As was the case for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, it was a gorgeous day at Belmont Park on Saturday — the sun was shining, the track was fast, and after a year away because of the coronavirus pandemic, the crowd was more joyful than inebriated. A trifecta of perfect conditions for the Belmont Stakes, one of horse racing’s most cherished races.
Essential Quality, the Derby favorite who could not overcome a bad start, sat out the Preakness in the hopes of a better showing in the Belmont.
The plan paid off as he defeated Hot Rod Charlie to win the mile-and-a-half Test of the Champion, becoming become the fourth horse sired by Tapit to outlast his rivals in the final leg of the Triple Crown.
The joyous atmosphere on Saturday almost made it seem as if all was right with the sport. If only that were the case.
It has been a tumultuous spring for horse racing. Medina Spirit’s win in the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, was immediately marred for the horse and its trainer, Bob Baffert, with a failed drug test. The horse was allowed to run in the Preakness while a second sample was tested. He finished in third place, saving the Belmont organizers from an uncomfortable choice had a Triple Crown been on the line coming into the final race.
After the Preakness, the New York Racing Association said that Baffert, a two-time Triple Crown winner and the most famous person in the sport, would be barred from running horses at any New York tracks until further notice.
On Wednesday, the positive test was confirmed, which set the stage for Medina Spirit to become the second winner in the 147-year history of the Derby to be disqualified because of a failed drug test.
Churchill Downs suspended Baffert from entering horses at the racetrack in Louisville, Ky., for two years.
“Reckless practices and substance violations that jeopardize the safety of our equine and human athletes or compromise the integrity of our sport are not acceptable and as a company we must take measures to demonstrate that they will not be tolerated,” Bill Carstanjen, chief executive of Churchill Downs, said Wednesday.
The scandal came as horse racing prepares to implement the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which was passed last year in Congress. It will take effect July 1, 2022, and calls for a board overseen by the Federal Trade Commission to write uniform rules and penalties to be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
Even without the renewed drug problems, horse racing had been through a tumultuous year after the coronavirus pandemic forced heavy alterations to the Triple Crown trail in 2020.
None of the races admitted spectators and the Derby and Preakness were delayed. The Belmont was held last June as the first leg of the Triple Crown for the first time. The Derby followed in September and the Preakness came in October.
This year, the Belmont Stakes returned to its normal mile-and-a-half distance (it was a mile and an eighth last year) and its traditional placement as the final leg of the Triple Crown, befitting its nickname as the Test of the Champion. Still, there were lingering reminders all around of the pandemic. There were only about 11,000 fans sprinkled about the racetrack on Long Island, although the crowd likely appeared bigger than it was because the Islanders’ new arena, set to open for the 2021-22 N.H.L. season, cut Belmont Park’s famed backyard in half. Gone are the days of overflowing coolers, camping chairs and picnic blankets; now picnic tables are being sold for over $100 a piece.
John Dibs of Howard Beach, Queens, was at one of those tables with a group of childhood friends. They all had some sort of connection to Belmont Park — Dibs’s great-grandfather was a blacksmith at New York’s tracks for 50 years — and have been coming to this race and sitting in the backyard for as long as they have been pals.
After grumbling for a bit about losing the pond, the ducks, the trees, the playground and the parking, they all agreed that one alternative — not being allowed to come to the race at all — was much worse.
“To be with family and friends again and sharing the day, to us, it’s almost like you’re going home,” he said.