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story.lead_photo.caption Bob Wisener

If you thought horse racing was in a catatonic state last year, when the Kentucky Derby and other events seemed controlled by larger forces, imagine how the current twelvemonth may be remembered.

The sport of kings, at least some of its biggest events, has ushered in a new decade on an Orwellian schedule, "when the clocks were striking thirteen."

We have had no major chaos like that after the 2019 Derby, when America's favorite race had an on-track winner's number taken down for the first time (Maximum Security, who went on to the Eclipse Award as male 3-year-old champion and whose career Stephen King might consider for a future novel, awaits his first start for Bob Baffert).

The problem this year is getting to Louisville in time for Churchill Downs to update that gold-lettered sign above the paddock: "The Kentucky Derby has been run on this track 146 consecutive years."

The COVID-19 pandemic has so disrupted the racing schedule that the 152nd Belmont Stakes June 20 precedes Derby 146, which with a Sept. 5 running nearer to fall than spring falls on Labor Day weekend. The 145th Preakness Oct. 3 could produce a Triple Crown winner with more asterisks than Roger Maris, or not.

For those who watch horse racing merely for grandeur -- seeing who's there, who they're with and what they're wearing -- it might be no big deal that the Belmont leads off the series it usually ends. And that the Belmont, cut from 12 furlongs to nine, will be shorter than the 10-furlong Derby, famously called "a mile and a quarter with no water."

Moreover, it does you no good to say that Smarty Jones -- maybe even Alydar, who poked a head front in midstretch before Steve Cauthen went to a left-hand whip on Affirmed -- would have won a shortened Belmont. Nor should a Belmont-Derby-Preakness sweep by a single horse diminish the feats of 13 conventional Triple Crown winners.

But imagine the screams from racing purists if it does.

With college football, which like all sports risks being rocked by the pandemic, presumably in full swing, a Preakness without either or both of the two other classic winners risks a test-pattern rating on TV.

(Crunch these numbers, if you will: The Belmont Stakes has been run 11 times before the Preakness. The 1890 Preakness was run at Morris Park in the Bronx on the same program as the Belmont. The Preakness and Derby were run on the same day May 12, 1917, and May 13, 1922.)

As it is, I'm kicking around options on Sept. 5, not knowing what restrictions if any will be placed on entering the Derby or the Arkansas Razorbacks' scheduled football opener. I doubt that any other Arkansas sportswriter will wrestle over whether to spend that day in Louisville, Ky., or Fayetteville, the latter for Sam Pittman's debut as Razorback head coach. But in a city like Hot Springs, where the Kentucky Derby is a major sporting event (Churchill Downs, like Oaklawn Park, is on Central Avenue), watching an Oaklawn-raced horse run for the roses is not something a turfwriter should take lightly.

That's presuming the nation is running at full speed again after being brought to its knees by the coronavirus. They're just now doing business in restaurants, bars and barber shops while President Donald Trump, who predicted the whole thing would be over by Easter, has issued a mandate to open churches. And with more facial coverings than bought for Truman Capote's 1966 black-and-white masquerade ball in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and following the publication of the author's "In Cold Blood." (Personally, at age 11, I was reading Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls.")

Roll back the time machine to March, when the coronavirus began affecting the sports world, and consider two items of interest then to Arkansans: Was Razorback Mason Jones unfairly snubbed as Southeastern Conference men's basketball player of the year? And could a veteran Arkansas infielder hit a fastball thrown low and away if he knew it was coming?

College basketball was truncated just before the sport's biggest money-maker, the NCAA Tournament. Kansas ended the season No. 1 (no argument here) before a seasonal Elite Eight or Final Four reversal could wreck things for the Jayhawks. The NCAA women's tournament loomed with Connecticut, long the sport's sure thing, looking unusually common and Arkansas fans excited again about the artists formerly known as Lady Razorbacks.

Pro basketball and hockey were shelved with the artists in midstroke, although the NBA has thrived with ESPN's "The Last Dance" documentary sending the Stephen A. Smiths of the world looking for deeper meanings to Michael Jordan's career. I'm not sure what NASCAR is doing or if there will be a WNBA season or not, although an April weekend without the azaleas in bloom at the Masters I found particularly unsettling.

No sport's unkind fate sorrowed me more than that of high-school basketball in Arkansas. A three-day March stand at Bank OZK Arena was trimmed to one day with four of 12 state champions crowned and 16 other teams going home with the equivalent of participation ribbons.

Thankfully, at least to this journalist, Oaklawn's racing season endured. And what's officially known as Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort slowly is bouncing to its feet, although the sports-betting pavilion remains closed for general principles: no games on which to bet.

Anyone who can't watch a sporting event without a financial stake in the outcome has had little to dote on but horse racing since the second Thursday in March. The second Friday of that month, predictably falling on the 13th date, marked the first time Oaklawn raced without spectators. In an inspired move, Oaklawn filled the scheduling gap created by the Kentucky Derby's September with the first May running of the Arkansas Derby. Oaklawn's all-sources handle of $41 million on May 2 still boggles the mind.

Bob Baffert, with Charlatan and Nadal sweeping the first split Arkansas Derby since 1960, unveiled two unbeaten colts whom the Hall of Fame trainer is keeping under "bubble wrap" in the especially long run-up to the big one at Churchill Downs. Wouldn't it be something if Baffert ended the year with three Triple Crown winners (following American Pharoah and Justify in 2015 and 2018, respectively) under two different systems. It's not as if horse racing had framers of a constitution or a supreme court to interpret the law.

Oh, well: Just as long as they don't play "My Old Kentucky Home" before the Belmont and Frank Sinatra doesn't sing "New York, New York" before the Derby.

Sports on 05/23/2020

Print Headline: Triple Crown schedule gets major shuffle

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