by Trevor Whenham - 05/23/2006
It's early yet, since the Belmont is still almost three weeks away, but the field is already shaping up for the final jewel in the Triple Crown. There will be a lack of major drama as there will be no Triple Crown contender this year in New York, but a big and intriguing field is shaping up for the race. Here's a look at the field as it stands now:
Unless trainer Mike Trombetta changes his mind and enters Sweetnorthernsaint in the Belmont, this will be the first year since the rather unremarkable 1983 season that there hasn't been at least one horse that runs in all three Triple Crown races. Sweetnorthernsaint finished a distant second in the Preakness, but suffered a minor hoof injury in the process. He likely won't miss any training as a result of the setback, and Trombetta has yet to commit one way or the other, but the way he is talking makes it seem more likely that he will sit out the race and recharge for a better spot in the summer. Brother Derek is the only other dual starter that is still healthy, but he has gone back to California to regroup. Here are the horses that are confirmed, or are likely:
The Belmont favorite
Bernardini - If Bernardini enters the Belmont he will be the favorite and likely by a wide margin. His owner, Sheik Mohammed, has yet to commit to the Belmont, but in my mind it seems likely. The horse is bred almost perfectly for the distance, he handled the extra distance of the Preakness with ease and has given no reason to think he won't handle a mile and a half, and the field is no harder (and likely a fair bit easier at the top) than the one he dominated in the Preakness. We should know later this week if Bernardini will be back, but trainer Tom Albertrani is showing signs that he is in favor of it, for what that's worth.
Derby horses coming back for another shot
As many as six Kentucky Derby starters that skipped the Preakness are looking to return to the track for the Belmont.
Bob and John - The longest priced of Bob Baffert's three Derby starters at 12-1, the Wood Memorial winner never fired and ended up a disappointing 17th. He's owned by Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans, so the Derby capped a week in which McNair didn't get a Triple Crown victory or Reggie Bush. Bob and John got bumped twice which may have accounted for the poor performance, but he looked completely spent after 7 furlongs.
Jazil - The purest closer in the field, Jazil made an impressive charge, but didn't quite have enough gas and ended up dead heating for fourth. His chances in the Derby were trumped by the strong close of Barbaro, and the same thing could happen in the Belmont since Bernardini will be closing strong if he gets his race. Jazil might be challenged by the distance, but if he can hold on he could close for at least a piece.
Steppenwolfer - The surprise third place finisher in the Derby closed hard, but look tired by the time the finish lane came. On paper the horse should be ignored, but he has shown a knack for showing up in the tri against better horses. He's done it at several distances, so may be able to hold on for a piece of the action in New York.
Bluegrass Cat - If Steppenwolfer was a surprise in third, then Bluegrass Cat was a complete shock in second. He benefited from a clean trip and held up down the stretch. The Cat had been regarded as a strong contender earlier in the prep season, but a loss in the Tampa Bay Derby and a poor performance in the Blue Grass had dimmed his star. He was clearly second best to Barbaro in the Derby, so who knows what that could mean in the Belmont.
Deputy Glitters - Even if Bernardini doesn't run, Tom Albertrani will still have a Belmont starter. Deputy Glitters finished 8th at the Derby after a Tampa Bay Derby win and a terrible performance on an off track in the Wood Memorial. He won't be a top contender, but on the right track on the right day he could get a piece of the action.
Point Determined - Another Bob Baffert runner that didn't fire. He was in decent position coming into the stretch, but by the eighth pole he had noting left. His sire, Point Given, completely dominated the Belmont, winning by more than 12 lengths in 2001. The son was the fourth choice in the Derby, making him likely the highest regarded horse to return in this race. If his father's blood runs thick, he could be a major factor.
Preakness horses running again
Hemingway's Key - The only Preakness starter confirmed for the Belmont. The Nick Zito charge was easy to write off, but he managed to come through and end up third. Until the Preakness there was nothing the horse did in his three year old campaign that was even worth looking at. Another strong classic finish and the beginning of the year would be completely forgotten.
Greeley's Legacy - An uninspired fifth in the Preakness followed an uninspired season for this horse. You might like him, but I sure don't.
Horses making the Belmont their first Triple Crown stop
Oh So Awesome - Team Valor bought this horse in France as a three year old. He's had just one start in the U.S., but it's hard to learn anything from it. He finished third over 1 1/16 miles, but it was on a sloppy track. Based on that performance he is outclassed here, but his French career makes him a complete wild card. He's run at both 1 5/16 miles and 1 3/8 miles in France, so he has had a better taste of distance than any of his competitors.
High Cotton - His 17 1/2 length loss in the Arkansas Derby ruled him out as a serious contender in the classics, but then he won the Sir Barton Stakes on the Preakness undercard by three lengths to inspire enthusiasm in his connections. He took the lead early in that race and never gave it up, drawing away at the end. If he can get the distance in the Belmont, then his presence at the front could keep the pace honest. The jump in class, though, will make it hard for him to dictate the style.
Lewis Michael - His last race was the Peter Pan stakes at Belmont on Preakness day. He had the lead late and looked to have it won, but Sunriver, the last horse to miss the Kentucky Derby cut, caught him at the line. That was the strongest showing of his career.
Sunriver - This Todd Pletcher trained horse narrowly missed qualifying for the Derby after a solid third place finish to Barbaro in the Florida Derby. He came back in the Peter Pan, charging hard at the end to win by a neck and appearing to have a lot left at the end of the 1 1/8 mile race. That indicates that he can probably stretch out, though whether he has another 3/8 of a mile in him remains to be seen.