Two years ago, the New York Racing Association made a not so subtle change to Belmont Park's spring/summer meet stakes schedule, and Memorial Day weekend hasn't been the same since.
From time immemorial, the high point of Memorial Day weekend from a thoroughbred racing standpoint -- not just in New York, but also around the U. S. -- was the Metropolitan Handicap (more commonly referred to as the Met Mile) at Belmont Park. That's because the Met Mile and its storied history -- it has been run "only" 122 times, and has been won by such greats as Stymie, Tom Fool, Native Dancer, Kelso, and Forego, to name a few -- makes it an event that everyone reveres -- racing fan, horseman and breeder alike.
But in 2014, the NYRA moved the Met Mile from its traditional feature spot on Memorial Day afternoon to the stakes-packed Belmont Stakes undercard that, thanks in no small part to the Met Mile, isn't far off Breeders' Cup Saturday in terms of quality.
I liked the idea of the Met Mile moving to Belmont Stakes Day at the time it was announced, and still do. Even though it is no longer the main event on the day it is run, I can't help but think more people see the Met Mile on the Belmont undercard than when it was the feature on Memorial Day. And races as great as the Met Mile should be viewed with as many eyeballs as possible.
Also, Belmont Stakes Day has always been at the mercy of what transpired on Kentucky Derby Day and Preakness Day. Bolstering Belmont Day by moving the Met Mile and other stakes to the undercard, and creating a Breeders' Cup-like program, means Belmont Day can stand more strongly on its own as a major event day, and makes it far more independent from the first two legs of the Triple Crown than it once was.
I mean, look at the stakes schedule for this Belmont Day on June 11. Beyond the Belmont Stakes and Met Mile, there will be four additional Grade 1 events -- the Acorn, the Just a Game, the Manhattan, and the Ogden Phipps -- two other Grade 2 races -- the Brooklyn and the Woody Stephens -- the Grade 3 Jaipur, and the listed Easy Goer Stakes. And all of this comes on the heels of nine stakes to be run at Belmont Park the Thursday and Friday immediately preceding Belmont Day.
Now you can see why the success of Belmont Day is no longer so reliant on a live Triple Crown opportunity. We don't have a live Triple Crown shot this year. Unfortunately, due to Nyquist's illness, we don't even have a Triple Crown rubber match between the Derby and Preakness winner. Yet despite that, if you aren't excited about what's in store at Belmont on June 11, then this isn't the game for you.
The problem is, the creation of a monster Belmont Stakes Day program has left an undeniable void on Memorial Day, and on a major holiday weekend that figuratively launches the summer racing season.
The last time the Met Mile was run on Memorial Day in 2013, it was supported by the aforementioned Acorn and Phipps Stakes, as well as the Grade 2 Sands Point Stakes. It was a huge racing day. But this Monday at Belmont, the third Memorial Day without the Met Mile, New York breds will have the spotlight in six restricted stakes races. These New York breds will put on an entertaining show. They always do. But the Memorial Day stakes offerings at Belmont now are just not remotely comparable, or compelling, to what once was.
I don't advocate a return of the Met Mile to Memorial Day. As noted earlier, I like where it lives now. Nor do I support taking something else away from the loaded Belmont Day card to help the Memorial Day program, because the stacked nature of the Belmont Day card we now know is makes it very special.
However, consider the following:
On May 7, a day when virtually everyone's attention was on the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, there were three graded stakes races run at Belmont Park. This scheduling brings to mind the old saw that, "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there, did it make a sound?"
On May 14, a "tweener" Saturday when folks were still processing the Derby and anticipating the Preakness, there were four graded stakes races run at Belmont, including the Grade 1 Man o' War.
I realize moving two or three of the seven graded stakes run at Belmont on May 7 and May 14 to a rebuilt Memorial Day card would require some restructuring of the current Belmont spring/summer stakes schedule. But I think the effort might be worth it if it restores some real, and needed, importance to Memorial Day at Belmont.