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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Don’t Expect a Triple Crown Attempt at Saratoga: A View from the Stands

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SARATOGA SPRINGS — The anticipation was palpable at the Saratoga Race Course job fair on Wednesday, as a long queue of eager applicants waited their turn. The excitement was all about the upcoming Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, which continues to generate a significant buzz.

Here’s some news you might find interesting: For the first time in history, the Belmont Stakes will take place at Saratoga on June 8, due to the ongoing reconstruction of Belmont Park.

It’s easy to envision the spectacle becoming even more grand if a Triple Crown is at stake. If a horse manages to achieve this feat for only the 14th time in history this year, it will have to conquer Saratoga to do so.

However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s only February, and the chances of a Triple Crown contender emerging by June 8 are slim, given the current state of the 3-year-old division.

The Triple Crown is a notoriously difficult achievement, requiring a horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont within a five-week span. Despite calls to extend the schedule, the demanding timeline remains unchanged.

Adding to the challenge of the Triple Crown is the looming presence of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Despite his ineligibility to run a horse in the Derby at Churchill Downs on May 4, his influence is undeniable.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have some of the country’s top 3-year-olds, or that his owners have shifted their horses to other trainers in pursuit of the Derby, as they have in the past two years.

In fact, Baffert’s horses are prominent in the list of Triple Crown nominations, and his owners have stood firm against Churchill Downs Inc. this time around. CDI has not only extended its suspension of Baffert from running horses at its tracks through 2024, but also set a Jan. 29 deadline for horses to be transferred out of a suspended trainer’s barn to be eligible for Derby qualifying points.

Unlike in 2022 and 2023, when many of Baffert’s top 3-year-olds were sent to trainer Tim Yakteen and others, this year’s deadline passed with Baffert’s best 3-year-olds remaining in his barn.

Among these horses is Grade II San Vicente winner Muth, owned by Amr Zedan. His horse Medina Spirit won the 2021 Kentucky Derby but was later disqualified for a post-race drug positive, leading to Baffert’s initial two-year suspension by CDI. Other track operators, including the New York Racing Association, followed suit with shorter suspensions.

Muth, who won the Grade I American Pharoah and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year, is not even Baffert’s top 3-year-old. That honor goes to Nysos, who is undefeated in three career starts and recently won the Grade III Robert B. Lewis.

These two horses, along with promising allowance winner Maymun, are all in the top 10 of the most recent NTRA national poll. However, they are absent from any Derby Dozen lists.

Expect Baffert to bring fresh talent to the May 25 Preakness, a race he’s won eight times, including with Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

He’s also likely to have a strong presence at the Belmont at Saratoga.

Aside from the Baffert Factor, the 3-year-old male division is still finding its footing, with no clear frontrunner. But remember, it’s still early days.

The 2023 2-year-old male champion, Fierceness, had a disappointing start to his 2024 campaign, finishing third in the Grade III Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 3.

On a brighter note, promising colt Sierra Leone, trained by Chad Brown, lived up to expectations by winning the Grade II Risen Star last weekend.

As each weekend passes, the landscape will continue to evolve.

When June 8 arrives and the Belmont takes place at Saratoga, the excitement will be palpable. But don’t hold your breath for a Triple Crown attempt.

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Jack Sullivan
Jack Sullivan
Jack Sullivan, an informed and passionate sports reporter, is a former college athlete with a degree in Sports Communication from Ithaca College. Go Bombers!
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