Horse racing • Third leg still important even sans Crown try.
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New York • Triple try or not, here comes the Belmont Stakes.
Some years, the Belmont can be the most important horse race in the world. Others, when a Triple Crown isn't on the line, the scramble is on for the next best story line.
This is one of the other years. When Kentucky Derby winner Orb was beaten in the Preakness by Oxbow two weeks ago, the dry spell without a Triple Crown champion reached 35 years and counting.
"It's not the same buzz as when a horse wins the first two legs," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "But to me, the Belmont Stakes is still one of the most coveted prizes in racing, and certainly with New York's stature as America's leader in racing, I would say it's one of the two premier events for 3-year-olds."
Certainly, when the field lines up for next Saturday's 145th running of the Belmont, there will be plenty of historic subplots waiting to unfold over the 1½-mile tour of Belmont Park.
Among them is the next best thing to a Triple shot a rematch between the Derby winner and the Preakness winner. Also, Pletcher is set to run a record five horses in the race, and one of them Unlimited Budget could give Rosie Napravnik a chance to become the first female rider to win a Triple Crown race aboard a filly.
It's a far cry from the buildup during last year's Triple Crown campaign, when I'll Have Another won the Derby and Preakness in thrilling finishes but was scratched the day before the Belmont with a tendon injury.
"The goal every year is to compete in the classics," said trainer Tom Albertrani, who won the 2006 Preakness with Bernardini and will send out Freedom Child in the Belmont. "When you see Triple Crown races on TV, you know you are watching the best of the best competing."
The Belmont fills the bill if the probable lineup holds up by post time.
Orb looks to be back in top form following his fourth-place finish in the Preakness, where the 3-year-old colt ridden by Joel Rosario was unable to find much running room after breaking from the inside post.
"He's doing fine, his appetite is good, and I'd like to run him," Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said this week outside his barn at Belmont Park.
Co-owned by Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps and Stuart Janney III, Orb would be attempting to become the first horse since Thunder Gulch in 1995 to complete the Derby-Belmont double.
He'll have to beat Oxbow, as well as about 12 others expected to be entered on Wednesday. Trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, Oxbow posted his final major Belmont tuneup on Thursday, working 6 furlongs in 1:14.60 at Churchill Downs. Lukas' Will Take Charge also worked 6 furlongs in 1:15.67.
The trainer who now has a record 14 wins in Triple Crown races said his colts "are feeling great" since the Preakness.
"I feel like we're in real good shape toward this race," he added.
Oxbow, with Hall of Famer Gary Stevens aboard, could become the first horse since Afleet Alex in 2005 to complete the Preakness-Belmont double.
Pletcher, the nation's leading trainer, has another full house of runners for a Triple Crown race. In the Derby he sent out a record-equaling five horses, with Revolutionary's third-place his best finish. He skipped the Preakness, and his lineup for the Belmont is Revolutionary, Overanalyze (11th in the Derby), Palace Malice (12th in the Derby), Unlimited Budget, and possibly Midnight Taboo.
Pletcher said each of his horses has its own running style, and the outcome likely will depend on the pace of the race.
"We're blessed with a lot of 3-year-olds this year that seem to carry their speed and stretch out and the Belmont can be a very demanding race," he said. "Pace was a factor in both the Derby and Preakness and it'll dictate who is going to do what. A slower pace will allow some of these horses to run a little further and a fast pace will really expose some of them. I think we have a well-bred group who, from a pedigree standpoint, have the credentials to run this far."
Others set to take on the challenge of the longest race they'll ever run include Derby runner-up Golden Soul, Giant Finish (10th in the Derby), Vyjack (18th in the Derby), Always in a Tiz and Incognito.
Unlimited Budget, a daughter of 2007 Derby winner Street Sense, won her first four races before finishing third in the Kentucky Oaks. Rags to Riches gave Pletcher his first Triple Crown race win in 2007 when she became the first filly in 102 years to take the Belmont.
"Both are big, strong fillies," he said. "If you look at Unlimited Budget's speed figures, they match up against these colts. The key is getting the mile-and-a-half. She's won at a mile-and-a-sixteenth twice this year and won going a mile-and-an-eighth as a 2-year-old, so that's encouraging and suggests she can compete here."
Freedom Child is a horse worth watching. In the Wood Memorial in April, he was declared a nonstarter by the stewards because he was still in the hands of an assistant starter when the gates opened and fell way behind. Just over a month later, Freedom Child came back and won the Peter Pan by 13 1/2 lengths.
Albertrani is confident Freedom Child will make a good showing, especially after a 5-furlong work in 59.87 at Belmont on May 27.
"We'll give him a good strong gallop leading up to the race," Albertrani said. "He's already done plenty. The last few days, he's been tearing down the barn. I think he's pretty sharp."