When the whispers began that the 2020 Belmont Stakes could be run at nine furlongs, three shorter than is normal, I could not have been more against the idea. After all, that was one element of this year's Triple Crown series that didn't need to change due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But since the news became official, I've warmed up to the idea of this broken tradition.
Running the Belmont as the first Triple Crown jewel at 1 1/2 miles, when no member of the 3-year-old crop has even traversed 1 1/4 miles, would have been a mistake for the New York Racing Association. In addition to horses not being physically ready for the task, it would have put the field's quality in question.
Running the Belmont on June 20 at its new distance already has a crackerjack group of sophomores lining up for a race suddenly more contentious than a 12-furlong version would have been.
Already, we're looking at a matchup including a pair of unbeaten Arkansas Derby (G1) winners in Nadal and Charlatan going up against multiple Grade 1 winner Tiz the Law, who will be defending his home turf as a New York-bred.
Trainer Bob Baffert was previously quoted as saying he would not be interested in a 12-furlong Belmont Stakes given how the year has played out. His tune changed after the fact, but perhaps he would have considered a different type of horse. What may be his best two are now under consideration.
The list of possibilities also includes graded winners Max Player, Sole Volante and Basin, along with something formidable from the Todd Pletcher barn. Then there's Maxfield, who could put himself in play with a nice showing off the bench Saturday in Churchill Downs' Matt Winn Stakes (G3).
Should the “new” Belmont Stakes manage to lure all these names, consider the date and distance a success. It may not be the “Test of a Champion” we've come to love, but the winner of the Belmont Stakes would nonetheless move to the top of the crop.
There is also the stigma that this Triple Crown deserves an asterisk should a horse sweep all three legs. That's an understandable thought. But I'd argue that the spacing of this year's races makes the feat that much more difficult.
The Kentucky Derby falls almost three months after the Belmont, with the Preakness Stakes concluding the series on Oct. 3. Stuck in between the first and second jewels are also the Haskell (G1) on July 18 at Monmouth Park and Saratoga's Travers (G1), with a date to be determined.
To win this year’s Triple Crown, one horse must stay in form for at least 15 weeks while likely competing in four Grade 1 events. That a unique Belmont Stakes kicks it off makes it a Test of a Champion in a different sense.