The Belmont Stakes is the third leg of the Triple Crown, yet for many on Saturday it represents a second chance.
First, it’s a first step for racing on what will be a long trip to escape yet another cloud. The news earlier this week of Churchill Downs suspending Bob Baffert for two years following the confirmation of the positive drug test for Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit is devastating for the sport. It will erode confidence of bettors, do nothing to bring casual horseplayers to tracks and more than taints the legacy of an enormous personality within the game like Baffert.
Worse, it overshadows Rombauer’s win in the Preakness. And it may overshadow whatever happens in the Belmont as well.
The good news: The horses don’t care about any of this.
A field of eight takes on the longest test on the Triple Crown trail, a 1 1/2-mile jaunt over the dirt where Affirmed beat Alydar, where Secretariat won by 31 lengths, where Julie Krone made history and where Victory Gallop beat Real Quiet by just about the tiniest of margins.
Let’s start with Rombauer, who won the Preakness and did so convincingly. Take nothing away from that win, but this one is shaping up as a much tougher race. Only one other horse — mega-longshot France Go de Ina — is coming to the Belmont from the Preakness, which means everyone else isn’t just better rested but has likely been directly pointed toward this 12-furlong run.
Rombauer was ridden by Flavien Prat in the Preakness; Prat has jumped back to Hot Rod Charlie, the horse that he was aboard and crossed the finish line third with in the Kentucky Derby. Prat is honoring a promise he made after the Derby, but it certainly speaks to what he thinks of Hot Rod Charlie’s chances. Rombauer is going to be more that capably ridden, since he gets Hall of Famer — and New York racing favorite — John Velazquez for the Belmont.
Bourbonic was 13th in the Kentucky Derby, never a factor after drawing the outside post. He got the inside post for the Belmont, though that should be of no concern in a race this long and with only seven other horses.
Essential Quality was fourth as the 3-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby, the lone loss of his six-race career, and likely will be the favorite again in this one. The Derby was a race where a lot went wrong and the horse still had speed at the finish, a good sign for Saturday’s marathon.
Rock Your World was done about three steps into the Derby, so his 17th-place, beaten-by-24-lengths finish there means nothing. His Santa Anita Derby win still resonates, and it will be a total shock if Joel Rosario doesn’t have this horse in — or at least right near — the lead early and waiting for the real race to start, which will probably happen once the pack has about three furlongs left to run.
Trainer Todd Pletcher has three of the eight horses in this race; Bourbonic, plus Florida Derby winner Known Agenda and the wildcard in this field, Overtook. Known Agenda’s typical hard-charging finishing kick sets up beautifully for Belmont. Overtook is just 1 for 5 in his career but might get the attention of local bettors since all five of those races have been at either Belmont or Aqueduct.
The deal is this: It’ll all be about tactics in the Belmont. There’s a lot to like about most of these horses, and a case can be easily made for at least five of them to wind up the winner.
Rombauer would be a great story if he wins. So would Essential Quality, bouncing back off the Derby miss. Rock Your World got tons of attention going into the Derby with good reason, and a win for him on Saturday would be a tale of redemption.
Yet in the end, it’ll be another horse — and another jockey — taking advantage of his second chance who crosses the line first at Belmont Park.
The pick is Known Agenda. He was bred for distance, and was going to have three-time-reigning Eclipse Award winner in Irad Ortiz Jr. in the saddle before the star jockey got thrown from a mount at Belmont on Thursday and will need to miss a couple weeks. And on Saturday, Jose Ortiz — Irad Ortiz’s brother — got the call to ride Known Agenda in the Belmont.
Known Agenda, over Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality. The end of a tumultuous Triple Crown season will see a great story after all.
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