May 20, 2020 10:44 AM

Belmont set for June 20 without fans, leads off Triple Crown

Posted May 20, 2020 10:44 AM

Horse racing’s Triple Crown will look different this year from start to finish.

The Belmont Stakes will be run before the Kentucky Derby and Preakness for the first time and take place at a shorter distance. It will lead off the Triple Crown on June 20 in New York with no fans in attendance and at a distance of 1 1/8 miles instead of the 1 1/2-mile “test of the champion” that has been the race’s trademark for nearly a century.

“The way it fits in the calendar, it’s a completely different race than the traditional Belmont would be,” New York Racing Association president and CEO Dave O’Rourke said Tuesday. “I think we’re going to have a big field. I think it’ll be a really competitive field. I think the dynamics of the race are different.”

The three Triple Crown races will be run out of their traditional order for the first time since 1931. The Kentucky Derby was moved from May 2 to Sept. 5 and the Preakness from May 16 to Oct. 3 amid the coronavirus pandemic that has upended the sports calendar.

“I’m just happy we get to run,” two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert said. “I’m just fortunate that they didn’t cancel any of them. A couple months ago, it didn’t look good.”

An out-of-order Triple Crown presents another set of challenges and would be a different kind of accomplishment than the one competed by the 13 past champions. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont are usually run during a five-week span in the spring, and 3-year-olds are more mature by the summer and fall.

“It’s going to help some, it’s going to hurt others,” trainer Mark Casse said. “You’re going to see a lot stronger, probably a bigger, stronger horse from May.”

The Belmont is only being run two weeks after it was scheduled, but the shorter distance changes the complexion of the race and the Triple Crown. It has been run at 1 1/2 miles each year dating to 1926 and last ran at 1 1/8 miles in 1894.

It’s not the same going before the Kentucky Derby.

“The Belmont, running after that, the ‘test of champions’ is: ‘How tough is your horse? How can he handle it?’” said Baffert, who trained 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and 2018 winner Justify. “Now, a mile and a half, they can handle it easier the first time. It wouldn’t be as difficult as it would be after running those other two races.

Barclay Tagg would have been fine with running top contender Tiz the Law at 1 1/2 miles, and Baffert plans for elite 3-year-olds Nadal and Charlatan to go to the Belmont.

NYRA officials said in a release that the distance adjustment was made “to properly account for the schedule adjustments to the Triple Crown series and overall calendar for 3-year-olds in training.” O’Rourke said there wasn’t much debate about shortening the race, and all comers are welcome.

“You wouldn’t get that many horses going a mile and a half right now,” Baffert said. “We would’ve gone a mile and a quarter, mile and a half. I don’t care what the distance was. We’re going to be there.”

The Belmont was originally scheduled for June 6. But racing in New York was halted in late March after a backstretch worker tested positive for COVID-19, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t give the green light to resume until Saturday.

O’Rourke said NYRA had been in touch with the Stronach Group that owns Pimlico Race Course since the Kentucky Derby was rescheduled so they could coordinate the timing of the Preakness and Belmont. With little desire for squeezing in the Belmont in October before the Breeders’ Cup Nov. 6-7, the focus was on June or July while awaiting government approval.

“We didn’t have dates for a while. Every day seemed like a week,” O’Rourke said. “As long as we were able to start at Belmont the first week of June, we thought we could hold to this June 20 date with a different race in a sense of distance and whatnot.”

Live racing is gradually ramping up operations across North America because tracks feel they can operate safely and still make money without fans on site because of online betting and TV revenue. More than $90 million was wagered off track last year on Belmont day, and NYRA gets a cut of that money along with revenue from NBC.

Racing will return to Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, on June 3 and go through July 12. The Belmont will be the highlight of that meet, even with the purse reduced from $1.5 million to $1 million as a result of the pandemic-related closures of racetracks and casinos in New York.

The race will also offer Kentucky Derby qualifying points instead of being the culmination of the Triple Crown that has been won by just 13 horses. Doing so will be a different kind of challenge this year, and Baffert hopes to build up his horses to still take a Run for the Roses in September with the Belmont in the leadoff spot.

“I think they’re going to be more competitive with that spaced-out time,” Baffert said. “At the end of the day, the end game is the Kentucky Derby. That Sept. 5 date is what we’re all shooting for.”

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May 20, 2020 10:44 AM
NFL teams can reopen training facilities with government OK

A limited number of NFL teams are reopening their training facilities Tuesday, while many are prohibited by government restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Commissioner Roger Goodell gave the 32 clubs the go-ahead for limited reopenings as long as state and local municipalities allow them. Coaching staffs and all players except those undergoing injury rehabilitation are barred from the facilities in the first phase of the league’s plan.

With such states as California, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts and Virginia still under heavy restrictions, that immediately leaves 12 franchises unable to use their facilities. The Raiders, headed for Las Vegas for the upcoming season, still have their training complex in Alameda, California.

The Packers, Ravens, Dolphins, Vikings, Titans, Buccaneers, Browns, Panthers, Saints, Eagles and Packers have chosen not to reopen Tuesday. Cincinnati expects to reopen on Wednesday. Jacksonville has set May 26 for its reopening, and Denver also is targeting next week.

Among the teams taking advantage of using their buildings on the first day they are allowed are the Cowboys, Falcons, Texans, Cardinals, Chiefs and Colts.

“We’ve spent the entire quarantine period preparing to reopen,” the Colts said in a statement, ”... but it will be very gradual and deliberate. And of course we’re taking steps to make sure we’re in compliance with state and local regulations, and NFL and CDC guidelines.”

That means primarily employees that must be in the office to do their jobs: people who need to access files that are only at the office; maintenance workers; trainers; and technology workers.

Those people will have their temperature taken when entering the building and must wear personal protective equipment. The Colts have set up one-way hallways with arrows on the carpet pointing to the proper direction, and there will be limits on how many people can be in rooms at the same time.

Coach Frank Reich was realistic about a full return to the training complex.

“The guys who have been hurt, who have been coming into the building, keep coming in and rehabbing and doing their thing,” he said.

“Other than that, as soon as we can get more players in the building — we want that to make up for a little bit of lost time. The sooner we can get together and get out there working, the better it will be.”

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones took part in an owners conference call from the team’s practice facility, The Star. About two dozen staffers were present at the complex.

The Steelers are doing a soft reopening Tuesday mainly for medical personnel and rehabbing players. They expect to ramp up use of their facility next week under league guidelines.

As the Cardinals reopen, only essential staffers will be involved, far fewer than the 75 allowed at the facility. The Super Bowl champion Chiefs also opted for a soft opening, as did the Falcons, with only about 15 people at their complex on Tuesday. Those numbers will increase over the next week.

“The fact that some teams can get in today with limited staff in non-football functions, we didn’t think in any way, shape or form that created a competitive balance issue,” said Falcons President Rich McKay, who also is co-chairman of the league’s powerful competition committee.

The Falcons train in Flowery Branch, Georgia, about 45 miles from their downtown Atlanta stadium.

“There’s one entrance to come in and out of. There’s all the social distancing to be complied with,” McKay added. “Everyone’s temperature is checked at the door and you’re asked a series of questions. Everyone must put gloves on and wear a mask the whole time unless they’re alone in a closed office. We don’t have the cafeteria open. We don’t have the team meeting rooms open.

“As we move around building, we’ll see if there are areas that give us a challenge and go from there.”

The Texans sent less than 10 people to their facility, and said, “We are considering this Phase Zero which will lead in to Phase 1 (up to 70 to 75 people) in the future.”

The Vikings are one of the teams to delay their return to their facility. Star receiver Adam Thielen notes it’s important not to rush things.

“When they say it’s OK,” he said of when he anticipates players being approved to enter team facilities.

“I’m not paid to know when that is, but when they say it’s OK to be back and the facilities open up to players, I’ll be there, and I’ll be comfortable with it. I’m trying to control what I can control. That is not one of those things that I can control.

“For me, I’m leaving it up to the professionals, and when they say we can go back and we can start practicing, I’ll be there and I’ll be excited to be back.”

Goodell has extended virtual workouts for teams through most of June. All of the clubs normally would be having organized team activities (OTAs), which are voluntarily, at this time.

“That protocol was developed with a lot of input from not only infectious disease and public health expects, but the CDC and others,” Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officers, said of the league’s phased program for reopenings.

“I’ve used the phrase that we want to walk, then jog, then run as we talk about how we reopen our facilities.”

According to the Tampa Bay Times, though, new Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady worked out with teammates at a local high school Tuesday morning.