Belmont has charm despite absences

Updated: June 4, 2010, 11:12 AM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

Fly DownHorsephotos.comFly Down, trained by Nick Zito, drew the No. 5 post position for Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

ELMONT, N.Y. -- At the Kentucky Derby, everyone is all jazzed up, tracking the "buzz" horses. Those runners squeeze into a crowded field, hurtling toward the wire in a rough-and-tumble finish.

Next it's on to the Preakness, where the Derby winner attempts to seal the deal. A bid at immortality -- Triple Crown greatness -- is on the line. This year? Not this year? Regardless, the journey continues.

Now, the 142nd Belmont Stakes has arrived. It's been five weeks since the top 3-year-olds of the season were identified; three weeks since pretenders faded and contenders emerged in Baltimore. Those appearing here in three days will face the "Test of the Champion:" 1½ miles around the wide, sweeping turns of the track known as "Big Sandy." It's a rider's race, in which patience is imperative and an early move will cost the victory. It's also a trainer's race; conditioning and stamina are vital with every added furlong. Most of all, it's a runner's race, in which a throwback thoroughbred -- long-striding, strong-kicking, deep-closing -- will triumph.

The fanfare is somewhat muted on the national scene. As the New York Post's Ray Kerrison wrote Monday, "A great lament has spread across the land that the Belmont Stakes next Saturday is a bust … "

The reason for this opinion is simple: Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver and Preakness Stakes victor Lookin At Lucky will not be among the 12 horses expected to leave the Belmont Stakes starting gate. It is a lament those at Belmont Park have heard before, albeit rarely. This is the first time since 2006, and only the third time in the past 30 years, that both the Derby and Preakness winners will bypass the third leg of the Triple Crown.

But all is not lost. In this year's edition, along with the token long shots, there are several talented colts who could have breakout moments. Two -- morning-line favorite Ice Box and 7-2 second choice First Dude -- earned respective runner-up finishes in the Derby and Preakness. Others, such as Fly Down and Game On Dude, are lightly raced and could be peaking at the right moment. More, including Drosselmeyer and Stately Victor, have experience and a few solid but not-quite-there-yet performances under their girths. In the quasi-disappointment of a stand-alone Belmont, this is still a million-dollar race.

It's nice that there is even a Belmont, with the financial upheaval in New York and the current situation of the New York Racing Association thanks to a delay in the selection of a VLT (video lottery terminal) operator. After the state approved a $25 million loan May 24, NYRA got some breathing room and the guarantee that racing would continue throughout the Belmont meet and on into the upstate season at Saratoga.

"Two things have happened, and one is as important as the other," Charles Hayward, president of NYRA, said at the Madison Square Garden news conference Tuesday. "First, they've got a new selection process for the VLT operator now, they've turned it over to the lottery. This was probably the most difficult time. We didn't have any land claim; we were running out of money; and I think our employees, backstretch workers, trainers and owners all started to say, 'Is this really going to happen?' Fortunately, the state came through and we sorted it all out. They say they're going to select an operator in early August, and I think they're going to get it done. I'm hoping that we've sort of written the end of the story, and I think the process is going to be so much better, I really do."

New Yorkers are resilient, this is known. After walking the grounds at Belmont on Wednesday morning, one thing remains clear: The track's signature race holds an attraction all its own. From two-time Belmont Stakes winner Nick Zito's double entry to Uptowncharlybrown's attempt at victory in honor of his late trainer, Alan Seewald; from Alexis Barba's bid to become the first Belmont-winning female trainer with Make Music for Me to Stay Put's chance -- finally -- at a Triple Crown race, storylines abound. While the star power may be lacking Saturday, the horse that wins the Belmont could explode across the national radar in prime position to dominate the summer season.

In three days, the final leg of the Triple Crown trail will be over. The fun? That's just beginning.

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.