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There's no Triple Crown on the line. It has all the biorhythms of the big exhale, settling in for the summer dog days and the long, real season ahead. None of these Thoroughbreds gives you the goosebumps of the, say, "one to watch" or a horse of the year type. All we do now is watch and wager.
But wait a minute! Wake up!
It's Belmont Stakes Day Saturday and if you dig the ponies, you gotta be there. You'll learn about some of the most steeped horse races we have, tradition-wise. The toughest race of the year, furlongs-wise. And the prospect of improving yourself, wagering-wise.
With this 148th running - six more than the Kentucky Derby - during what is now called the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, we should see a competitive, bettable race when 13 runners answer the 5:37 p.m. Central school bell.
Preakness winner Exaggerator is your 9-5 morning line favorite, but more on him later.
The festival - remember when they just called it a race card? - at massive Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, has just recently become one of the single biggest days in any racing year, except for the Breeders' Cup in all of its annual finality. And this is totally by design.
I remember as recently as 2013 when the first five races were basically maiden claimers and mostly for New York-bred locals. Not really compelling for any but the most grizzled horseplayers.
But this year, we've got, in order:
- The Easy Goer (Race 1), $150,000 stakes, 8.5 furlongs, three-year olds.
- The Acorn (3), Grade I, $700,000, one mile, three-year old fillies. Moved in 2014 to Belmont Day, it's the 86th running of this third leg of the fillies' "Triple Crown."
- The Brooklyn Invitational (4), Grade II (handicap), $400,000, four years old and up, 1.5 miles. Also moved to Belmont Day in 2014, this will be the 128th running.
- The Ogden Phipps (5), Grade I, $1,000,000, fillies and mares four years old and up, 8.5 furlongs. Moved to Belmont Day in 2014, the race is named after racing scion and long-time Jockey Club chairman Ogden Mills Phipps, who died in April. His lineage in racing rubs elbows in one way or another with Seabiscuit, Bold Ruler, Secretariat, Personal Ensign, Storm Flag Flying, Smuggler and more recently the 2013 Kentucky Derby champion Orb.
- The Jaipur Invitational (6), Grade III, $300,000 four years old and up, at an always exciting six furlogs on the turf. Thirty-third running, again moved to Belmont Day in 2014. Jaipur won the Belmont, Withers and the Travers by a fine whisker in 1962.
- The Woody Stephens (7), Grade II, $500,000, three year olds, seven furlongs. Named after legendary trainer and Belmont fixture the late Woody Stephens, this will be the 32nd running. Stephens trained Cannonade, Caveat, Conquistador Cielo, Creme Fraiche, Devil's Bag, Forty Niner, Gone West, Stephan's Odyssey, Swale. He won five straight Belmonts(!), 1982-1986, earning this namesake race.
- The Just a Game (8), Grade I, $700,000, fillies and mares, one mile, turf. Just a Game was an Irish mare who tore up the New York circuit in races like the Diana and Flower Bowl and was named Female Turf Horse of the Year in 1980.
- The Metropolitan Handicap (9), Grade I, $1,250,000, three years old and up, one mile. Also famously known as The Met Mile, this race was traditionally run on Memorial Day before being moved in 2014. Rich in tradition after 127 runnings, this race has been won by legends including Equipoise (back-to-back in 1932-33), Devil Diver (three-peat 1943-45), Tom Fool, Native Dancer, Gallant Man, Sword Dancer, Arts and Letters, Gulch (1987-88), Ghostzapper and Honor Code last year.
- The Manhattan (10), Grade I, $1,000,000, four years old and up, one mile, turf. Again in triple digits, this will be the 115th running. Eight-year-old Britisher Slumber returns to defend his Manhattan crown and will face turf stars including Big Blue Kitten, Wake Forest, Ironicus and 8-5 favorite Flintshire.
- The Belmont Stakes (11), Grade I, $1,500,000, three year olds, 12 furlongs (1.5 miles). What can we say? Dubbed The Test of Champions, it's the longest race these horses will ever run. Win it, you're great anyway. Win the carnations and the Triple Crown, your legend never dies. But this is always a fascinating race, 12 furlongs worth to let you study, savor, the long long stretch a thick frosting on a tough race.
Twelve have had their Triple Crowns taken here. I've seen moonshot 70-1 Sarava beat War Emblem, Empire Maker beat a tired Funny Cide, plucky little Birdstone, 36-1, run down Smarty Jones. Kent Desormeaux mysteriously pull up the monster Big Brown.
I also enjoyed the great filly Rags to Riches in 2007, Union Rags in '12 and the seeming sprinter Palace Malice in 2013. Woody Stephens, times five. D. Wayne Lukas won it three straight times with Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch and Editor's Note. Lucien Laurin, Ron Turcotte and Peggy Chenery had the exacta of a lifetime with Riva Ridge and Secretariat in '72 and '73.
The list of Belmont winners is so bright, like welding, you can barely look at it. This race stands on its own.
So what about 2016?
Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist is out, having suffered a slight fever and high white blood cell count shortly after his loss in the Preakness.
But we do have plenty of intrigue, especially if you're betting, on Preakness winner and Belmont favorite Exaggerator.
Are the Desormeaux brothers crafty enough to spin opposite vortexes in order to confuse me and all my fellow conspiracy theorists? Exaggerator trainer Keith Desormeaux was cryin' the crocodile tears just minutes after the post position draw Wednesday, where his horse landed 11 in the field of 13. Belmont is big enough for the start and the finish to be near the wire.
"The gates here are placed around the wire, which means there's not that much of a run-up," (Keith) Desormeaux said. "It's not as inconsequential as it is in the other two races (Derby and Preakness), so I'd prefer not to be on the outside, because we have to take back and drop in. Three-sixteenths (to the turn) is a decent run, but not enough - not enough to say that the gates don't matter."
Fair enough. So you're going to tuck in, maybe in the second tier, and cruise for an opening?
Brother Kent, who will be dressed in jockey silks for the big event, sees it differently.
"I think it's a wonderful post position," Kent Desormeaux said. "I can't see any horses that will cross over on him. (We should be) able to establish position, preferably, without getting a grain of sand in his face."
Fair enough. So you're going to send him to at least right behind the pace setter, who figures to be Gettysburg, who from the six post figures to be nothing more than a rabbit for Creator, who's two out from you at 13? Are you saying you're going to keep him outside and out of the fray? For a mile-and-a-half?
It's 50-50 for rain, maybe more at post time, so you know the K-Ds are praying for that for Exaggerator, who has already won two big races in the slop.
The inner clock is huge for this race - ask Stewart Elliott, who tick-tocked Smarty Jones out of Triple Crown glory at Big Sand - -and Kent Desormeaux has a lot to prove as he's here on a weekend pass from alcohol rehab. The Hall of Famer has been battling the demons for years, he's got the best horse in the race and he doesn't figure to miscalculate. I believe he's overthought things in the past, thus the disdain, but he looks ready for this one.
The others? Suddenbreakingnews is a Captain Obvious wiseguy and I gotta dig with daddy Mineshaft (A.P. Indy) out of an Afleet Alex mare.
I liked Stradivari in the Preakness, but the slop spooked him, I think, and if he runs to the 100 Beyer Speed Figure two back, with Belmont veteran Johnny Velazquez aboard, get me 5-1 or better. Or even just a win.
Japanese curiosity Lani is said to be pointed to this race all along. He jogs or runs a couple miles every day, never letting up on the workouts. He's not super fast, but with 12 furlongs, staying power is big. The wiseguys poo-poo him, so is 10-1 out of the realm? He won the Dubai Derby, flew Emirates Air first class to Kentucky and just keeps on keeping on.
Creator, with a huge upgrade to rider Irad Ortiz and new minority owner Bobby Flay doing the cookin', is expected to break out in this race. He had a lousy three post in the Derby traffic jam but had gutted to glory in the Arkansas Derby before that. He's in the 13 and outside post here, but as old OTB buddy Red always told me, it's a mile-and-a-half, so there's plenty of time to figure it out. Longwaystogo. I do like Creator.
Destin's got the rep and some paper, but he may be the big overlay. He lost the Kentucky Derby after a bad trip, but won the Tampa Bay Derby with a bad trip. Another Belmont savvy man, JJ Castellano rides, the touts don't like him, so I do.
But Exaggerator is the horse to beat. This should be his race to lose.
Did I mention it's a big day of racing?
Enjoy Cathryn Sophia and Go Maggie Go in the Acorn. Samraat, Kid Cruz and Catholic Cowboy(?) do the Brooklyn 12 furlongs. Disrespected winner Stopchargingmaria takes on Curalina, Forever Unbridled and Cavorting in the Phipps. Where oh where is our Songbird?
Justin Squared, Fish Trappe Road and Tom's Ready lead the hot-foot seven furlongs in the Woody Stephens. I'll have my eyes on My Miss Sophia and Mrs McDougal in the Just a Game.
Our old friend Frosted, just out of March's Dubai World Cup, meets again with Upstart, Stanford, Tamarkuz and Calculator in the Met Mile.
The Kitten's Joy (what a sire!) progeny Big Blue Kitten battles with Ironicus in the Manhattan. We'll also see there Grand Tito, who spooked and fell in a lightning storm and scratched out on the Derby undercard. Keep an eye on his price, but don't tell anybody.
An Exaggerator win in the Belmont puts him in the driver's seat for Eclipse trophies. Little bit of mud, watch out.
On the tee and vee, NBC Sports Channel comes on at 2 p.m. and the big NBC lights it up at 4 p.m.
It took a photo.
Looking a deadish heat, the photo showed a short half head.
But Creator, with the big jockey upgrade in Irad Ortiz, was smart and effective in winning the 148th Belmont Stakes.
The big grey got a nice start and then loped in behind the others into the first turn, but soon got into a position as to never lose sight of the leaders.
Gettysburg, as Bugs Bunny, went to the immediate lead, but at the half, they were at a relaxed 48:48. If not for instructions, he may have been able to dash away. In no way a hellish pace.
Meanwhile, Creator had a zone of comfort around him as he ran fifth past the mile pole.
Entering the stretch, Governor Malibu and Gettysburg bolloxed at the rail and Creator used the opportunity to slice through between horses and make his run. He ended up running down Destin, who was in the forefront the whole way, and win by a big horse face.
Exaggerator, running well but rank on the backside, finished an eased 11th. Lani finished third, capping the all-grey trifecta.
Immediately after the race, the skies opened up.
Am I sorry to say? But the Kentucky Derby might be a toss race for any of the 19 who don't win it. Creator was on the upswing going into Kentucky, taking the Arkansas route, and got knocked pinball out of the Churchill gate. He got his opportunity, finally, in New York.
Creator, the son of Tapit, looks to have a good year ahead of him.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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