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A day unlike any other for Belmont Stakes

On Saturday, they’re going to run a horse race in New York called the Belmont Stakes.

You may have heard of it. Even if you don’t follow the ponies, the name may sound familiar. Some great horses and some not-so-great horses have won it in the 152 years they’ve been running it.

But the distinction between Belmonts past and this year’s begins and ends with the name. Yet, this may be one of the most memorable of all. The coronavirus saw to that.

For starters, it’s going to be the first leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, not the third and final one. That in itself makes it unique, given the Kentucky Derby, the traditional first leg, will be the second part and that won’t be run until Sept. 5. The Preakness, which is normal part 2 of the equation, will be the third and final leg and will be run on Oct. 3. But hey, at least they’re running at Pimlico instead of Laurel or Colonial Downs or some other oval.

The Belmont, the “Test of the Champion” is normally run at 1 1/2 miles, which means once around the oval nicknamed “Big Sandy.” This year, it will be run at 1 1/8 miles, a one-turn race. It’s what you might expect from a non-winners of two races lifetime allowance. In fact, the way things are shaking out, this may be a glorified allowance race.

Many of the 3-year-old stars will not be in the starting gate. No Nadal. No Charlatan. No Maxfield. No Authentic. No Honor A. P. No Gouverneur Morris. No Wells Bayou. No Storm the Court, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. The odds-on favorite will be Tiz the Law, who has won four of the five races he has run in his career, is the only starter in the field with a Grade 1 victory and has won at Belmont.

Tiz the Law comes from the same folks who gave you Funny Cide, the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who was denied the Triple Crown when he finished third in the Belmont to Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted. So in a perverse sort of way, perhaps the Sackatoga Stable and trainer Barclay Tagg get their Belmont Stakes win first.

Yeah, ass-backwards. Isn’t that just like horse racing?

 For the last three months, racing has been conducted in a limited number of places, all without spectators. Yet, we’ve seen record handles at various tracks as gamblers scrambled to get into action. Guys who hadn’t played the horses in years were suddenly firing at Fonner Park in Nebraska or Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma. We’re seeing racing on TV, as Fox Sports and NBC Sports Network are showing the action from various tracks.

In Nevada, the race books have finally reopened and yes, you’ll be able to watch and wager on the Belmont card Saturday. So that will feel like normal. Several other tracks, including Churchill Downs, remain unavailable to bettors because the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association, which represents the state’s 90 books, can’t reach an agreement with Churchill to obtain the signal. Same with a number of other tracks. Perhaps they’ll cut a deal by Sept. 5 with the Twin Spires. We can only hope so.

But back to the Belmont. It will be run with no spectators, which means no traffic jam on the Cross Island Parkway, no standing on the Long Island Railroad train from Jamaica station to the track. No price gouging by the New York Racing Association when it comes to parking, admission, seating and concessions.

See? There are some positives.

What you will see is a strange sight. Not just the empty stands, which unfortunately has been commonplace at Belmont in recent years, save for a few special days, but a couple of cranes at the corner of the west grandstand. They’re building an arena for the NHL’s New York Islanders after the Brooklyn experiment was a dismal failure for the storied franchise. When the arena is done for the 2021-22 season, it will give the area around the track an economic boost. Will it? Only time will tell.

The strangest thing of all? No Bob Baffert. The Hall of Fame trainer who will not have a horse in Saturday’s big race after his “Big Three” of Nadal, Charlatan and Authentic won’t run. However, Baffert has a three-year-old named Cezzane who might be something special, but only broke his maiden less than two weeks ago at Santa Anita. So let’s wait and see before we put him in the National Racing Hall of Fame.

We’ve seen some great moments in the Belmont, from Secretariat to Seattle Slew to Affirmed to American Pharoah to Justify and so many others which missed joining them as Triple Crown winners. What will we see Saturday? Will Tiz the Law be the next in line? Will someone with far fewer credentials prevail?

It may not look or feel like the Belmont Stakes, but it’ll still be worth watching, all 1-1/8 miles of it.