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As pandemic threatens to scramble Triple Crown schedule, trainers and historians say they’ll welcome races whenever

American Pharoah, ridden by Victor Espinoza, wins the 140th Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course, Saturday, May 16, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
American Pharoah, ridden by Victor Espinoza, wins the 140th Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course, Saturday, May 16, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (Nick Wass / AP)

From the first year the Preakness Stakes was run in 1873 until the race settled into its current place on the calendar in 1932, it preceded the Kentucky Derby 11 times and was contested on the same day twice.

In 1945, as thoroughbred racing emerged from a blackout because of World War II, the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes were all held over a two-week period in June.

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In other words, the sacred history of dates and timelines associated with the Triple Crown series was never quite so sacred. That backstory of scrambled calendars and postponed running dates will be of particular interest this year as the racing world looks ahead to the most unusual Triple Crown schedule in recent memory.

The coronavirus pandemic has already pushed the Derby from May 2 to Sept. 5. The Maryland Jockey Club and NBC Sports are considering dates in July, August and October for the Preakness. And the New York Racing Association has yet to announce postponement plans for the Belmont, currently scheduled for June 6. So the possibility looms for an out-of-order Triple Crown with unfamiliar intervals between the races.

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What to make of this for a sport that cherishes its traditions?

“Honestly, I think that’s the least of our concerns right now,” said trainer Mark Casse, who won the 2019 Preakness with War of Will. “If we could just get back to racing, that would be wonderful. And with what’s going on in the world, even that’s not that important. … I’ll be happy, in all honesty, if we have a Kentucky Derby, a Preakness and a Belmont this year. I think that would be a bonus.”

Casse loves the Triple Crown races — the spectacle, the fan interactions, the tense competition — as much as any horseman, and he said they’ll undoubtedly feel different if run on unfamiliar dates and/or without spectators.

“But in 2020, there are very few things that are remaining the same,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of people out there waiting for 2021.”

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His tone was shared by others steeped in Triple Crown history.

“We have no idea how well the tracks will be able to coordinate this, but I think assuming the tracks are open for racing, even without fans, it’ll be fine,” said Bennett Liebman, a lawyer in residence at Albany Law School and longtime student of racing history and regulations. “I think we’ll get over it.”

Liebman has long been fascinated by oddities in Triple Crown history — the five years when the Belmont Stakes was run at Aqueduct Racetrack after the stands at Belmont Park were condemned in 1962, the version of the Preakness that was run in Brooklyn from 1894 until 1908 — so to his mind, 2020 will simply go down as another unusual chapter.

“It’s not like the Triple Crown has always been written in concrete,” he said.

Longtime Maryland breeder Josh Pons, who runs Country Life Farm in Bel Air with his brother, Mike, said it’s important for the state to host the Preakness in some form because of the event’s economic and symbolic power. He considers the specifics negotiable.

“Having the Preakness at a different time of year, it’s not the end of the world,” Pons said. “I don’t know whether it’ll be in July or August or October. But whatever decisions you have to make on the fly, sort of during wartime, they’re informed by what’s best for everybody involved.”

Despite the pandemic, he said this should be an optimistic time for the industry and the future of the Preakness because of the news Thursday that a redevelopment plan for Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park passed into law.

Trainers are less worried about the historical than the practical implications of a delayed and potentially scrambled Triple Crown schedule.

They’re used to preparing 3-year-old thoroughbreds for the first Saturday in May and, in special cases, the five weeks beyond that. But horses ready to peak in the spring are not necessarily the same ones who dominate in the summer and fall. Any semblance of a traditional prep schedule is out the window, with racing on hold in states such as Maryland and New York and the future calendar uncertain at tracks around the country.

Trainers aren’t sure what to do with their best 3-year-olds in three weeks, much less three months.

Two-time Kentucky Derby winner Todd Pletcher is as good as any trainer at getting multiple horses ready for the first leg of the Triple Crown. But he’s acknowledged that the pandemic has thrown off any normal rhythm in his preparations for potential 2020 contenders Farmington Road and Gouverneur Morris, saying “I don’t think you could emphasize enough how big of a change it makes.”

“You’re trying to get a horse prepared for its upcoming race whether that’s this week or in a couple of weeks, and if you’re able to get those races in, then you get that much closer to making a decision on what you may or may not do in September,” Pletcher said on a recent conference call. “But you know, in life and in horseracing, four months is an awfully long time, so when you’re talking about changing a schedule from … trying to prepare a horse for a race on 2nd May 2020 to it’s now in September, it’s a little too far out to really say exactly what you’re going to do, I think especially in the uncertainty of with everything going on at the moment.”

Casse maintains a large spreadsheet of future races for each of the horses he trains. He joked that it’s a good thing he has a delete button at the moment.

“We don’t know when racetracks are going to start, and when they do start, how they’re going to re-arrange the schedule,” he said.

The postponements might actually favor his best 3-year-old, Enforceable, who ran a disappointing fifth in the March 21 Louisiana Derby. Without the pressure of a looming Kentucky Derby, Casse was able to take Enforceable back to his training center in Ocala, Fla. for some refreshing work.

But with War of Will in 2019 or Classic Empire in 2017, similar interruptions would have been terrible news.

Casse said one factor that helps trainers cope with the pandemic is their familiarity with uncertainty and disappointment, even in the best times. Working with elite thoroughbreds is an inexact science.

“Very seldom do things go as planned,” he said. “I was asked a few years back, ‘Do you ever dream about something happening?’ And I said, ‘No, because if I dream about it and it doesn’t happen, I can only wake up disappointed.’”

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If a horse won the Triple Crown this year, Pletcher was asked, would an asterisk be in order? “I guess that would be up to every individual to make their own decisions about that type of stuff,” he said. “I personally haven’t spent much time thinking about that at the moment.”

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Maryland-based trainer Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, said any horse that won all three races would be honored as a Triple Crown winner and all-time great.

“But whatever happens this year, there’s going to be an asterisk above it," he said. “It’s not going to be the same; it doesn’t appear like there’s any way it can be conducted in the usual manner with the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. There won’t be the time to do that.”

Liebman agreed that fans would look at a pandemic-altered Triple Crown differently. But he reached for a baseball example, when a young Yankee broke a famous record set by Babe Ruth, to suggest that might not always be the case.

“Initially, they would,” he said. “In the future, who knows? I mean in 1961, Ford Frick put an asterisk on Roger Maris’ 61 home runs. In retrospect, that looks silly. So it’s going to be hard to judge how this would look in the future.”

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