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Horse Racing: Belmont Stakes
Keri McCarthy of Farmingdale, New York, pets a horse in the paddock tunnel at Belmont Park, in Elmont, New York, June 10, 2023. Photo by Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports via REUTERS

Air quality issues, horse safety concerns complicate start of Belmont Stakes

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, the racing has become almost an afterthought as the public has focused on a recent spike in deaths of horses at racetracks and air quality problems in the northeast caused by wildfires in Canada. And there is no Secretariat on the scene to make everyone forget the issues.

A highly competitive field of nine led by 2-year-old champion Forte and Preakness winner National Treasure is set to run in the 1 1/2 miles 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 and prompted New York Gov. Kathy Hochul to warn Saturday's racing could be affected if conditions didn't improve.

Bryan Ramsey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office on Long Island, said the air quality improved vastly on Friday as winds came out of the west at 5-to-10 mph.

READ MORE: Smoke from Canada eases as backup arrives to help fight ongoing wildfires

"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.

The safety of the horses is a major concern. Churchill Downs suspended racing operations recently and moved its meet 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, his Havnameltdown had to be euthanized after falling in the sixth race. A 6-year-old horse died at Belmont last week after being injured in a race.

The thoroughbred industry insists it is doing everything possible to keep the animals safe. Industry leaders say the sport has never been safer, with horse fatalities down 37.5 percent since they started being tracked in 2009.

WATCH: Alarming spate of racehorse deaths draws scrutiny of industry safety practices

The federally-mandated Horseracing Safety and Integrity Authority (HISA) took over last year, and its medication and anti-doping 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 finals 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 seems to be the most competitive of this year's Triple Crown races, even with 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 racing stretch out the Triple Crown races, which are run in a six-week span. That would give the horses more 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 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, for — 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 Preakness with a foot injury detected on the morning of the Derby.

Baffert, who missed the Derby because of a suspension related to 2021 Derby winner Medina Spirit's failed drug test, will go for two in a row with National Treasure, while Brad Cox's threesome is led by Tapit Trice and Angel of Empire, who both ran well in Kentucky. Jena Antonucci also is expected to become the 11th female trainer to have a horse in the Belmont if Peter Pan Stakes winner Arcangelo runs.

And that brings us back to 50 years ago, when Secretariat and jockey Ron Turcotte blew away the field in the Belmont with a 31-length win in record-setting time to nail down the Triple Crown.

"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. "He was doing something that you've never seen before and will probably never see again."

Post time for the Belmont this time around is expected shortly after 7 p.m. EDT.

AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

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