Once again, the racing gods have treated the venerable Belmont Stakes unkindly. After last year's scratch of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another the day before the race, you might have thought that Saturday's 145th running of the "Test of the Champion" was due for a break. Instead, not only will there be no Triple Crown for the 35th consecutive year, but the weather isn't cooperating.
Rain, often heavy, fell relentlessly Friday in Elmont and was expected to continue all night until after dawn. The Weather Channel said the possibility of precipitation would drop to 10 percent by 8 a.m. Saturday and stay there throughout the afternoon, with high temperatures in the low 70s. Umbrellas are banned. Hopefully, they won't be needed, but consider boots.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature, not a standout thoroughbred, dominated this spring's 3-year-old classics. For only the second time, and for the first time since 1885, the Derby, Preakness and Belmont will have been staged on tracks containing significant moisture. (Although the Preakness chart rated Pimlico as fast, eyewitnesses know better. Three hours before the race, rain fell for about 45 minutes, and on a chilly, cloudy day, the track did not dry out and probably should have been labeled "good.")
Belmont Park's main track, known as "Big Sandy," dries quickly, so it might be "good" by post time, 6:36 p.m. But what, you may wonder, does "good" mean? If you walked on a "good" racetrack, you would call it muddy. That could be the least desirable footing for the 14 horses going a seemingly endless 1 1/2 miles for the first and probably the only time.
"The worst thing would be a drying-out, holding track," said Todd Pletcher, who entered a record-setting five horses: Revolutionary, Palace Malice, Overanalyze, Midnight Taboo and Unlimited Budget.
There are some intriguing subplots, involving three grandfathers, a woman riding a filly and possible redemption for Derby winner Orb. D. Wayne Lukas, 77, trains Preakness upsetter Oxbow and Will Take Charge, with jockeys Gary Stevens, 50, and Jon Court, 52, respectively. Rosie Napravnik, 25, will try to join Julie Krone as the second woman to earn the blanket of white carnations and the first to do so on a filly, Unlimited Budget. Mud-loving Orb will attempt to rebound from his Preakness flop and give old-school owners Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps and Stuart Janney III their first Belmont trophy.
"We're all in uncharted waters,'" Lukas said of going a mile and a half. "A lot of them can't run that far, especially when they're pressured."
Trainer Shug McGaughey, based at Belmont, thinks the home advantage will help Orb. "Even though we were disappointed in Maryland," he said, "when we got back here, I started looking forward to doing it again. He's ready."
Owner Mike Repole will run Overanalyze, Unlimited Budget and Midnight Taboo, tying an 1875 record. Repole, 44, who grew up in Queens, said he'd rather win the Belmont than the Derby. He came close with Stay Thirsty in the slop two years ago, finishing three-quarters of a length behind Ruler On Ice.
"I needed lots of time with a psychiatrist after that," Repole joked. "I didn't come out of my basement for a month. When I was a teenager, I saw Woody Stephens win five Belmonts in a row, and I thought it would be easy."
Even in perfect conditions, it never is.
Notes & quotes: The 10-year-old Calidoscopio rallied from last under Aaron Gryder to win the Grade II, 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn Handicap by a length. California-based Mike Puype trains the 2012 Breeders' Cup Marathon winner, who paid $17.