The last race is first, the longest race the shortest.
The Triple Crown, traditionally decided in five weeks from the first Saturday in May to the first or second Saturday of June, will be decided this year over 15 weeks, starting with Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, continuing with the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in September and the Preakness the first Saturday of October.
In a year when just about nothing other than Amazon is like it was, horse racing’s showcase events are very different, too.
The Belmont Stakes, typically run at a mile and a half, will be run at a mile and an eighth Saturday at Belmont Park, located just east of Queens on Long Island. There will be no spectators, but there will be wagering — lots of wagering.
Unlike every other sport in America, horse racing in some locales, including Florida and Arkansas, never stopped, even though no fans were allowed. And, with no other sports to bet, online wagering on horse racing with various providers has soared.
Arkansas Derby Day at Oaklawn Park typically attracts 60,000 fans. The record handle for the big day was $19 million. This year, after the track moved its signature event to the first Saturday in May, what would have been Kentucky Derby Day, the total handle rocketed to $40 million, as players, confined to their homes, were glued to their laptops and smartphones punching out bets all day long.
More than 90% of the money bet on horses was bet away from the track before the pandemic. During April and May, it was 100 percent.
A few weeks ago, this Belmont Stakes looked poised to have an all-star field, not unlike what would have been expected for the Derby had it been run in its usual spot. But injuries to several of the top 3-year-olds — including Nadal, Charlatan, and Maxfield — have definitely reduced the star power.
Ten horses were entered Wednesday. The favorite will be Tiz the Law, trained by Penn State grad Barclay Tagg, who grew up in Abington and had his first winner at old Liberty Bell Park in 1972. Tagg’s most accomplished horse was 2003 Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, like Tiz the Law, a New York bred.
Tiz the Law, who has won the Florida Derby and Champagne, is the only Grade I winner in the field and most likely winner. The colt, clearly uncomfortable running inside other horses, should get a comfortable, outside trip from the 8 post.
I was walking into Monmouth Park last August to play in a contest when I saw Tap It to Win go wire to wire on the rail to win the second race at Saratoga on Travers Day. I didn’t think much of it until I watched all the races and no other horses all day were close while running near the rail. Tap It to Win had won against a significant track bias. I told a few friends this could be a Derby horse.
I bet Tap it to Win in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. The horse ran terribly, finishing 10th, beaten by 43½ lengths. When I watched him lose his next race, a minor stakes at Churchill Downs by 21 ¼ lengths, I figured I just got it wrong.
Turned out I didn’t. According to trainer Mark Casse, the colt could not be controlled at Keeneland and got burned out. Then, he got injured so badly at the start of the race at Churchill that he eventually needed surgery.
Tap it to Win has been brilliant in his two races this year, winning at Gulfstream Park on May 9 and at Belmont Park on June 4 by 5 lengths while running like a wild horse.
Casse is one of the few big-name trainers who will run horses in major stakes with such a quick turnaround. But he has made it work. If Tap It to Win runs that same race again, he wins. And if the horse wins, so will I. Tap It to Win is my pick.