By Richard Rosenblatt
The Belmont Stakes is a few hours away, wrapping up what has been one of the most bizarre Triple Crown seasons since … last year.
In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic rearranging the racing schedule, not to mention the way we live, the Triple Crown races were run Belmont-Derby-Preakness over 15 weeks rather than Derby-Preakness-Belmont over five weeks beginning on the first Saturday in May.
And then there was the 2019 Derby, when Maximum Security finished first, but was disqualified to 17th for interference and runner-up Country House became the winner.
Just when we thought racing would return to some semblance of normalcy with Hall of Famer trainer Bob Baffert winning a record seventh Derby with Medina Spirit, it all went wrong.
A positive post-race medication violation was revealed, a second sample came back positive for betamethasone, Medina Spirit’s Derby win is in jeopardy, and Baffert is suspended for two years from running horses at Churchill Downs.
Once the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission finalizes its investigation of the violation, the Derby winner will then be determined (likely decision is Medina Spirit will be DQ’d and runner-up Mandaloun will be declared the winner).
Which would totally make the 2021 Triple Crown a joke since Mandaloun didn’t run in the Preakness (Medina Spirit did and finished third), and Baffert is suspended from running any horses at Belmont Park, or any other New York Racing Association tracks – Saratoga and Aqueduct.
Brad Cox, who trains Mandaloun, said by the time the positive drug test was announced (a week after the Derby), the decision was made to give the colt a rest, with his next start likely the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park on July 17.
Cox sends out Essential Quality – the beaten Derby favorite – in the 1 ½-mile Belmont hoping his 2-teyar-old champion can rebound from his only defeat in six career starts.
A win, and Essential Quality would again move to the head of the class of 3-year-olds entering racing’s summer season. Preakness (G1) winner Rombauer can become the first Preakness-Belmont winner since Afleet Alex in 2005 and would elevate him into the top echelon of 3-year-olds.
Entering the Triple Crown season, Baffert was loaded. In addition to Medina Spirt, a third stringer in his stable, he also had Life Is Good and Concert Tour, as well as Spielberg and even Hozier. Now, there’s just about nothing as racing’s most recognizable figure faces so many more track suspensions, not to mention the loss of horses from some of his big-time owners (Spendthrift Farm, for one).
While much of the TV banter (NBC, Fox Sports, TVG) leading up to the Belmont will involve Baffert, the Derby, the state of racing, and what the industry can do to improve its image, there’s still a great day of racing at Belmont Park, which drew more than 5,000 spectators for Friday’s races and expects about 11,000 fans Saturday – no spectators were allowed in 2020.
The 13-race program features eight Grade 1 races – yes eight. Granted, the 153rd Belmont Stakes is THE race, but the $1 million Metropolitan Handicap, aka the Met Mile, always features a top field – Knicks Go, another Cox trainee, looks to add this race to the win column that includes the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) and the Pegasus World Cup (G1).
Irad Ortiz, Jr., meanwhile was injured in a spill at Belmont on Thursday and will be sidelined at least two weeks. He was scheduled to ride 6-1 choice Known Agenda in the Belmont among his many mounts on the day, and his brother, Jose Ortiz, has been chosen by trainer Todd Pletcher to replace hm.
Irad Ortiz, Jr., the nation’s top jockey the past three years and the current leading rider in 2021, will be out about two weeks after injuries sustained from a spill in Thursday’s fifth race.
Ortiz was aboard Equal Pay and was unseated during the race. American Parade, ridden by his brother, Jose Ortiz, ran over the fallen rider, who was taken off the track on a stretcher. After the race, Jose, ran back up the track to check on his brother.
“It didn’t look very good at all,” Jose Ortiz told The Associated Press on Friday. “He got four stitches on his arm and six on his head, but he’s doing really, really good. It could’ve been a lot worse.”
Jose replaces Irad on 6-1 Belmont choice Known Agenda.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.