By Richard Rosenblatt
For those of us who love to play the ponies, the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes (G1) is a race we can’t wait to bet on – a trio of Todd Pletcher longshots, a Preakness (G1) winner who isn’t the favorite, and a 2-1 morning-line choice looking for redemption after the first defeat of his career in the Kentucky Derby (G1).
Life on the Triple Crown circuit has been one wild ride these past five weeks, and racing portion ends Saturday in the 1 ½-mile Belmont, the longest and most grueling race of the series.
And, in case you aren’t, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert won’t be around after his Derby first-place finisher Medina Spirit’s post-race positive drug test was confirmed earlier this week, and his suspension from entering horses at New York racetracks, as well as Churchill Downs, continues. Medina Spirit could be disqualified from the win once the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission reveals its decision on the issue.
Nonetheless, the 153rd edition of the Belmont looks to be one of the most competitive fields in a while — eight 3-year-olds topped led by Essential Quality (5-for-6 after running fourth in the Derby), 3-1 second choice Rombauer after his Preakness win at 11-1, and Pletcher’s threesome of Known Agenda (6-1), Bourbonic (15-1), and maiden winner Overtook (20-1).
Rock Your World, the front-running Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner who had a horrible start in the Kentucky Derby and finished 17th, is looking to rebound in the Belmont.
“We hope to right the ship in the Belmont,’’ Rock Your World’s trainer John Sadler said.
Brad Cox, who trains 2-year-old champion Essential Quality, has high hopes with his first Belmont starter after the colt skipped the Preakness.
“He’s definitely good enough to win a Triple Crown race,” Cox said this week. “I think he showed that in the Derby. He put in a winning effort … We’re hopefully set up for a big race Saturday.”
Rombauer, perhaps the most versatile runner in the field, has won on three different surfaces, been ridden by six different jockeys – the seventh will be in the Belmont with John Velazquez aboard – and is racing at his sixth racetrack.
“To win any Triple Crown race is fantastic, the Belmont is really the ‘Test of the Champion’ and it would certainly be nice to hoist a trophy like that on Saturday,’’ Rombauer’s trainer Michael McCarthy, a former assistant to Pletcher in New York, said.
Pletcher has the home track advantage. Newly elected to racing’s Hall of Fame, the sport’s all-time leader in purse earnings with more than $406 million, is looking for his fourth Belmont win. His best chance looks to be Known Agenda, winner of the Florida Derby (G1) but a not-really-competitive ninth in the Derby after a bumpy beginning.
“I’m happy with him. His energy level has been super,” Pletcher said. “I like the way he’s handled the main track here so I’m looking forward to it.”
Also entered are Hot Rod Charlie, third in the Derby, and France Go de Ina (seventh in the Preakness).
Doug O’Neill, who trains Hot Rod Charlie, is hoping for some good fortune in the Belmont. In 2012, his Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another was scratched from the race with a tendon injury the day before a Triple Crown attempt. His other Derby winner, Nyquist (2016), ran third in the Preakness, then spiked a fever and was withdrawn from Belmont consideration.
“With the distance, I think it will suit him well,” O’Neill said of Hot Rod Charlie. “He’s won going 1 3/16 (miles) in the Louisiana Derby. I think his gate speed and versatility will be an asset as well.”
NBC Sports will televise the Belmont, beginning with NBCSN coverage from 3-5 p.m. ET. NBC takes over from 5-7 p.m. Post time for the Belmont is scheduled for 6:49 p.m.
The undercard is stacked with seven other Grade 1 races and features the likes of 2020 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) and 2021 Pegasus World Cup (G1) winner Knicks Go in the $1 million Metropolitan Handicap and 2020 Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Shedaresthedevil in the $500,000 Ogden Phipps, which lost two of its main contenders in the past two days — 2020 Preakness winning-filly Swiss Skydiver and Valiance. Both spiked fevers.
At least 11,000 fans are expected to attend Belmont Stakes Day a year after no spectators were at the track due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, the Belmont returns to its regular spot as the final race of the Triple Crown and at its usual distance. Last year, it was the first Triple Crown race, and the distance was reduced to 1 1/8 miles.
With four hours of horse racing on the air, two of them on the NBC national network, there’s sure to be much commentary regarding Baffert, the sport’s most recognized figure, the medication issues facing the industry, and what can be done to improve the image of the sport.