ELMONT, N.Y. -- Rick Dutrow Jr. considers a question: Is Spangled Star a Belmont type of horse? The answer requires political correctness, as Spangled Star will be entered in the Belmont next Wednesday, which pretty much means you'd figure hopefully, one way or another, he somehow belongs.
"I'd rather say the owner is a Belmont type of guy," Dutrow defers, which is an honest assessment since the Distorted Humor runner figures to be the longest shot on the board. But owner Larry Roman has managed to lure two-time Eclipse Award winner Garrett Gomez to the saddle. For this horse's connections, it's the experience that counts, not the odds.
Triple Crown contingent
Of the four Belmont starters with previous experience in the Triple Crown races, two -- Ice Box and First Dude -- have excellent chances at the "big sandy." The former, trained by Nick Zito, is a tenacious deep closer whose second-place effort in the Derby last time out came after he was checked three times en route to the wire. The latter, a Dale Romans trainee who put in a career-best second to Lookin At Lucky in the Preakness after setting the pace and digging in deep in the stretch, is a big, solid runner whose best quality is to keep on grinding down to the finish. Make Music For Me and Stately Victor emerge from respective fourth- and eighth-place finishes in the Derby after bypassing the Preakness to tackle a Triple Crown Classic again.
"He's been training good and I've never been unhappy with him," Dutrow said. "I told Larry this morning, he looks good as he's ever been, he's just very happy and it's all good. I don't know how he's going to run in that race and the company is certainly better than him, but the horse is doing really good and we're just hoping to pick up a check."
Meet the new guys for the Belmont Stakes: along with Spangled Star, who ran third in the April 24 Withers last time out and has only a maiden score to his name, one runner hasn't raced since a third-place finish on April 17 while a third visited the winner's circle at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May -- but for an allowance optional claimer score on the Kentucky Derby undercard.
Next Wednesday, when 10 contenders are expected to enter the third leg of the Triple Crown, all will have taken circuitous routes to New York and a 1 ½-mile test devoid of this year's Derby winner Super Saver and Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky. Bob Baffert, Lookin at Lucky's trainer, will be represented by Lone Star Derby winner Game On Dude.
The June 5 event will be the only Triple Crown Classic on the resumes of more than half the field, but bringing a fresh horse to the longest race in the series can actually be a horseman's best advantage. And the traits that matter most in the Belmont -- strength and stamina -- may be found in a late-developing 3-year-old whose true ability has yet to be displayed.
Uptowncharlybrown possesses these qualities, according to his new trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin. McLaughlin is banking on the hope that this colt will get the longer distance, and likes what he's seen so far. The long-striding runner took his first two races at shorter distances by a combined margin of 15 lengths, drawing off smartly in the stretch to win under a hand ride each time. His second victory, by six lengths in the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs last December, had McLaughlin seeking to buy him for main client Shadwell Stables.
"Just the way he ran and won his first two races was impressive," the New York-based trainer recalled. "He has a big, long stride and 3-year-olds like that, you know, are nice to have in the barn. When I offered money after his first two starts, though, his owners weren't interested in selling."
But when 62-year-old trainer Alan Sewald passed away unexpectedly on April 12, the horse was left in need of a new conditioner. McLaughlin made a few calls, and on May 5, Uptowncharlybrown was transferred to his care.
This son of Limehouse is the contender who enters the Belmont off a third-place finish in the April 17 Lexington Stakes, 1 1/6 miles over the Polytrack at Keeneland; he was 1 ½ lengths behind Exhi and Bushwhacked after a slow start and some bumping. Prior to that effort he was fifth in the Tampa Bay Derby going the same distance -- but only by 2 ¾ lengths.
"Obviously I was disappointed with his recent efforts after those two resounding victories," McLaughlin said. "But I like him today and in my barn I like him a lot. He's training well. I just don't know about mile and a half, but you never know. I don't know if anybody wants a mile and a half as 3-year-old."
One horse does, or so his connections believe. Stay Put, winner of that allowance optional claimer on the Derby undercard, ships to Belmont Park on Thursday. He's been pointing for distance events since his initial start back in Sept. 2009, when trainer Steve Margolis sent him a mile first time out. This was an unusual move for a 2-year-old, since most are sent five and a half or six furlongs in their debuts.
"We always felt he trained like a horse that didn't have any early pace," Margolis said. "He has a nice easy stride with an action that looked like we were gonna be running distances. It depends on the horse and most of the time I'll try a new starter going short, but me and (owner) Richard Klein felt he'd just be stronger going long."
Prior to his first start at Turfway, the son of Broken Vow shipped in that day, got loose behind the gate, and ran a little before being apprehended by the outrider. He still started and ran a legitimate third, which he did again at Churchill before breaking his maiden at Fair Grounds. He has never run a shorter distance and seems to want the increased ground.
"We've always felt all along that he has a great lung capacity, and if you watch him go when he trains, he never seems to really get tired," Margolis said. "I know in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby he ran kind of two identical races (5th place) and I'm not one to make excuses, but I thought he got a little too far back and he still ran within 2 ¾ lengths of winning each time. We always felt he could get the mile and the quarter. We could take the easy way and go to the Northern Dancer at Churchill Downs, but Richard and his parents have been breeding a long time and we decided if he trained well, we'd take a shot. We wanted to make it into the Derby, but he didn't have enough graded earnings."
Drosselmeyer and Fly Down
Earnings were Uptowncharlybrown's problem, and Drosselmeyer's as well. The latter, a WinStar Farms runner, took a little while to break his maiden for trainer Bill Mott but always hit the board except one start, a fourth-place finish in the Risen Star where he missed by just 1 ¾ lengths. Third in the March 27 Louisiana Derby by one length while closing inside late, the Distorted Humor runner got a break until the May 8 Dwyer at Belmont where he was runner-up to impressive six-length winner Fly Down.
That one, a son of Mineshaft trained by Nick Zito, was ninth in the Louisiana Derby after encountering traffic trouble nearing the stretch. In both of his previous wins, a maiden special weight at Churchill last November and an allowance score at Gulfstream Park in Feburary, he passed Preakness runner-up First Dude with wide rallies. He returned in the Dwyer to demolish the field with a strong four-wide move off the turn.
"He was steadied and didn't like that track," Zito said of the Louisiana Derby loss to columnist David Grening of The Daily Racing Form. "Time pays off."
That, in fact, could be the slogan of the Belmont -- always, but especially this year.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.