Unusual Preakness sets up enduring * for 2020 Triple Crown

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We are approaching the end of Preakness week, which is customarily one of the most delightfully singular weeks of the sports calendar, for those who follow thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown, which is a lot more people than those who simply follow horse racing. (*The word customarily, in this or any other context, as applied in the present, is unmoored from its own usual meaning. There are no established customs in 2020. But you knew that already). Moving on: It is during Preakness Week that racing – customarily — trades the outsized corporate excess/down-home traditional charm (either one, or both) of the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs for the gritty reality of Pimlico, which hosted the famous 1937 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral and has been painted over a few times since then.

Preakness week is when racing fans – and journalists, too – tighten their vision from the sprawling 20-horse dreamscape of the Derby to, for the most part, the simple question of whether one of those 20 horses can win again, two weeks later, at nearly the same distance, and thus move on to New York with a chance to win the Triple Crown. It’s an unfairly narrow story line that excludes too many angles, but it’s been a powerful narrative that draws eyeballs to Baltimore. Many sports would pay for such a ready-made plot. It is also the week when Preakness fans, having heard and witnessed the Derby revelry, give a side-eye and say, “Hold my Black-eyed Susan.’’ (Google “Preakness porta johns.’’ Or not. Probably not. You get the idea).

MORE: Watch the Preakness Stakes on NBC, Saturday at 4:30 pm ET

In all, it is a week that – yes, customarily – feels more like a sporting event than a cultural phenomenon (although, sure, there’s some of that, too), both in spite of and because of the run-down setting. It is about the race, about one horse, and about what lies three weeks and few hundred miles down the road. (They also serve crab cakes in the press box on Saturday, a nice touch considering we’re there for 12 hours and for every second of that time, it feels like there is a non-zero chance the entire structure will sink into the earth in pieces. Kidding!…Not really). It is a week for both taking a deep breath and preparing to just maybe see history made.

This year…. [pulling up saved text]…. Is different.

Racing’s Triple Crown re-started before any of the bubbles formed, before college football started – and for some, finished – fighting with itself over a fall season, before the NFL opened training camps, before any of the golf or tennis majors commenced. First the Derby was postponed from its scheduled date of May 2, and then the Preakness from its, which was scheduled for two weeks later. Full stop. Once the Derby and Preakness were postponed, any version of a traditional Triple Crown was gone. Interested parties were more than prepared to argue about the size and merit of any asterisk that would have been applied to a horse that managed to win this particular series of races, and that’s fine. (My take: Nice job, horsey. Well done. Respect. But not a Triple Crown. The Triple Crown is achieved by winning three consecutive races over five weeks in the spring, and the last of those races is 1 ½ miles long).

The New York Racing Association put the final nail in that particular coffin when it decided to move forward with the Belmont Stakes, postponing it two weeks from June 6 to June 20. NYRA also shortened the Belmont from its customary distance of 1 ½ miles (which is rarely run elsewhere) to 1 1/8 miles, (which is run frequently). There was a perfectly fine reason for this change: Belmont horses would not have run the 1 ¼ miles of the Derby or the 1 3/16 miles of the Preakness, and thus might not have been prepared to run 1 ½ miles in June (although they never are really ready to run 1 ½ miles in June, which a big part of the challenge). But in essence, the Belmont became just another race, and in the most denigrating description, a Derby prep.

Horses participating in the 152nd Running of the Belmont Stakes enter the track and empty grandstands during the Belmont Stakes.

Also a strange race. It took place at a hauntingly empty Belmont Park, before sports organizations began finding ways to open their doors to modest-sized crowds. The place was truly locked down and masked. Tiz the Law won the Belmont easily, and appeared to be the best three-year-old in training. He might still be the best. TBD. And that was that. Seventy-seven days passed until Authentic upset Tiz the Law to win the Kentucky Derby. I did not attend that race, choosing the conservative path in my own personal COVID-19 protocols. It was contested with few spectators, but more than the Belmont, and in the shadow of Black Lives Matter protests. I am also not in Baltimore this week, partly for that same reason, although I’d be there if Tiz the Law had won the Derby and was running for a Triple Crown*. My medical conservatism has limits.

It is obvious in the extreme to say that it has been an unusual Triple Crown year, because it has been an unusual – and tragic, and dispiriting, and challenging – year in so many other more important ways. And it continues.

But this is a column about racing, so let’s frame it accordingly.

The Belmont was not a Belmont in any meaningful way, except its name and its trophy. The Derby perhaps more so, but absent its 150,000 fans and against the backdrop of protests that have riven U.S society, its appeal limited, as well, and the drop in the betting handle and TV ratings bore that out. Athletically, it was still 1 ¼ miles at a famous track, but for me, the four months between May and September shift the power of the race, because there is nothing quite like watching a three-year-old win at 10 furlongs in May. I respect that others might not share this view and also respect that my consumption of the Derby was affected by the times we live in, just like consumption of everything else.

Now we are in Baltimore, virtually. (No spectators allowed). Even in normal years, each of the three Triple Crown races has its place. The Derby is the Derby. The Preakness is where the Triple Crown lives on or dies (again, plenty of other angles, but that’s the big one). The Belmont is either a potentially history-making moment or just another big race, depending on what had transpired in Baltimore.

The Preakness (Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC and the NBC Sports app) is a genuinely fascinating race, even though Tiz the Law is not present, but rather training up to the Breeders Cup Classic, on the first full weekend in November at Keeneland in Kentucky. Authentic is entered, and will be favored, and trainer Bob Baffert has also brought back Thousand Words, none the worse after a harrowing back flip in the Derby paddock. There is Art Collector, who was a serious Derby contender until a late withdrawal. And there is the talented filly, Swiss Skydiver. Racing benefits when great fillies race colts.

The Baffert angle in the race is also intriguing, as have been Baffert’s past 13 months. It was just over a year ago that The New York Times broke the story that the Baffert-trained 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify had tested positive for a banned substance after a Derby prep race that qualified him for Kentucky; a subsequent analysis that I reported for NBC Sports strongly suggested that Justify had inadvertently ingested the substance in a plant found at Santa Anita Racetrack, but there was damage to Baffert’s reputation, nevertheless. Last spring, two of Baffert’s best horses, three-year-old filly Gamine and Derby contender Nadal, both tested positive for the regulated substance lidocaine, on the first weekend on May at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Baffert said that the lidocaine came from a patch that assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes had applied to his creaky back, and that could very well be the truth, but it was one of those exotic PED explanations that the sports world has grown weary of hearing. Eyeballs rolled. (Adding injury to insult, Barnes suffered a broken wrist trying to control Thousand Words in Kentucky).

Baffert is appealing a 15-day suspension prompted by the Arkansas positives. But again, even if he wins that appeal, the episode has been another blow to his reputation. That is not a small detail, because Baffert is by far the most well-known figure in racing, its only real celebrity and a willing voice on nearly any topic.

But there is an odd silver lining for Baffert here. These are…. [once again, saved text]… strange times. Had this been a normal year, a year without a pandemic or social justice protests or a divisive presidential election, there might have been more mainstream scrutiny directed at Baffert. There has been little, because there’s just too much happening and stories about even the most famous man in racing do not break through.

Yet that same cacophonous ecosystem also ensures that the Preakness will occur with nothing resembling its customary notice. It is a college football weekend, an NFL weekend, an NBA Finals weekend, a Major League Baseball playoff weekend. And the pandemic and the election remain in place, a part of all of our lives. It’s an interesting thought exercise to re-imagine this Preakness as the third leg of a potential Triple Crown, which would have been the first consummated in October, and the first completed at the Preakness. The answer is relatively easy: It would be much bigger than it is now, and somewhat smaller than it would have been in June. The rest is in the margins.

And on Saturday evening, it will be over. The cleanup along Northern Boulevard will be more expeditious than usual, and the traffic far lighter. Racing will move on to Keeneland for the Breeders Cup. The sport accomplished something significant by pulling off its Triple Crown, but that’s not a surprise, because across the breadth of the pandemic, approaching seven months now, racing never really stopped for long. Humans went to work, horses trained and raced, and yes, bettors bet. The Triple Crown was just part of that and truly, little more.

But this is in many ways no different than the entire sports world in 2020, shut down in March (again, racing not for long). Bubbles were formed. Compromises were made. Risks were taken (and continue to be taken today). The games and the races remain a form of escapism for fans, but that escape is less complete than if times were normal. We are living in a reality that cannot be fully escaped. Something is missing. NBA Finals in October? The calendar is full of lies. We are all disoriented, even if willing.

Come Saturday night, three Triple Crown races will have been run, out of order, unwatched by many live bodies, one at a strange distance. Trophies will have been awarded, prize money dispensed, breeding rights enhanced. History will show that all this happened — details entered into databases and record books. Boxes joylessly checked. Survival, not true celebration. An enduring asterisk. One sport among many, compromising, squinting through the uncertain haze of the present, seeking a distant normalcy.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.