In some years, it is truly "The Test of the Champion." In other years, this one for instance, the test is one of another, less compelling sort. With neither the Kentucky Derby nor the Preakness winner in the field of 12 that will compete for the third leg of the Triple Crown on Saturday, 32 years after the series was last swept by Affirmed, the 142nd running of the oldest and longest of American 3-year-old classics is, as they say, a good betting race.
It will lack the electricity generated by the potential for history that is a uniquely New York thing. The ghosts of Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat and Citation will remain in repose. The largest crowd ever to see a sporting event in New York will remain 120,139, the number of souls who in 2004 witnessed the short-fallen Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones. The lights on Broadway will not flicker.
Again, the failure of a Triple Crown winner to emerge from the 3-year-old crop has prompted calls for alteration of the series. Again, there is an appropriate, staunch defense of its difficult, almost impossible structure, which has been overcome by only 11 horses since 1919. The difference this time is that the potential for validation of either the Derby or Preakness winner was removed with the decisions of the connections of both Super Saver and Lookin At Lucky to pass the test posed by the daunting final leg of the series, one lap on the world's only 12-furlong racetrack made of sand and loam. Lacking the high drama of potential Triple Crown coronation, a rubber match is the next-best thing. But no horse has started in all three legs and only three Belmont starters were among the 20 assembled on May 1 at Churchill Downs.
While generally disappointing, a Belmont field absent the winners of the Derby and Preakness is not unusual, the most recent just four years ago, when Jazil won the final leg of a Triple Crown which was missing both Barbaro and Bernardini. In 2000, Commendable won a Belmont while Fusaichi Pegasus and Red Bullet were elsewhere.
While Jazil and Commendable are no more than footnotes in Triple Crown history, the sport and the series somehow endured their respective reigns as Belmont Stakes winners.
The anticlimactic fate of this Belmont was decided early. Super Saver's limitations were exposed at Pimlico, where he was empty with five-sixteenths to run and trainer Todd Pletcher blamed the abject failure on short rest. Trainer Bob Baffert said before the Preakness that win or lose, Lookin At Lucky, an unlucky beaten favorite in Louisville, would not run in the Belmont, which is left to a group not entirely without merit led by Ice Box and First Dude, the runners-up in the series' first two legs. Still, in a year of leftovers, this Belmont offers an interesting mixture of developing horses, some potentially capable of asserting themselves during the second half of the season. The Derby and Preakness have failed to establish a clear leader of this division. This Belmont is more compelling as a handicapping challenge than an unfolding chapter of history, but sometimes the fans are left to accept what a fickle game offers.
Nick Zito, who will become the first trainer to finish first, second and third in the Triple Crown in one year with different horses if Dwyer Stakes winner Fly Down prevails, returns from a retreat at Saratoga with Ice Box. The Derby runner-up is regarded by many as perhaps the best horse to run in the May 1 feature at Churchill Downs, where a furious rally carried him past nine horses in the final furlong but left him short of overtaking Super Saver at the end of a troubled, circuitous trip.
Zito, having engineered upset victories in the 2004 and 2008 Belmonts, derailing Smarty Jones with 36-1 Birdstone while Big Brown crashed and burned unassisted as 39-1 Da'Tara led at every pole, prefers training in the comparative peace of Saratoga, some 200 miles north of Belmont Park. Ice Box was sent to the Spa after the Derby, joining Zito's upstate New York division, which includes Fly Down. Both were scheduled to ship to Belmont Park at midweek after having completed preparation hauntingly similar to the work that has foreshadowed their best efforts.
Ice Box drilled a half-mile in 46.65 seconds last week, the best work at the distance over the Oklahoma training track adjacent to the nation's oldest racecourse. Fly Down, whose victory in the Dwyer may have been a breakthrough effort, followed with a bullet 47.50-second half-mile move Sunday over the main track at the Spa. Zito and his Belmont horses are nothing if not consistent.
Ice Box put up a bullet work seven days before winning the Florida Derby in March and again seven days before his runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby. Fly Down turned in a bullet work at Churchill Downs on May 3, five days before winning the Dwyer at Belmont. It would not be unreasonable to expect strong races from both Saturday.
"Ice Box, we tried to duplicate the same training method as before the Derby," Zito said. "We sharpened him up before the Derby; we're doing the same thing before the Belmont and hoping it works. Fly Down had the same workout before the Dwyer. We put a lot of miles on them every morning, because it's in [their breeding] to go a distance of ground. Hopefully, they'll have that firepower in the end. It's not an exact science. Those workouts, regardless of whatever, it's not how you get the horses to go a mile and a half, a mile and a quarter, a mile and an eighth -- it's what they do every single day."
Ice Box was formally installed as the 3-1 overnight favorite after drawing the six post on Wednesday, a half-point lower than the initial odds assigned to the huge, long-striding First Dude, who drew the 11th stall in the barrier and is expected to set a more comfortable pace than he did in a determined, front-running effort in the Preakness. According to trainer Dale Romans, the Belmont has been written in red ink on First Dude's itinerary since March. The gentle turns at Belmont Park, Romans said, are tailor-made for a horse like First Dude.
"When [jockey Ramon Dominguez] came back after the Florida Derby, he told me that the Belmont is this horse's race -- he'll love this racetrack," Romans said. "In the Preakness, he was putting up super-fast fractions and it looked as though he was just galloping along. When they came to him, I thought that was it, but he kept going and got his head in front again, trying to win. He's a throwback kind of horse. He's big and he does everything right. Maybe we can turn the table."
The complexion of the field is not without subplots or potential fodder for future Belmont trivia.
Alexis Barba will become the first female trainer in history to win a Triple Crown race if Make Music For Me, fourth in the Derby, should pull off the upset.
Drosselmeyer is positioned to make WinStar Farm, owner of Super Saver, the first owner since the race's namesake, August Belmont II, in 1896, to win two legs of the Triple Crown in the same year with two horses not trained by the same man. Belmont's silks were carried by Preakness winner Margrave, who was trained by Byron McClelland, and Belmont winner, Hastings, who was trained by John J. Hyland. Pletcher trains Super Saver. Bill Mott conditions Drosselmeyer.
This may not be the stuff of which memories are made and will certainly do nothing to stimulate attendance, betting or television ratings, but, as always, the Belmont is the sum of the Triple Crown's parts. This is a generation of 3-year-olds that began the season without clearly defined leaders, saw the rise, fall and retirement of only one who generated genuine excitement and potential dominance, Eskendereya, and has reached the third leg of the Triple Crown looking much the same as it did in February.
Then again, it is part of a pick-six and a pick-four with guaranteed $1 million pools and there is the great question of which, if any, is capable of staying a mile and a half. The odds on nine of 12 will open in double digits. And it is, after all, a good betting race.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at email@example.com.
• Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award among several other industry honors. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby.
• You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org