A Tough Race Ahead

A TOUGH RACE AHEAD

The Belmont Stakes, sometimes dismissed when no Triple Crown is at stake, remains the biggest horse race in New York, its biggest racing draw card, its biggest one-day betting bonanza -- and the last surviving pillar of the days when horses were bred and prized for stamina.

It is backed up by 143 years of history (Man o' War won it by 20 lengths in 1920), thus it is a classic to cherish in its own right.

If the Kentucky Derby has excitement, the Belmont has gravitas. It is the Triple Crown's anchor.

Saturday's edition has special luster because, for the first time ever, the first seven finishers in the Derby are coming back to knock heads over a grueling mile and a half on a track that spares no pity for the faint-hearted.

This race is really going to separate them.

If the Belmont is historic, it has lately become the most unpredictable jewel. Three-year-olds never go a mile and a half before the Belmont, so there is no form to guide the connoisseur, no class indicators, no relevant speed figures, no pace figures.

Not surprisingly, it has tossed up one longshot winner after another: Commendable at 18-1, Sarava at 70-1, Birdstone at 36-1, Da'Tara at 38-1. Summer Bird at 11-1, Drosselmeyer at 13-1.

Speaking of longshots, that leads us to Todd Pletcher's colt, Stay Thirsty, who is near the bottom of everyone's Belmont list at 20-1, and understandably so.

He won the Gotham two months ago at Aqueduct, then ran a clunker in the Florida Derby, beaten more than 16 lengths,

then topped it with a howler in the Kentucky Derby, beaten by more than 11 lengths.

Ordinarily, that's the perfect profile of a loser, but since this is the Belmont, who knows? It might be the perfect profile of a Belmont winner.

At the track yesterday, Pletcher legged jockey Javier Castellano up on Stay Thirsty to breeze five furlongs in company with the Illinois Derby winner, Joe Vann. At the end, Stay Thirsty was two lengths clear, getting the trip in 1.00.2, galloping out in a smart 1.13.2.

The clockers liked the work. So did Pletcher.

"He worked really well -- we're very pleased with him," Pletcher said.

Still, it takes a leap of faith to see him lasso the Belmont.

"We think we have seen indications that he's good enough for the race," said Pletcher. "He won the Gotham, he was second in the Hopeful, he's training really well right now and he's bred to go the distance. He's got a lot of pedigree power behind him."

That's it. Pedigree repeatedly comes into play in the Belmont.

"Stay Thirsty has a half-brother in Andromeda's Hero, who ran second in the Belmont, and he's by Bernadini, a son of A.P. Indy, who won the Belmont," said Pletcher.

The trainer might have added that his only Belmont winner, the special filly Rags to Riches, also was sired by A.P. Indy. So there's a lot of Belmont in Stay Thirsty's family tree.

But that's not Pletcher's only rationale for saddling the colt.

"He's doing so well that sometimes you've got to take a shot with a horse that's in good form," the trainer said.

"There's no one to be afraid of, per se, no one in the Belmont that would make you say, 'Wow, there's no way we could ever beat that horse.' "

Like nearly everybody else, Todd Pletcher seems to see the Belmont as a wide-open contest -- as usual.

by Ray Kerrison
from nypost.com

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