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By Anil Mukhi | 20 Jun 2020 |

With the Kentucky Derby being postponed to September 5th, and the Preakness Stakes to October 3rd, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic currently ravaging the world, the New York Racing Association was faced with a dilemma – how to slot in the third leg of America’s Triple Crown, the 12 fur. Belmont Stakes, to this year’s topsy-turvy schedule and still allow the horses an adequate span to recover in time for the Breeders Cup, programmed for November 6th and 7th at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky?

The solution NYRA has come up with is sure to find traditionalists tearing their hair out in frustration – the 152nd renewal of the race has been shortened to 9 furlongs and will be run as the first leg rather than the last leg! Actually the Belmont Stakes has been run at five different distances in its long history and the 1893 and 1894 renewals were conducted at the same 9 furlongs trip as will be the case this year.

Whether this novel solution will lead to a genuine Triple Crown winner remains to be seen. The portents are not favourable: the race, penciled in for 5:42 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, June 20th (03:12 a.m. IST on Sunday, June 21st, in India), has drawn just 10 runners, only a couple of whichhave “star” quality about them. To be fair, there are some unexposed types which might rocket up in ratings to Grade 1 level with the efflux of time.

Bred by Twin Creeks Farm in New York State, not far from the racetrack at which he will be in attendance, Tiz The Law (by Constitution) has close connections to the team that secured a prized slot in the scroll of honour of the American Turf with Funny Cide, hero of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes back in 2003 in the silks of Sackatoga Stable. Headed by managing partner Jack Knowlton, Sackatoga Stable is the nom de course of a racing outfit formed by a group of friends from Sacket’s Harbor in upstate New York, and veteran Barclay Tagg, now 82, is their trainer.

The stable campaigned Funny Cide, who was gelded early, and its latest star, a cleverly-named son of Tizfiz, was knocked down to Knowlton for $110,000 as a yearling. Tiz The Law has done little wrong, with 4 wins from 5 starts, including the Gr.1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park last fall. To be ridden by regular pilot Manuel Franco, the fluent winner of the Gr.1 Florida Derby at the end of March this year has been drawn 8 and is expected to start at around evens. Tagg sounded upbeat when he said: “We're ready for the race. They just have to run it.”

Sole Volante (by Karakontie) will have his girth tightened by Patrick Biancone, whom old-timers will remember as the schooler of back-to-back winners of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe for the Wildenstein Stable in France. Those wins came courtesy of All Along and Sagacerespectively, and Biancone could once again regain the spotlight should his ward triumph here. 46 years of age, Italian native Luca Panici, who has struck up a fruitful partnership with Biancone, will ride the 9 to 2 second choice, who races best when essaying a late run. The only negative is that Sole Volante last ran – he won – just 10 days ago. That could not have been Plan ‘A’ for a trainer as experienced as Biancone, so there was obviously some undisclosed factor that caused him to fall back on Plan ‘B’ – which may still work. 

A pair of colts by Quality Road represent the stable of Todd Pletcher, always to be respected in Graded Stakes in the USA. Dr. Post, who will have the services of Irad Ortiz, Jr., in the saddle, broke his maiden at Gulfstream Park, then followed by claiming an ungraded stakes event, despite a troubled passage. Farmington Road will break from the gate under Javier Castellano. So far he has struggled thrice in stakes company and a maiden win at his third attempt represents the colt’s only appearance in the winner’s circle. 

Sir Winston surprised in last year’s running of the Belmont Stakes for trainer Mark Casse and the latter returns, hoping for back-to-back wins in the prestigious race, this time with Tap It To Win (by Tapit). Live Oaks Farm’s home-bred has yet to earn “blacktype” but is unbeaten from 2 starts this year, including a recent effort at Belmont Park. There is no better jockey to have in one’s corner in a stakes race in North America than Johnny Velazquez. Hence the ridgling is fairly popular at 6 to 1.

Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC, founded by the late “Donut King” Verne H. Winchell, is well known for playing at the upper echelons of American horse racing, having campaigned the likes of Untapable, Tapizar, Mira Femme, Tight Spot and others. The stable has had a lengthy association with trainer Steve Asmussen, who in turn has been relying on the riding skills of Ricardo Santana, Jr. Their representative here is Pneumatic (by Uncle Mo), perfectly bred for the job as he is out of a mare by Tapit. Winner of his first two starts, he slightly dented his image when promoted to Graded Stakes company by finding Maxfieldand NY Traffic too good for him. Still, he is not out of it by any means.   

The Belmont Stakes is notorious for turning out longshot winners, with Sarava (50 to 1) and Da’Tara (38 to 1) proving the point this century. However, part of the reason is that few North American racehorses ever encounter distances as far as 12 furlongs, and hidden stamina does not manifest itself prior to the race. At 9 furlongs, this argument does not hold good.

As such, the remaining four runners warrant only brief mentions. These are:

• Max Player (by Honor Code), trained by Linda Rice, winner of the Withers Stakes, and not seen for 140 days.

• Modernist (by Uncle Mo), educated by Bill Mott, winner of the Risen Star Stakes, but only a fair third in the Louisiana Derby last time out just over three months ago.

• Fore Left (by Twirling Candy), from Doug O’Neil’s barn, unracedsince returning from Dubai, where he won the UAE Derby 135 days ago.

• Jungle Runner (by Candy Ride), a stablemate of Pneumatic, unplaced at his last four starts.