This was supposed to be the year thoroughbred racing celebrated the 50th anniversary of Secretariat's magnificent Triple Crown triumph as the current crop of 3-year-olds finished their run on center stage.
Heading into the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes on Saturday in Elmont, New York, the racing has become almost an afterthought, with the spotlight shifted to a recent spike in horse deaths at tracks and poor air quality in the Northeast caused by wildfires in Canada. And there is no Secretariat on the scene to make everyone forget the problems.
Still, a highly competitive field of nine horses, led by 2-year-old champion Forte and Preakness Stakes winner National Treasure, is set to run in the 1 1/2-mile test of champions on a card that features almost all stakes races.
At least one problem disappeared Friday as live racing resumed at Belmont Park thanks to a major improvement in air quality. The heavy smoke had forced the track to cancel Thursday's schedule and prompted New York Gov. Kathy Hochul to warn Saturday's plans could be altered if conditions didn't improve.
Bryan Ramsey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office on Long Island, said the air quality improved vastly Friday as winds came out of the west at 5-to-10 mph.
"The Canadian fires are still putting out smoke, but that should not be coming to our area," Ramsey said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Post time is expected to be shortly after 7 p.m., and the safety of the horses remains a major concern. Churchill Downs recently suspended racing operations and moved the remainder of its meet schedule to Ellis Park in the wake of 12 horse fatalities the past month at the home of the Kentucky Derby.
While Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert won the Preakness with National Treasure at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course on May 20, another one of his horses, Havnameltdown, had to be euthanized after falling in the sixth race that day. A 6-year-old horse died at Belmont Park last week after being injured in a race.
The thoroughbred industry insists it is doing everything possible to keep the animals safe.
Industry leaders said the sport has never been safer, with horse fatalities down 37.5% since they started being tracked in 2009. The federally mandated Horseracing Safety and Integrity Authority took over last year, and its medication and antidoping program went into effect last month.
It's still not good enough for some. Keith Dane, senior director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said Friday in a release that racing may be in its final days without a genuine commitment to reform that puts the safety and well-being of the horses at the center of the sport.
"... We reflect on the string of horse deaths and doping scandals that sullied this racing circuit," he wrote. "The staggering death count reminds of this grim reality: horses do not always survive the races they are entered in. Practices and conditions that fail to prioritize horse safety and reckless drug and medication use have created a deadly environment for racehorses, and potentially the entire racing industry."
It's a dire warning heading into the Belmont, which has shaped up to be the most competitive of this year's Triple Crown races, even with Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness third-place finisher Mage not running.
Jockey John Velazquez, who rode National Treasure to victory in the Preakness, said he would not mind seeing the Triple Crown schedule, which is currently run in a six-week span, spread out more to give the horses extra time to recover. He also talked about more scans to detect injuries sooner.
"I love the idea of tweaking things," he said. "Every sport out there has changed for the better. And I think we are a little bit stuck in tradition and everything else. If this is going to make it for the better of the sport, I am all for it. And, obviously ... good for the horses, good for the fans and good for everybody."
Forte, the 2-year-old champion, will get his first Triple Crown taste after missing the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with a foot injury detected on the morning of the series opener on May 6.
Baffert, who missed the big race at Churchill Downs because of a suspension related to 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit's failed drug test, will go for two in a row with National Treasure, while trainer Brad Cox's threesome includes Tapit Trice and Angel of Empire, who both ran well in Kentucky. Also, Jena Antonucci is set to become the 11th female trainer to have a horse in the Belmont if Peter Pan Stakes winner Arcangelo runs.
So the potential for history is certainly there, even it can't match what happened a half-century ago, when Secretariat and jockey Ron Turcotte blew away the field at Belmont Park with a 31-length win in a record-setting time of 2 minutes, 24 seconds to nail down the Triple Crown.
Track announcer Chic Anderson's memorable call included describing Secretariat as "moving like a tremendous machine," and Turcotte said he could tell the horse wasn't tired even after crossing the finish line.
"He was the type of horse that you'll never see again," Turcotte said Wednesday, nearly 50 years to the day since riding Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes. "He was doing something that you've never seen before and will probably never see again."