Eighty days since a live sporting event was last held in New York before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the state, horse racing will be the first to return Wednesday at Belmont Park.
The first post time is set for 1:15 p.m., with 10 races on the docket for the opening day of Belmont’s delayed and abbreviated 25-day season that will run through July 12.
“There’s nothing better than watching horses, it’s good for the soul,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has Mother Mother set to run Friday at Belmont, told The Post on Tuesday. “I’m happy for [Belmont], I’m happy for the backstretch workers, more importantly. Horse racing has been around so long, it gets your mind off the bad things that are going on in this world. I’m glad they’re opening.”
It was horse racing that was the last sport standing in New York — when Aqueduct had a final day of races on March 15 — days after the NBA, NHL, MLB and NCAA all stopped playing. Though none of the major pro sports has a firm return date (aside from the NFL planning to remain on schedule in September), racing at Belmont Park has a chance to help fill the void of live sports in the meantime.
The vast grandstand will remain empty, with no spectators allowed in, but 130 horses will take to the dirt and turf with combined purses of $511,000 on the line.
“I think you’re going to see some really exciting racing coming up,” veteran New York trainer Rick Schosberg said. “We’re going to see some big deals I think, obviously, because we haven’t raced in a while. I think it was a thing that was OK for the horses. I think they enjoyed a little bit of backing off.”
The top attraction of opening day will be the grade-three Beaugay Stakes, the 1 1/16-mile turf race with a purse of $100,000 and post time of 5:36 p.m., pitting Rushing Fall against Got Stormy.
But Fauci, the 2-year-old maiden trained by Wesley Ward and aptly named for Dr. Anthony Fauci, has a chance to steal the day in the third race.
Over the 2 ¹/₂ months since racing was suspended in New York, health and safety protocols were taken to protect the nearly 600 resident backstretch workers who continued to care for the 1,300 horses at Belmont.
Even more precautions will be in place Wednesday. The jockeys, who must provide either a negative COVID-19 test from within five days of Wednesday or a positive antibody test, will be medically screened daily. To allow for social distancing, there will be stations for just 12 riders in the main jockeys’ room with the rest spread out to additional areas in the basement, all of which will be deep cleaned and sanitized nightly.
The jockeys, like everyone else, are required to wear masks, though they can be lowered during the actual race — which, of course, will be run without fans.
“The jockeys won’t get yelled at walking back through the tunnel, except maybe by the trainers,” Schosberg said with a laugh, “but it’ll be a little bit different — especially at Belmont, because Belmont is so big.”
Though Wednesday’s action will be just the first step back, it will begin to set the stage for June 20’s Belmont Stakes. The third leg of the Triple Crown will instead be the first this year, as the pandemic has shaken up the sport, but the horsemen involved are just happy to have racing back in New York.
“It’s like the center stage of racing,” said Baffert, who has finished off two Triple Crowns at Belmont and could have Charlatan running in the big race this month. “When you win there, it means so much more. … I love going there, because when you can win there, it’s the greatest accomplishment winning in New York.”