Last year, Summer Bird, an unknown who had finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby, ran off with an upset victory in the 1½-mile Belmont and with subsequent wins in the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup went onto divisional honors as the nation’s top 3-Year-Old colt.
Supporting the Belmont Stakes, the oldest and longest leg of the Triple Crown, is a glittering 12-race undercard that includes the 80th running of the Betfair TVG Acorn for 3-year-old fillies; the 14th running of the Grade 1 Just a Game for fillies and mares on the turf; the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Manhattan on the turf; the Grade 2 Woody Stephens for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs and the Grade 2 True North at six furlongs.
The Belmont is the final leg of The New York Racing Association, Inc.’s (NYRA) Guaranteed $1 million All-Stakes Pick 4 and its Guaranteed $1 million All-Stakes Pick 6. Race coverage begins on ESPN at noon and goes until 5 p.m., with ABC televising the race from 5-7 p.m.
Brooklyn-born Nick Zito will be trying for a third career Belmont Stakes victory, and unlike his last two, which ended the 2004 and 2008 Triple Crown bids of Smarty Jones and Big Brown, the Hall of Fame trainer will be sending out a pair of favorites in Ice Box and Fly Down.
Owned by Robert LaPenta, Ice Box is one of two Grade 1 winners in the field, having closed from last to win the Florida Derby at 20-1. But it was his desperate run to make up almost 22 lengths in the Kentucky Derby to finish second to Super Saver that caught everyone’s attention, and with the son of Pulpit, Zito is sitting on his first Belmont favorite since Strike the Gold finished second in 1991.
Jose Lezcano has the mount on the 3-1 morning-line favorite from post position 6.
The second of Zito’s 1-2 Belmont punch has something on his resume that no other Belmont starter has – a win over the racetrack. Richard C. Pell’s Fly Down bounced back from a troubled ninth in the Louisiana Derby to win the Grade 2 Dwyer on May 8. The Mineshaft colt will be ridden by Belmont Stakes-winning jockey John Velazquez, who was aboard Fly Down when he finished third in his debut at Belmont last fall.
Velazquez, who piloted the filly Rags to Riches to her historic Belmont victory in 2007, and Fly Down break next to his stablemate from post position 5 at 9-2.
“It’s all been positive, and I want to keep it that way,” said Zito of his two entrants.
Fly Down also owns a pair of victories over the colt who’s been turning heads during the mornings at Belmont Park – Donald R. Dizney’s First Dude, the 17-hands-tall son of Stephen Got Even who finished second in the Preakness on May 15.
Second to Fly Down in a maiden race at Churchill Downs on November 28, First Dude (who is named after former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s husband, Todd) also couldn’t hold him off in an allowance at Gulfstream Park in February, beaten a head. Fifth in the Florida Derby behind Ice Box, First Dude was third after getting bounced around at the start of the Blue Grass before his game second to Lookin At Lucky.
“He’s a big, strong, long-striding colt, and this track should suit him,” said trainer Dale Romans. “It’s time to turn the tables.”
Ramon Dominguez, the leading rider in New York this year, has the mount on the 7-2 morning-line choice from post position 11.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who earned his first Kentucky Derby victory this year, and Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who notched his fifth Preakness just under three weeks ago, are both in the Belmont, but with different horses.
Pletcher, who until last week did not have a Belmont starter, called an audible and entered Alain and Gerard Wertheimer’s homebred Interactif, who will be making his first start on conventional dirt since finishing eighth in the Grade 2 Sanford at Saratoga as a 2-year-old. The last time Pletcher made a last-minute decision to run in the Belmont was three years ago, when he sent out Rags to Riches to become the first filly to win the race in 102 years.
Javier Castellano rides the son of Broken Vow, 12-1 on the morning line, from post position 12.
Like Pletcher, Baffert also owns a Belmont victory, having scored in 2001 with Point Given. But, next to Woody Stephens’ five straight Belmont victories, Baffert’s Belmont legend looms large as he has thrice brought horses to the brink of the Triple Crown, only to be denied each time – Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002.
The Baffert-trained Game On Dude, whose silks sport an orange basketball on a blue background, was purchased by Bernard Schiappa, the Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable and Diamond Pride LLC with the intent of making one of the spring classics, and the gelding earned his way into the Belmont with a victory in the Grade 2 Lone Star Derby.
“I am looking forward to seeing what he will do going a distance of ground,” said Baffert. “That’s the key to the Belmont – having a horse who can go that far.”
Martin Garcia, who won the Preakness with Lookin At Lucky, is aboard Game On Dude in his first ride at Belmont Park. The gelding is 10-1 on the morning line from post position 8.
WinStar Farm already has a classic win this spring with Super Saver’s Derby victory and will be trying for a second with Drosselmeyer, a son of Distorted Humor who finished second in the Dwyer on May 8. Never off the board in eight lifetime starts, the chestnut colt will be Bill Mott’s first Belmont starter since Vision and Verse finished second in 1999 for the Hall of Fame trainer.
“I think he’s in there with a chance,” said Mott.
Mike Smith rides the 12-1 choice from post position 7.
A handful of trainers will be sending out their first Belmont Stakes starters, including Alexis Barba with Make Music for Me, Michael Maker with Stately Victor, and Steve Margolis with Stay Put.
Barba, 57, would become the first woman to saddle a winner in a Triple Crown event should Make Music for Me win. Twice second to 2-Year-Old champion Lookin At Lucky – in the Del Mar Futurity and Best Pal – Make Music for Me, owned by Ellen and Peter Johnson, rallied from last to finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby in his first start on dirt.
Since 1984, eight women have sent out Belmont starters, the most recent of which was Linda Rice, whose Supervisor finished fifth in 2003.
Joel Rosario, who has never ridden at Belmont Park, has the mount on the 10-1 choice from post position 4.
F. Thomas and Jack Conway’s Stately Victor owns the distinction of being the only other Grade 1 winner in the field besides Ice Box, having won the Blue Grass over an artificial surface at odds of 41-1, highest in that race’s history. Subsequently eighth in the Derby, the son of Ghostzapper, 15-1, will be ridden from post position 9 by Alan Garcia, who won the 2008 Belmont aboard Da’ Tara.
Richard, Bertram, and Elaine Klein’s Stay Put will be making his first start in Grade 1 company in the Belmont. Fifth in his only two graded stakes starts, the Grade 2 Risen Star and the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, the Broken Vow colt got his shot in the Belmont after a solid victory in an optional claimer on Derby Day at Churchill Downs.
Jockey Jamie Theriot makes his Belmont Park debut with Stay Put, 20-1 from post position 10.
The fourth trainer with a Belmont victory, and the one with the best batting average in the race, is Kiaran McLaughlin, who sends out Fantasy Lane Stable’s Uptowncharlybrown. McLaughlin won the Belmont in 2006 with his first starter, Jazil, in a race that, like this year, lacked both Derby and Preakness winners.
Winner of his first two starts at Tampa Bay Downs, the Limehouse colt was trained by the late Alan Seewald, who passed away on April 12, after which Uptowncharlybrown was transferred to McLaughlin. Third in the Grade 2 Lexington at Keeneland in his most recent start, Uptowncharlybrown will be ridden by Rajiv Maragh as the 10-1 choice from post 3.
“He’s been doing great since we got him, and I am excited about our chances,” said McLaughlin, who finished fourth in last year’s Belmont with Charitable Man. “I’m looking forward to running him.”
Ike and Dawn Thrash are hoping for a good conclusion to their Triple Crown experience with Dave in Dixie, as their promising Preakness prospect, Hurricane Ike, was withdrawn from consideration from that race with an injury. Dave in Dixie, who was second to Caracortado in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis in his best performance of the year, will be ridden by Calvin Borel, appropriately enough, from the rail.
Rounding out the field is Lawrence Roman’s Spangled Star who in his stakes debut finished third to Afleet Again and Ibboyee in the Grade 3 Wither at Aqueduct on April 24. Trained by Richard Dutrow Jr. and ridden by Garrett Gomez, the Distorted Humor colt breaks from post position 2 at 30-1.
Parking gates open for the Belmont at 8:15 a.m., with post time for the first of 13 races set for 11:35 a.m.
BELMONT STAKES DRAW QUOTES
Dale Romans, trainer of First Dude (No. 11, 7-2): “When Ramon [Dominguez] jumped off him after the Florida Derby with all the trouble he was in, he said, ‘the Belmont will be this horse’s race because he wants to go a mile and a half and he’ll love that track.’ We sent him up here, it’s been two weeks, and he seems to have gotten over it really well.”
“You’re not going to skip a classic with a horse like this. We were waiting to go a mile and a half. He’s a throwback kind of horse, a big rugged kind of horse, nothing bothers him, and I don’t think three weeks [between races] is going to bother him.”
“We think with extra distance and a little more experience; we can turn the tables on Ice Box.”
Ernie Reichard, racing manager for Robert V. LaPenta, owner of Ice Box (No. 6, 3-1): “[In the Kentucky Derby] it was stop and start, start and stop and once he got going on the outside he just made up ground. We gave him time off after the Derby, there was no need to rush him, and we had another nice horse in the barn in Jackson Bend [for the Preakness].”
Stacy Pryor, assistant to trainer Nick Zito, trainer of Fly Down (No. 5, 9-2): “Both horses are training exceptionally, and Nick is very happy. They’re both very nice to be around, pleasant around the barn, and very forward horses.”
Alexis Barba, trainer of Make Music for Me (No. 4, 10-1): “Our barometer has been [2-year-old champion and Preakness winner] Lookin At Lucky. We were overlooked because he did not win but he definitely made his presence felt. I think [in the Belmont] we’ll probably been in the middle somewhere.”
Mike Maker, trainer of Stately Victor (No. 9, 15-1): “He made a nice little run on the turn in the Kentucky Derby and came up behind a wall of horses. He’s a big old dude, and it takes a while to get his momentum back. [Jockey] Alan [Garcia] has the experience, and we’ve had a lot of luck together, so we’re happy to have him.”
Bob Hutt, managing partner of Fantasy Lane’s Uptowncharlybrown (No. 3, 10-1), on how he handles the 59-strong partnership: “Very delicately. Many people say I should be approved for sainthood, but really, it’s a labor of love. We have wonderful, wonderful partners.”
Steve Margolis, trainer of Stay Put (No. 10, 20-1): “He’s slowly been improving each race, and his race on Derby Day was a positive. We felt it was worth taking a shot; he’s a big-striding colt, and we’re excited about being here.”
Larry Roman, owner of Spangled Star (No. 2, 30-1): “He’s distance-bred, we have a great trainer in Rick Dutrow and a great jockey in Garrett Gomez. He’s a long shot but there have been a lot of long shots win the Belmont Stakes. I don’t expect him to win, but I’m taking my chance.”