The field has not been officially set for the Belmont Stakes as I write this, but American Pharoah has just arrived in New York, so things are feeling real. Two very good works from the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champ have scared off several contenders (though they all had other excuses they used), so it seems like we are heading towards a field of eight when we have our date with history - yet again - at Belmont on the first Saturday in June. The field might be small, but the group of jockeys is impressive.
Here's a look at the small but fearless men who will be piloting the steeds on Saturday:
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Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah: Espinoza faces pressure like no other in this race. Every other jockey will be targeting him, and he will have been subjected to media scrutiny since the Preakness unlike any jockey gets any other time of the year. It can be too much for some jockeys. Luckily, Espinoza is better suited than most to handling the pressure because he is a veteran of it. This is his third time having a shot at a Triple Crown in New York - he fell short with California Chrome and War Emblem. His failure then doesn't necessarily mean he can't win now, and his rides on this horse this year have been excellent. Particularly striking is how well he has adjusted to the needs of the horse on the day - he was aggressive in urging with his whip in the Derby because the horse needed it and then didn't touch the horse once in the Preakness. The champ is in good hands.
Joel Rosario, Frosted: Rosario rode both this horse and Tale of Verve in their last races, so he had his choice of mounts. Even though Tale of Verve was a surprise second in the Preakness, I'm guessing it wasn't a very tough decision. Rosario knows the Belmont track very well, and in recent years he has had great success in this race. He won it last year with Tonalist and was third with Orb in 2013 and with Brilliant Speed in 2011.
John Velazquez, Materiality: It took a while for Todd Pletcher to figure out his jockey assignments - mostly because Carpe Diem was supposed to run in this race but was pulled from consideration on Monday. In the end Velazquez, generally the first-choice rider for Pletcher, has wound up on Materiality. He knows the horse well having ridden him in all but one of his four career starts. The race he missed out on, though, was the Derby when he was on board Carpe Diem instead. Velazquez has won this race with Union Rags and Rags to Riches and has been second three more times, so he is an asset in this setting.
Javier Castellano, Madefromlucky: Castellano rode Materiality in the Derby but has been shifted back to Madefromlucky here. The horse should be thankful. Castellano has won the Eclipse Award as top jockey the last two years and is riding at the top of his game. He has never won this race but has finished second twice - including last year with Commissioner.
Irad Ortiz Jr., Mubtaahij: This is a very good move by the connections of this horse. In the Derby they went with a European jockey who knew the horse but was clueless when it came to the demands of races like that. It hurt the horse. Now they have chosen a young, hungry jockey who has had a lot of success at Belmont early in his career. Ortiz has worked the horse since the Derby, so he knows what he has under him, and he will give the horse the best chance. He has not hit the board in a Triple Crown race yet, but he sits fourth in the country in earnings this year and is the real deal.
Gary Stevens, Tale of Verve: Rosario stepped off this mount, but the horse won't miss a beat. In landing Stevens they got one of the great big-race riders of all time. He has won each of the Triple Crown races three times and has finished second twice and third once in the Belmont as well. He is a master of pacing, and that will be crucial for this horse if he wants to come close to replicating his shocking second-place finish in the Preakness. He was second here in 2013 with Oxbow, so it's not like his best days in the Belmont are far in the past, either.
Mike Smith, Frammento: Like Stevens, Smith is an all-time legend who knows this race. He won the race in both 2010 with Drosselmeyer and 2013 with Palace Malice. He has also been second twice and third twice, and he was once based in New York, so there is no shortage of experience. Like Stevens, he will be making his first ride on his horse here, but that hardly matters for jockeys with this much experience. Besides, Frammento has had six different jockeys - including Stevens and Velazquez - in eight career starts, so change won't bother him at all.
Kent Desormeaux, Keen Ice: Desormeaux won the race in 2009 with Summer Bird and has been second twice and third once. He should love the race, but you can be sure that he is haunted by it. That's because, like Espinoza, he has had two shots at a Triple Crown in the Belmont and has come up short both times. In 1998 he came as close as anyone has with Real Quiet when he was beaten by not much more than a whisker. Crushing in a different way was 2008, when he was aboard Big Brown, a horse viewed as a super horse much like American Pharoah is this year. That horse had an impossibly bad day, and Desormeaux gave up down the stretch.
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