ELMONT, N.Y. -- Jose Santos does not yet have a mount in the Belmont Stakes. He knows whom he'd like to ride if he could.
After guiding Steppenwolfer through a solid six-furlong workout in 1:13.02 Saturday morning at Belmont Park, Santos said "that's my pick" to win the Belmont, to be run on June 10.
Two weeks out from the 138th Belmont Stakes - the third leg of Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown - and the field is swelling. Ten horses are considered definite, and at least one more is under consideration.
With Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro's racing career over and with Preakness winner Bernardini skipping the Belmont, the 1 1/2-mile race is viewed as pretty wide open. As of Saturday, those considered definite to run were Bluegrass Cat, Bob and John, Deputy Glitters, Hemingway's Key, Jazil, Oh So Awesome, Platinum Couple, Sacred Light, Steppenwolfer, and Sunriver. Wilentz is listed as 50-50 by trainer Joe Orseno.
Bluegrass Cat, who finished second in the Kentucky Derby, is likely to be the morning-line favorite. That position was further enhanced on Saturday when trainer Todd Pletcher confirmed that John Velazquez, Bluegrass Cat's regular rider, would ride in the Belmont. Velazquez, who suffered a fractured shoulder blade and a cracked rib in a spill on April 20, could return as early as Friday. Pletcher also said Rafael Bejarano would retain the mount on Sunriver, aboard whom he won the Peter Pan on May 20.
Also Saturday, the connections of Sacred Light, the second-place finisher in the Santa Catalina Stakes, and Platinum Couple, the New York-bred who finished a distant sixth in the Preakness, confirmed their horses would run in the Belmont. Victor Espinoza will ride Sacred Light while his brother, Jose, will ride Platinum Couple.
Steppenwolfer was one of two Belmont Stakes horses to work here on Saturday morning. Jazil, who finished a nose behind Steppenwolfer in a maiden race at Aqueduct last November and one length behind him in the Kentucky Derby, breezed five furlongs in 59.65 seconds, also over the main track.
Steppenwolfer and Jazil were on the track following the renovation break, and it appeared as though the two might go in company. But Steppenwolfer broke off at the six-furlong marker and, according to Belmont clockers, went his opening quarter in 25.40 seconds and the half-mile in 49.60. After getting his last quarter in 23.42, he galloped out seven furlongs in 1:25.80.
"Danny, I look good on this horse," Santos said to Dan Peitz, Steppenwolfer's trainer, back at the barn. "He went great - he was really, really happy."
Six days earlier, Steppenwolfer went five furlongs in 1:00.23 over the training track.
Santos rode Steppenwolfer in his first two starts last year, winning a maiden race by a nose over Jazil on Nov. 12. Steppenwolfer wintered in Louisiana and Oaklawn, and conflicts arose that prevented Santos from retaining the mount. Robby Albarado has ridden Steppenwolfer in five of his last six starts and will ride him in the Belmont.
In the Kentucky Derby, Steppenwolfer put in his usual late run and finished third, 8 1/2 lengths behind Barbaro.
Peitz noted that the slow middle fractions of the Derby - the first half-mile went in 46.07 seconds, but the second half-mile went in 50.95 - worked against the closers.
"I was a little disappointed that Barbaro kind of ran away from us at the end, but he got a pretty good breather from the half-mile pole to the quarter pole," Peitz said. "There was a reason nobody was closing at the end. As much speed as there was in the Derby, it surprised me that they would have run that slow around the turn."
Peitz said his horse had "almost a dream trip" in the Derby and was happy with the way he came out of it. As with all of Steppenwolfer's races, however, Peitz said the colt's chances in the Belmont hinge on the amount of pace in the race.
"Is it going to be a sprint the last three-eighths, and if it is, are we going to have enough kick?" Peitz said.
The same problem confronts Jazil, who on Saturday breezed with the 2-year-old maiden Trip to the Bank, who was timed for five furlongs in 1:00.05. The two broke off together before Jazil left his workmate in the final furlong.
After dead-heating with Brother Derek for fourth in the Derby, Jazil, like Steppenwolfer, purposely skipped the Preakness to await the Belmont.
"If we ran our 'A' race we might have been second," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said of the Preakness. "I was happy we were in our stall eating our dinner at that time."
From Southern California, trainer David Hofmans confirmed that Sacred Light would run in the Belmont. Hofmans, who won the 1997 Belmont with Touch Gold, planned to work Sacred Light seven furlongs at Hollywood Park on Sunday and ship him to New York on Tuesday.
"I want to get a work into him there," Hofmans said.
- additional reporting by Jay Privman