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Horse racing: Trainers adapt to COVID-19 era ahead of Saturday's Belmont

NEW YORK (Reuters) - With a shortened distance and owners barred from the stands amid the coronavirus outbreak, the 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday will bear little resemblance to previous years.

FILE PHOTO: Jun 7, 2019; Elmont, NY, USA; A general view of Belmont Park. Mandatory Credit: Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo

With the traditional third leg of the Triple Crown being contested first, top trainer Todd Pletcher admitted that the season will have an air of unfamiliarity about it when the race is contested without any fans in attendance due to the new protocols in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You can put a big asterisk by the whole year - and the Triple Crown is certainly part of that,” said Pletcher, who has saddled three Belmont winners and is a trainer for contenders Farmington Road and Dr Post.

“It’s not going to be the same, it’s going to be spread out over a much different time frame. Different distances, different orders.

“I don’t think it would take away from the accomplishments of a single horse if they were able to win one, two or three legs of it… but it’s clearly not the same as trying to do all three in five weeks.”

Following on from the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, the Belmont’s 1-1/2-mile endurance course has often frustrated those seeking the Triple Crown. When American Pharoah pulled off the feat in 2015, he was the first horse to do so in 37 years.

The course was cut down to 1-1/8 miles this year to accommodate three-year-old thoroughbreds in training. The Derby was rescheduled to Sept. 5 from May 2 and the Preakness to Oct. 3 from May 16.

For trainers and jockeys, the Belmont will prove a critical test after the sport was suspended for several months in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“I’ve always said training racehorses is like putting a puzzle together - this year it’s been putting a puzzle together with no edges or picture,” said Mark Casse, a Hall of Fame trainer for last year’s Belmont winner Sir Winston and this year’s contender Tap It To Win.

“I’m just happy that we’re gonna have a Belmont.”

Reporting By Amy Tennery, editing by Pritha Sarkar

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