With National Treasure ending up in the winner’s circle at the Preakness (and Kentucky Derby winner Mage coming in third), will the Belmont Stakes now be referred to as the Irrelevant Stakes?
How to put this nicely? Yes. But also no. A number of compelling storylines should drive attendance, interest, TV viewership and, of course, betting dollars on Saturday, June 10 as action moves northward.
Of course, for the casual race fans (definition: Those who only watch the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in the hope of seeing a Triple Crown), TV viewership (and obviously interest) is down, according to the New York Times, which in 2018, noted:
The difference in television viewership is profound. Jon Miller, NBC's president of programming, said audiences for the last three non-Triple Crown Belmont Stakes averaged 5.9 million viewers compared to a combined average of 19.6 million viewers in 2014 and 2015 [years when a Triple Crown was at stake].
But a lack of a Triple Crown isn’t the only thing that drives interest in the third race of the triumvirate. Here are three other factors that are expected to come into play, and those could help make up for the lack of a Triple Crown:
- The Possibility of Forte’s Return: Forte, the odds-on favorite in the Kentucky Derby, had to be scratched from that race at the last minute because of a bruised right front foot. His veterinary hold went through the Preakness; however, it will have ended prior to the Belmont, meaning we could see him on the track – something that could generate a bit of interest.
- Other Contenders from the Derby Could be There: And, notes Bleacher Report, “Several other top competitors from the Derby like Tapit Trice, Angel of Empire and Two Phil's all sat out of the Preakness, mostly due to the short turnaround. It should be expected that with about a month between the Derby and the Belmont a few of the horses return to the lineup for the final leg of the Triple Crown, making for some more thrilling action. And if he does show up to Belmont Park, Two Phil's is the horse that could win it all given his strong performance in the Derby and some of the qualifying races.”
- Attention on the Issue of Horse Racing in General: Leading up to the Derby, a huge and unwelcome spotlight hit the horse racing industry with the deaths of seven horses at Churchill Downs. And two more horses were euthanized after that, including one, Havnameltdown, on Preakness Saturday at Pimlico. (Havnameltdown was in an undercard race and not in the Preakness Stakes itself.) It was eerily reminiscent of the 2006 Preakness, in which Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro shattered his leg mid-race and was later euthanized. Expect more attention to be paid to not only the horses but to track conditions, and to the sport itself this year.
While casual fans are often disappointed in the lack of a possibility of a Triple Crown, few understand how difficult it is to achieve one. The three races are at different tracks in different states, (often with wildly differing weather) and are races of different lengths.
All of these factors require horses and jockeys to have different combinations of talents, and each race can bring out the best in certain contenders. Fresh challengers who haven't run in the previous races can pop up and act as spoilers – or win and be scratched from the next race because of injuries or illness.
Of course, it’s almost impossible to say that the the lack of Triple Crown potential will mean fewer spectators in the stands this year. It's always the race that has the most to lose, given the fact that its cache each year depends upon the results of the Preakness. Realistically, the prestige factor of being at the race will drive many (including the hat and drink crowd) through the gates of Belmont Park – just as it does the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
In a typical year, the attendance at the Belmont Stakes is among American thoroughbred racing’s top attended events. Belmont Park puts an attendance cap of 90,000 on the race. That was a new addition in 2015 and was demanded by the New York Racing Association after the previous year, when California Chrome failed in his bid for Triple Crown glory. That year saw a crowd of 102,199 and resulted in problems with lines, crowding, inadequate food and beverage supplies and transportation snafus. (A record 120,139 showed up in 2004, when Smarty Jones lost his bid.)
Of course, attendance numbers aren’t everything. Preakness officials once made the mistake of telling media outlets there was an all-time high crowd of 135,256 for the 2016 event – but this claim was quickly disputed in social media by both pundits and attendees who stated that race officials might have been counting advance ticket sales that didn’t pan out because of cold temperatures and non-stop rain.
In the meantime, a few other tidbits and trivia points. The official drink of the race is the Belmont Jewel (a recipe can be found here) and the official song – well, what year is it? According to Wikipedia, until 1996, the post parade song was “The Sidewalks of New York.” From 1997 to 2009, the song was changed to a recording by Frank Sinatra of “New York, New York.” In 2010, the song was changed to Jay-Z's “Empire State of Mind” before reverting to "New York, New York" from 2011 through the present.
Wikipedia also notes there’s plenty of snark to go around when it comes to discussions of the official cocktail: “Along with the change of song in 1997, the official drink was also changed, from the White Carnation to the Belmont Breeze. The New York Times reviewed both cocktails unfavorably, calling the Belmont Breeze “a significant improvement over the nigh undrinkable White Carnation" despite the fact that it "tastes like a refined trashcan punch.” In 2011, the Belmont Breeze was again changed to the current official drink known as the Belmont Jewel.”