So, here we are. In the final turn of another thrill packed, roller-coaster Triple Crown run. Whew!
It all started on the first Saturday in May (seems like yesterday) with the Kentucky Derby, run under clouds of gray, on a muddy, rainy day. But rain drops a’ falling on my head didn’t keep people from Always Dreaming – who won the 143rd Run for the Roses.
Two weeks later, the travelling equine circus arrived in Baltimore, on another dreary day that saw, appropriately enough, a horse with the first name of Cloud, as in Cloud Computing, getting to the finish line first in the 142nd running of the Preakness Stakes.
Now, on Saturday, we wrap with another Triple Crown season with the longest mile – as in 1 1/2 miles – in the 149th edition of the Belmont Stakes.
On Wednesday, the field for the last leg of the Triple Crown was set with the official Post Position Draw. At the end of the day, there were 12 colts entered for Thoroughbred Racing’s greatest endurance test.
This year’s Belmont Stakes Draw Party drew a lot of attention. Not for the starting lineup come Saturday, but for those who will NOT be in the break from the gate.
Just a few hours before entry time, it was announced that Classic Empire – last year’s 2-year-old champ and surely the favorite for this year’s Belmont – would be watching from his stall due to an abscess in his hoof.
He will be joined on the sidelines by Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, who struggled home a distant eighth after an extended dual with Classic Empire in the Preakness Stakes. As well, he will be joined by Cloud Computing, still on R&R after his gallant run to nose Classic Empire in winning the Preakness Stakes.
What we are left with are 12 horses ready to run and 12 dreams ready to either crash or cash in racing’s final jewel.
“It’s why we play the game,” said trainer Dale Romans, who suffered his own sting of bad luck last year when his highly touted Not This Time was injured after the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and never even made it to the Triple Crown chase.
“This is a Classic. Whether it has the Derby winner or the Preakness winner, it’s still one of the three greatest races that we have in this country,” continued Romans, who will saddle J Boys Echo in the Belmont Stakes. “It’s such a prestigious race. I’ve been here several times and I have a record of four thirds, and it’s one of those things that, outside of the Kentucky Derby, we’ve won the Preakness, and the Belmont is the other box to check off. It’s a great race with the greatest racing fans, the smartest racing fans. It’s a race that I really, really want to get the trophy.”
Romans will join eleven other hopefuls that will be loaded into the starting gate on Saturday.
The Morning Line favorite will be Irish War Cry, who ran into trouble and ran into a 10th place finish, beaten 161/2 lengths in the Kentucky Derby. But the colt trained by Graham Motion has credentials that certainly warrant him being made the 7-2 betting choice going into the race.
The colt who won the Grade 2 Wood Memorial in impressive fashion has a turn of foot that just may give him the preferred stalking position in the Belmont.
“He’s had a good couple of weeks,” said Motion. “I can honestly say this was not my original plan. After the Derby, when he ran so disappointingly, I wanted to go home and just forget about the Triple Crown, which is what the Derby does to you when you don’t run well.
“He breezed well last weekend, [six furlongs in 1:14 on June 3] and I felt he needed to be here.”
Irish War Cry will be ridden by NYRA regular Rajiv Maragh from post position 7.
But there are others who will argue that their athlete has every reason to be considered a “favorite” at the Big Sandy – which is expecting sunny weather and a large crowd on Saturday.
One of those “others” is Lookin’ at Lee, who ran second in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness. Trainer Steve Asmussen switches riders and hopes to change his luck this time around.
“Lee” will be ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr., who won last year’s Belmont aboard Creator, from post position 6.
And, there will be a newcomer to the American racing scene joining the fray for the very first time. Lending an international flair to the Belmont is the Japanese horse Epicharis, who was pointed toward the race immediately following his narrow defeat in the Grade 2 UAE Derby.
The leggy dark bay colt, who won his first four starts in Japan, including three stakes, was caught late over a muddy track at Meydan, losing to Thunder Snow by a nose.
He arrived at Belmont Park last week, and on Tuesday had his final prep for Saturday’s race, covering five furlongs in 1:06 over the training track while picking up the pace throughout.
“He went good early,” trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara said through interpreters. “He was good down the backstretch. I think it might be better to get some position behind some horses. He’s recovered from the long flight well, better than Dubai. So, he’s in good form.”
As the second choice at 4-1 on the morning line, Epicharis drew post position 11 and will be ridden by regular rider Christophe Lemaire.
Then, there is J Boys Echo, trained by Romans – always the optimist. And, now, partly owned by restaurant owner par excellence, Bobby Flay. Flay purchased 25 percent of the colt privately prior to the Post Position Draw.
“If you watch the [Derby] replay and the head-on, everybody got pushed but he actually got slammed into,” said Romans. “But he came back and he’s trained well. And it’s a bad answer, but last Saturday was the best work he’s ever put in in his life. It was the most energy he’s showed and, today, he was bouncing and playing. The mile and a half should help him and hopefully we’re going to see the best of him. He’s got a good rhythm to the way he runs and I think that’s important going that far.”
So get ready. The best of this Crown season may be upon us. This baby, as they say, is wide open.