Triple Crown concept came into being. The order has remained set ever since. But this is, of course, a highly unusual circumstance, and there are other big prizes in the summer like the Travers Stakes and the Haskell Invitational Stakes, which are now going to be de facto prep races for the Kentucky Derby. In other words, it’s probably going to be impossible to please everyone.
“These are things that can be worked out, and I don’t think they’re that difficult given the situation we’re in,” said Casse. “If that’s the biggest problem we run into, we’re very, very lucky.”
In a sense, horse racing is lucky and unique in that it can still operate over the next several weeks and months while the rest of the sports world is shut down.
Though some racetracks have closed completely — notably, Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky — others have determined to remain operational but without fans in attendance. Given the prevalence of online and telephone betting, it’s a feasible plan for the time being to keep the sport running. And according to Alex Waldrop, CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, there’s “no evidence” that horses are a host animal for this type of coronavirus.
“It’s a great opportunity for racing to sell itself to a new audience because there are no sports betting opportunities, and this is a time for racing to distinguish itself,” Waldrop said. “A lot of people depend on racing for their jobs and livelihoods so that’s all important.
“Nonetheless we have stressed to individuals and tracks that it’s imperative if they’re going to race they must take precautions to protect employees, stable area works, racing officials, jockeys, backstretch suppliers and other vendors and always their horses. So this is a fluid situation.
"There are lots of communities on the backstretch that could be impacted. If you’re going to go forward you have to be responsible and make sure you’re doing everything you can to take care of these individuals on the backstretch.”
And assuming that plan continues to be valid, it means trainers like Casse will continue running in traditional Kentucky Derby prep races over the next several weeks, just without a Derby to prepare for. Two of his runners, Enforceable and Lynn’s Map, are scheduled to run in Saturday’s $1 million Louisiana Derby.
Though moving the Kentucky Derby to September is highly unusual and will alter every trainers’ plans, Casse said he’ll simply chart a new course of prep races from April through August to get ready.
“Everything is going to be different this year, but if well-planned out it can be just as exciting,” Casse said. “Why not? I don’t know that it’s necessarily the time of year, it’s just the events and you’ll still have great events. My only hope is I have something good enough to run in it.”
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