Sports Pulse: Dan Wolken on what to expect from this years Kentucky Derby
By early Saturday evening, horse racing’s greatest all-time bar debate could be brewing: Can the winner of the most unusual Triple Crown we’ve ever seen really go down in history as a Triple Crown winner?
Tiz the Law, a majestic-looking colt with a striking white blaze covering most of his face, has established himself as the dominant 3-year old of this year and the heavy favorite in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. And when he enters the starting gate at Churchill Downs, he’ll have the distinction of already being one-third of the way to immortality, having won the Belmont on June 20.
But should Tiz the Law add the Derby title, the hype surrounding his arrival at the Preakness on Oct. 3 would be strangely controversial. It’s not simply that he would have run the races out of their traditional order or in the fall rather than the spring because of COVID-19. It’s that he quite simply would not have achieved the same thing that Secretariat, Seattle Slew, American Pharoah and the rest achieved to earn their status as legends.
The reason? Back on May 19, the New York Racing Association announced that its signature race — the Belmont Stakes — would be run as the first leg of the Triple Crown. More important, it reduced the distance from 1 1/2 miles to 1 1/8 miles — a massive difference that, in layman’s terms, makes the race about 45 seconds shorter.
The long distance of the Belmont, particularly coming at the end of a typically grueling stretch of three Triple Crown races in five weeks, is what traditionally separates the very good from the great.
Only a small number of American thoroughbreds ever run a mile and a half race at any point in their lives, and that long stretch run at Belmont Park has stymied many would-be Triple Crown winners over the decades. It’s why the race is called the “Test of the Champions.”
Through no fault of his own, Tiz the Law won’t get that chance. Does that put an asterisk next to his name for all time? It depends how you look at it.
Let’s rewind to March and April when the pandemic first emerged in the United States. Very quickly, the Kentucky Derby claimed Sept. 5 as its new date. That left the other two Triple Crown races in a tough spot because they also had to consider the $7 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 7, a race that would be the primary objective for several owners and trainers coming out of a Derby in September.
If the Preakness and the Belmont were going to be relevant this year, one of them was likely going to have to be run before the Derby. But the New York Racing Association also had something else to consider: Modern trainers are relatively cautious about putting too much stress on their horses. On the rare occasions they enter a 1 1/2-mile race, they typically give their horses plenty of time off afterward to recover. And that wouldn’t have worked well with a schedule of trying to get a horse fit and ready for the Kentucky Derby.
“I think given the circumstances this was the best choice,” top trainer Todd Pletcher told the Blood Horse in June. “A mile and a half wasn’t going to fit many horses at this stage. It was the right move.”
Ironically, Tiz the Law would have probably been one of the few entered in the race no matter the distance. His trainer, Barclay Tagg, was on record as being upset that the Belmont was shortened.
But who could have known at the time that the legitimacy of a Triple Crown winner could end up being a real conversation?
There’s still a chance it won’t. Tiz the Law has to go win the next two races, and there are never guarantees in a sport as fickle as horse racing.
What makes the hypothetical so interesting, though, is that both the visual evidence and all the speed figures and analytics suggest Tiz the Law is a truly great horse, on par with the likes of American Pharoah and Justify, who won the Triple Crown in recent years.
He has won six out of seven career races. He dominated the Florida Derby in March. He ran away from the Belmont field under very little urging. And in the Travers on Aug. 8 at the same 1 1/4-mile distance as the Derby, Tiz the Law put forward one of the most visually impressive races of any horse this year, pouncing from just off the pace sprinting away from the field coming into the stretch before jockey Manny Franco powered him down in the last eighth of a mile.
With second favorite Art Collector being scratched from the Derby this week because of an injury, Tiz the Law is one of the heaviest favorites in modern history, starting at 3/5 odds on the morning line. If he runs to his typical level, it’s hard to imagine how he’d get beat either Saturday or in the Preakness.
And if he can pull it off, Tiz the Law will deserve every bit of adulation that other Triple Crown winners have received. In a way, what he’s attempted to do is even more impressive than a typical Triple Crown. It’s harder to keep a horse good for four months than five weeks.
But it appears Tiz the Law is really that good. And in a year where we crave sports heroes and uplifting stories more than ever, Tiz the Law would qualify as a genuine equine star. Technically, an asterisk may fit his achievement. Regardless, it’s something horse racing fans will be arguing about for years. But if he can win this Triple Crown, his greatness won’t really be up for dispute.
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