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Belmont Stakes go on — despite pandemic

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The Belmont Stakes looked a little different to fans and the larger horseracing community this year, as industry officials had to alter their operations due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Our biggest challenge over the past 90 days has been keeping people safe,” said Terry Finley, the president and CEO of West Point Thoroughbreds, a Saratoga Springs-based racing consultant. “Tragically, we had one death on the backstretch and some others tested positive for the virus, but we have over a thousand people who work on the backstretch every day, and everyone was well taken care of.”

Other companies, however, did not fare as well, he said, noting that he was grateful the Stakes went well despite pandemic-related risks.

Fans were not allowed to attend the Stakes on June 20 — when bay horse Tiz The Law, jockeyed by Manuel Franco, crossed the finish line to become the first New York-bred horse to win the race since 1882 — and the race was shortened from 1.5 to 1.125 miles.

“Fortunately for us, the pandemic didn’t affect Tiz The Law’s performance,” said Jack Knowlton, operating manager of Sackatoga Stable, which owns the horse. “It has made life much more difficult for the team at the stable, though. We haven’t had the opportunity to be at the race to see our horse run in person.”

He added that the team is hopeful they can see Tiz The Law in action again at Churchill Downs, where the 146th Kentucky Derby was rescheduled for Sept. 5. Subsequently, the Preakness, the third leg of the Triple Crown, was rescheduled to Oct. 3 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

The pandemic even affected the coverage of the event. Adam Coglianese, the lead track photographer for the New York Racing Association said, noting, “The experience leading up to the race was a little quieter than normal, but we still photographed the horses in the morning and set up our cameras around the track like we usually would to produce images for the trainers.” He added that the lack of a physical audience meant that he and his staff had to focus more of their photography on the horses and the track.

“We all maintained social distancing,” he noted, “but otherwise there were no significant challenges.”

The race was broadcasted on NBC. With 3.4 million people watching, it marked the lowest recorded viewership for any broadcasted Belmont Stakes and for any opening leg of the Triple Crown.

“The Belmont Stakes provided sports fans across the country with world-class entertainment during these challenging times,” said Patrick McKenna, the communications director for NYRA, calling the race unique but successful this year, and congratulating Tiz The Law for his win.