The 152nd Belmont Stakes will be as unpredictable as it is historic

“This is not a year where anything has gone according to plan,” esteemed horse racing expert and TVG commentator Caton Bredar told me on Friday. “So … look for the unexpected.”

She’s not wrong. As the 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes approaches this weekend, things in the racing world are in just as much flux as the rest of American life.

A sport where insiders and hopeful bettors alike pore over precedent and information to try to predict the future shifts to its very core when those helpful pointers are stripped away.

Much like every sport has either implemented or dealt with significant change and upheaval during this extraordinary time in modern history, those who do their business at the tracks have also had to show flexibility and a knack for adaptation.

The Belmont is grand and old and steeped in nostalgia, which is why the way its organizers have enforced change upon themselves is so striking. This year, the Belmont is the opening chapter of the Triple Crown, not its conclusion.

It is still ensconced in Nassau County, of course, but there will be no fans, none of the loyal locals and distant travelers who make an annual pilgrimage to get a flavor of how New York and racing intertwine.

Even the distance has changed, decreased from 1.5 miles to 1 1/8th, in a sensible move aimed at protecting horses that have not been able to get the usual amount of competitive mileage in their legs.

“It used to be that the Belmont was a little bit more predictable,” Bredar said, via telephone. “The horses have always had half a year of racing behind them, and the distance was the great separator. Not so this time.”

Not everyone likes it. Any sport that has done things a certain way for a long time and revels in its pageantry will have those who don’t care for any tinkering with the established order. The nastier of the detractors have intimated that this year’s rendition should not be regarded as a true Triple Crown at all, or least be poisoned with that gloomiest of sporting symbols, an asterisk.

Bredar is not one of them, and insists some credit should be given to how racing has rolled with the restrictions imposed by quarantine and still been able to put out a consistent product for the viewers these past months.

The return of big-time events like the Belmont does come as a relief to the hardcore, but at least there has been something to watch even during much of the tensest moments of the global pandemic.

Tiz The Law, trained by 82-year-old Barclay Tagg and coming out of the No. 8 stall, is the strong favorite, but accurately predicting this year’s race is a trickier proposition than ever, and the field has also been afflicted by mishap, with several elite horses forced to withdraw.

“There was a point where it was going to be an All-Star field,” NBC analyst Jerry Bailey said on a conference call this week. “Nadal was going to be in there. There was a good chance Charlatan was going to be in there. A horse called Maxfield was going to be in there. Those were probably in the top four horses in the country, (as) three-year olds. It’s just like any sport. Injuries happen.”

Were there to be a shock winner, it would perhaps feel somehow appropriate, given that we have conditioned ourselves to accept unpredictability.

It is also worth noting that the distance change is not unprecedented; the race was run over various lengths in its earliest stagings, but has remained uniform since 1926.

“Our racing committee looked at it and basically unanimously said, Let’s go in June at a mile and an eighth,” Martin Panza, senior vice president at the New York Racing Association told NBC Sports. “Let’s not stress these horses and try to get them to go a mile and a half when they might not be prepared to do that.”

As racing gets ready to enjoy its moment in the sun, it also feels right that it is at Belmont, where the show revolves heavily around the racing, as opposed to the social craziness of the Kentucky Derby or at the Preakness, where Pimlico’s infield hosts all kind of festivities and concerts and other forms of entertainment.

Whether you are the most occasional of fans watching one of your only races of the year, or a lingering consumer of the sport, Saturday will be a special day, for all manner of reasons.

Coming off an unimaginable sports drought one of the highlights of the calendar is upon us, not the same as always, but arguably more intriguing than ever.

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