If only Air Quality was the name of a horse and not the determining factor in whether Saturday’s 155th Belmont Stakes can be run as scheduled, though all indications on Friday pointed to the nine entries entering the gates at 7:02 p.m.
“NYRA will continue to actively monitor air quality conditions and forecasts to ensure the environment remains safe for racing participants and fans this weekend,” the New York Racing Association said in a statement Friday morning announcing that day’s 11-race card at Belmont Park would be run and that training had resumed after Thursday’s card and training session were canceled because of poor air quality.
The lead-up to the third leg of the Triple Crown has focused on everything but the actual race, between the air fouled by Canadian wildfires and the continued concern over horse safety following 12th deaths at Churchill Downs, home to the Kentucky Derby.
On Thursday, Gov. Kathy Hochul said the Belmont would not be run Saturday if the air quality index exceeded 200. But training also resumed at Saratoga on Friday.
As for the race, the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes is known as the Test of the Champion and there are several serious contenders among the field.
“I think the two speed horses should come from the rail [20-1 Tapit Shoes] and [Bob] Baffert’s horse [5-1 Preakness champion National Treasure],” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle 5-2 morning-line favorite Forte and 3-1 Tapit Trice as he seeks his fifth Belmont Stakes victory. “After that, it’s a little less clear to me who will be in the third, fourth, fifth stalking spot. I think Forte has the ability to land in a good stalking position and Tapit Trice will just need to get out of the gate and get into the clear and get into a rhythm.”
Forte, also the morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby before being scratched on race day because of a hoof injury, will break from post No. 6. Tapit Trice will run from post No. 2.
Pletcher won last year’s Belmont with Mo Donegal and can pass his former boss, D. Wayne Lukas, for the most Belmont wins among active trainers.
“I have tremendous respect for Wayne and what he’s accomplished,” Pletcher said. “To me, he’s the greatest trainer of all time in the U.S.”
Kentucky Derby-winner Mage is not running in the Belmont as no horse will compete in all three legs.
Among the other betting preferences for the Belmont are 7-2 Angel of Empire, who will break from post No. 8 after finishing third in the Kentucky Derby, and 8-1 Arcangelo, who will break from post No. 3 after winning the Peter Pan in his stakes debut at Belmont on May 13.
“He’s shown some good tactical adaptabilities so far,” Jena Antonucci – the 11th female trainer with a horse in the Belmont Stakes – said of Arcangelo. “We are probably one of the few that it doesn’t really matter. When he broke his maiden [March 18 at Gulfstream Park], he had a lot of pace to run into and in winning the Peter Pan at a more pedestrian, slower pace and overcoming a wide trip.”
Angel of Empire will don blinkers for the first time in the Belmont.
“[Jockey] Flavien Prat came back after the Derby and immediately said to put blinkers on the horse,” said trainer Brad Cox, who will also saddle 10-1 Hit Show and 20-1 Tapit Shoes in the Belmont. “I don’t know that it would have made a big difference in winning the Derby but I do know that he does train well in them.”