A victory in the 1 ½-mile “Test of the Champion” (post time 6:40 p.m., NBC 4:30- 7 p.m.) would make I’ll Have Another racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed outfinished Alydar back in 1978. Since then, 11 horses have stepped into the starting gate for the Belmont with a chance to sweep the series, and all have come up short, most recently Big Brown in 2008.
“Every race, the expectations get a little higher when you succeed, so that’s a good place to be,” said Doug O’Neill of the odds.
Saturday, I’ll Have Another will leave from post position 11, which since 1905 has produced two Belmont winners – Sarava, whose victory at 70-1 came at the expense of Triple Crown hopeful War Emblem in 2002, and Conquistador Cielo, who was the first of trainer Woody Stephens’ five straight Belmont winners in 1982. In the Kentucky Derby, I’ll Have Another became the first horse to win the Run for the Roses from post 19 at Churchill Downs, and in the Preakness he left from post position 9 in an 11-horse field.
“We’ve been toward the outside in the other two Triple Crown races, so it’s a good spot to be in,” said O’Neill.
Aboard I’ll Have Another as he attempts to make racing history will be jockey Mario Gutierrez, who will be riding in his first Belmont Stakes. The 25-year-old, who spent most of his career at tiny Hastings Park in Vancouver, Canada, piloted I’ll Have Another for the first time for their 43-1 upset in the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, and has since drawn rave reviews for his confident rides in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby and the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
“He just has so much confidence in the horse,” said owner J. Paul Reddam, who on the advice of O’Neill’s brother, Dennis, purchased I’ll Have Another as a 2-year-old for $35,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales.
I’ll Have Another will be facing the most opponents encountered by a Triple Crown hopeful since Charismatic finished third in a field of 12 in 1999. Heading the challengers Saturday are a pair of Derby veterans who have had five weeks to recover from the rigors of the race – Dullahan, who finished third at Churchill Downs, and Union Rags, who was seventh.
Dullahan, who was made the morning-line second choice at 5-1, is the only horse besides I’ll Have Another with more than one Grade 1 win, having taken the 2011 Breeders’ Futurity and the 2012 Blue Grass. Both races were over the synthetic surface at Keeneland Race Course, but the half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird indicated his liking for the Belmont Park main track with a bullet 45.97 breeze on Sunday.
“I wouldn’t trade places with anyone,” said his trainer, Dale Romans, who will give a leg up to Javier Castellano for the Belmont. “I want to walk out of here with 120,000 people booing me.”
Owned by Jerry Crawford’s Donegal Racing, Dullahan drew post position 5.
After a brilliant 2-year-old campaign that included a victory in the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Park, and a four-length victory in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth to kick off his 3-year-old season, Union Rags’ connections were hoping it would be their colt who would be taking a shot at the Triple Crown. But the Dixie Union colt had a terrible trip in the Derby, where he was pinched back at the start, steadied on the first turn and steadied again when a horse stopped in front of him, and the decision was made the skip the Preakness to await the Belmont.
“I really thought this horse could win the Triple Crown, but everything went the wrong way and we had to make a new plan,” said Michael Matz, who trains Union Rags for Phyllis Wyeth’s Chadds Ford Stable. “I think I’m trying to showcase my horse a bit. It was unfortunate he didn’t have the opportunity in the Derby, for him, and his owner. She’s a wonderful person.”
Union Rags, who drew post position 3, was listed at 6-1 on the morning line for the Belmont, in which he will be ridden for the first time by John Velazquez. A four-time riding champion on the NYRA circuit, Velazquez won the 2007 Belmont aboard the filly Rags to Riches.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat, whose favored Bodemeister was beaten by I’ll Have Another in the Derby and Preakness, hope to turn the tables with the lightly raced but promising Paynter, who is 8-1 on the morning line.
The son of Awesome Again, a $325,000 yearling purchase, is 2-1-0 from four starts, with a maiden and allowance win bracketing a second in the Grade 3 Derby Trial and a fourth in the Santa Anita Derby. Paynter earned a 106 Beyer Speed Figure for his 5 ¾-length allowance victory at 1 1/16 miles on Preakness day at Pimlico, highest among I’ll Have Another’s Belmont rivals.
“If you asked me personally, I always thought Bodemeister is a very nice colt,” said Zayat. “Bob Baffert, [from] day 1, thought Paynter was the better horse. He thinks he’s a really, really nice horse.”
Paynter, who drew post position 9, will be ridden by Mike Smith, winner of the 2010 Belmont aboard Drosselmeyer.
Starting from the rail is Street Life, most recently third in the Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont on May 12, in which he sported blinkers for the first time. Trained by Chad Brown, the son of Street Sense has two victories in five starts, both coming over Aqueduct Racetrack’s inner dirt course.
“He’s getting more mature. He’s getting sharper every day I see him training out there, said Brown, who trains Street Life for Magnolia Racing and Hidden Brook Farm. “I think that he’s going to evolve into a more versatile horse, you’re going to see. Whether it’s Saturday or not, I don’t know, but as he matures, he will.”
Jose Lezcano will ride Street Life, 12-1 on the morning line.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas will be trying for his fifth Belmont victory with 20-1 shot Optimizer, who will be the only other horse besides I’ll Have Another to have run in all three legs of the Triple Crown, having finished 11th in the Derby and sixth in the Preakness.
“My Belmont winners, I thought all of them, or even the ones that were close, fit the course and fit the scenario of what the competition could do or couldn't do,” said Lukas, who won the Belmont in 1999 with Commendable ($39.60), 1996 with Editor’s Note ($13.60), 1995 with Thunder Gulch ($5.00) and 1994 with Tabasco Cat ($8.00). “So it's not a big stretch for us to run this horse.
“I think he’s a better fit [in the Belmont than the Kentucky Derby or Preakness], but I’m realistic. There’s better horses in the race but the times that I have won it, there were better horses in the race then, too. So, we’ll see. I think we’re a good fit.”
Corey Nakatani will ride Optimizer, 20-1 on the morning line, from post position 10.
Hoping to become the first owners to win back-to-back editions of the Belmont since Meadow Stable won in 1972-1973 with Riva Ridge and Triple Crown champion Secretariat are George and Lori Hall, who won last year’s running with Ruler On Ice and are returning with My Adonis.
Most recently third in the Canonero II at Pimlico on May 5, My Adonis was second in the Grade 3 Gotham to Hansen and third to Algorithms in the Grade 3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park.
“We think he’s got some class, and even though some of his races were disappointing, we think he’s shown enough talent that we can make a case that he belongs in the field,” said George Hall. “Of course we have incredible memories of the Belmont, so just being in the paddock will be a privilege. But, again, we wouldn’t do it just for the sake of doing it if we didn’t think we had a horse with enough class.”
At 20-1, My Adonis drew post position 12 under two-time defending Eclipse Champion jockey Ramon Dominguez.
Trainer Ken McPeek, who knows something about stopping a Triple Crown hopeful, sends out the duo of Unstoppable U and Atigun, both 30-1. In 2002, McPeek saddled Sarava to a 70-1 upset of the Belmont as Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem went home empty-handed, finishing eighth.
“It was a good day,” recalled McPeek. “Nobody threw any stones at me on the way out. It was fine; I’m a bit bullet-proof, anyway. It was all positive. Not one negative comment from anybody. I think it would have been one thing if we’d have beat him in a photo, but we didn’t.”
Atigun, recent winner of an optional claimer at Churchill Downs, drew post position 4 under Julien Leparoux, while Unstoppable U, undefeated in two starts, drew post position 2 with Junior Alvarado.
Rounding out the field are a trio of 50-1 shots: Ravelo’s Boy, whose most recent start was a fifth-place finish in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 10; Five Sixteen, who will be ridden by Rosie Napravnik as she attempts to join Julie Krone (1992, Colonial Affair) as the only woman to win a Triple Crown race, and Guyana Star Dweej, second to Unstoppable U in an optional claimer last time out.