From DQ to COVID-19

To borrow the immortal words of Joe Jacobs, iconic manager of Max Schmeling who, in the aftermath of his boxer’s controversial 1934 loss to Jack Sharkey at Madison Square Garden, simply told the sports world: “We wuz robbed!”

That’s how millions of horse-racing enthusiasts felt in the aftermath of the 2019 Kentucky Derby, when Maximum Security was DQ’d after crossing the finish line first. Many might have been able to live with the official result if second-place finisher Country House and jockey Flavien Prat had been victimized by the reckless ride of Luis Saez. But such was not the case, as War of Will, trainer Mark Casse and rider Tyler Gaffalione was the compromised connection. It took 145 editions of the “Run for the Roses” to bring us a result that might better be characterized as “pushing up daisies.”

A year later, this observer of America’s Triple Crown races is left to ponder the number of asterisks we should affix to the winners of the Derby, Preakness and thoroughbred racing’s “True test of Champions.” Well … maybe asterisks (plural) is too strong a reaction to the muddled, COVID-19-induced series. But there’s no doubt in this railbird’s mind that one GIANT qualifier should cover the entire 2020 version.

From most-to-least obvious: Two factors making the Belmont Stakes the ultimate test for 3-year-olds are (1) its 1 1/2 mile distance and (2) the compact timeframe for competing in all three Triple Crown races, typically seven weeks (under ordinary circumstances, the dates would have been May 2nd, May 16th and June 20th). Clearly, the 2020 campaign’s edition removed the Belmont’s long-anointed moniker.

A big part of the Kentucky Derby’s allure is the various journeys the current crop of 3-year-olds takes – whether it’s Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial, southern California’s Santa Anita Derby, Oaklawn Park’s Arkansas Derby or Gulfstream Park’s Florida Derby – and what will happen the first time they all compete on the same track at the same time. In this year’s Derby, veteran Hall of Fame jockey John R. Velasquez took full advantage of a campaign’s worth of intelligence about the contenders to unleash a perfect ride for Authentic’s victory over Tiz the Law.

The Preakness, historically run just 14 days after the Derby, this year was scheduled as the last of the 3-year-old classics, taking place in the first weeks of autumn as opposed to the last weeks of spring. Cutting back 1/16 of a mile from the Derby distance and run over a speed-favoring track, it has often changed the dynamics between and among the same Triple-Crown competitors over consecutive races in a still young but increasingly grueling campaign. Now on the eve of becoming 4-year-olds, entrants faced one another under radically different circumstances.

All I can say is … let’s hope next season offers a return to normalcy. I long for a Triple Crown series I can recognize!

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