LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - The New York Racing Association always has done a first-class job of promoting the Belmont Stakes, the ancient 1.5-mile classic that is the third and final jewel, after the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, in thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown.
I remember one year when Mickey Rooney, the iconic childhood actor from the 1930s and 1940s, entertained the media at the post-position draw breakfast with some tunes from whatever show he was currently doing on Broadway.
The Belmont is an easy sell when the Triple Crown is on the line. The New Yorkers love to see history in the making. After Affirmed won it in 1978, the sport didn’t have another one until American Pharoah in 2015.
Then, last year, Justify won it for the same horseman who trained American Pharoah, Bob Baffert, and retired to the breeding shed as the only unbeaten Triple Crown winner in history. The crowd was huge and joyous.
But now it’s Belmont time again, and the biggest and best advertising agency on Madison Avenue would not be able to put a happy face on either the race or the sport’s very serious problems. It’s hard to imagine that both the crowd size and the TV ratings aren’t headed for the dumper.
Then again, maybe many racing fans have gotten hooked on the soap opera the 2019 Triple Crown has become. The winner of the Derby was disqualified to 17th because of his jockey’s careless riding habits, and the horse he arguably impeded the most at Churchill Downs came back to win the Preakness two weeks later.
That could have set up a showdown of sorts between Maximum Security, the disqualified Derby winner who skipped the Preakness, and War of Will, who won the Preakness in the absence of both Maximum Security and Country House, who was moved up from second after the disqualification.
But he came down with a physical problem — a trapped epiglottis — after the Derby that knocked him out of both the Preakness and Belmont.
Gary and Mary West, the owners of Maximum Security, are so upset with the Triple Crown that they are skipping the Belmont and pointing for the Haskell Stakes at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park later in the summer.
Their horse apparently can run in the Belmont, in other words, but won’t. And that doesn’t leave the NYRA publicists much left to sell, especially considering the public is well aware of all the horses who have died in racetrack accidents this year at Santa Anita and other tracks.
The best story, of course, would be for War of Wall to win the Belmont. That would give him two legs of the Triple Crown and the valid argument that he might have won the Derby had not Luis Saez, the jockey aboard Maximum Security, swerved into his path and almost caused a pileup of horses.
However, some serious handicappers are saying that Maximum Security doesn’t have the stamina in his breeding to win at 1.5 miles. If that’s true, what does that leave for NYRA to sell?
A victory by Tacitus, moved up to third in the Derby and missing at the Preakness, would be mildly interesting considering that he’s trained by Bill Mott, the same guy who got his Derby win with Country House because of Saez’s riding violations.
A victory by Master Fencer, who was bred in Japan, would generate some international buzz within the industry, but would only get a shrug from New York sports fans. And then there’s the fact that Saez, the rider of Maximum Security, will ride the long shot Everfast in the Belmont.
Truth be told, everybody in racing willl just be happy to have a clean Belmont with no injuries. The sport is under siege by animal-rights groups, and it can not afford another controversy on the national stage.
But what, if anything, can the sport do to restore the public’s confidence?
Unlike other professional sports, racing’s administrative structure is fragmented. And without a national office and a commissioner to insure uniformity of medication and other rules in all racing states, it has existed as an unwieldy coalition of interest groups that can’t seem to agree on much of anything.
So maybe the time finally has come for the sport to reorganize with a commissioner and national office who have real power to establish uniform rules, including a new investigative arm dedicated to integrity and safety.
But first this flawed Triple Crown must be brought to a merciful ending. If the Belmont goes off without a hitch, the next controversy will be whether the Breeders’ Cup should hold its program at Santa Anita, as scheduled, or move it to a different location.
That would mean moving it to Churchill Downs, of course, which is the only track in the Breeders’ Cup rotation that has the facilities, the staff, and the experience to take such a big event on short notice.
I’ll watch the Belmont with my fingers crossed and my money on Tacitus and the long shot Tax. I’ll also be hoping for something exciting to happen, in a good way, so the sport can salvage something positive from the most troubled Triple Crown anybody can remember.