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Belmont Stakes significant even without a Triple Crown on the line

Bodexpress runs in the 144th Preakness Stakes horse

Bodexpress runs in the 144th Preakness Stakes horse race without John Velazquez at Pimlico race course, Saturday, May 18, 2019, in Baltimore. War of Will, ridden by Tyler Gaffalione won. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

What a bizarre month for thoroughbred racing. Thanks to — or maybe no thanks to — the historic disqualification of the Kentucky Derby winner for interference, a niche sport suddenly became a mainstream obsession.

During an agonizingly long inquiry, “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” became “The Most Excruciating 22 Minutes in Sports.” Maximum Security’s DQ, although the right call, shocked and enraged. In a flash, tens of thousands of tickets went from golden to worthless. Social media spewed venom after the stewards awarded runner-up Country House, a 65-1 shot, a victory that millions thought he didn’t deserve.

On to Pimlico, where poetic justice and War of Will triumphed. By somehow staying upright after Maximum Security veered into their path in the Derby, he and jockey Tyler Gaffalione prevented a catastrophic spill that would have unleashed hell on racing. Unfortunately, in the Preakness a loose horse got more attention than the winner. Bodexpress reared at the start, throwing John Velazquez, and galloped two laps with a ghost rider. Luckily, neither was hurt, and the Preakness’ first runaway since 1974 didn’t get in anybody’s way.

Bodexpress, who’s 0-for-7 lifetime, became an instant superstar on social media. A Twitter sampling:

From Martin Swanson: “Today was about the riderless horse and his quest for greatness. [An ESPN] 30 for 30 is already in production.”

Betsy Howard’s take: “He did a great job on his own. I hope he gets an extra ration of oats tonight.”

Kim Wright: “I would have loved if the horse with no rider won it.”

The sport of kings? More like the sport of chaos.

Which brings us to the 151st Belmont Stakes, which to the general public looks like the most anticlimactic Triple Crown finale ever. Can War of Will become the 19th to hit the Preakness-Belmont double, and the first since Afleet Alex in 2005? Not exactly a drawing card. He’ll be the only horse to make all three races, which may take its toll, and he’s expected to have plenty of challengers. Among the possibilities are Derby also-rans Tacitus (third), Japan-based Master Fencer (sixth), Tax (14th) and Spinoff (18th); Preakness runners Everfast (second) and Owendale (third), and newcomers Sir Winston and Intrepid Heart.

NBC’s ratings will suffer because this “Test of the Champion” won’t attract people who watch three races a year. This spring, many will see only two Yet will the 1½-mile marathon, one of eight Grade I stakes June 8 at Belmont Park, intrigue passionate racing fans and serious handicappers? You bet it will. What happened in Louisville and Baltimore won’t put them off one of the year’s best cards for horseflesh and wagering. As they’re digging deep into the past performances, the absence of a Triple Crown candidate won’t cross anyone’s mind. As for the Belmont, they’ll be thinking “great betting race,” not “too bad we don’t have another Justify this year.”

The Belmont is a destination event, and Patrick McKenna, New York Racing Association director of communications, expects “a big and enthusiastic crowd.” The last two with no Triple Crown on the line drew 60,114 in 2016 and 57,729 in 2017. Not close to the 90,000 lured by American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify last year, but still an impressive turnout.

War of Will went to the track Thursday for the first time since the Preakness and had an easy jog at Churchill Downs. “He felt good soundness-wise,” assistant trainer David Carroll said. “Right now we’re just building up his energy.”

Earning trophies in Baltimore and on Long Island would be a significant achievement. War of Will gave trainer Mark Casse his first victory in a classic. Another one would magnify his value at stud, where the serious megabucks are churned out.

“It would just show that he’s tough and able to overcome things,” Casse said. “The Derby was very trying. He was footsore after it. The Preakness pace was extremely hot, and for our horse to be close to it and continue on was impressive. But as far as the Belmont goes, it’s the third leg of the Triple Crown. Who doesn’t want to win it?”

No chance for another 3-year-old immortal? No problem. It’s still the Belmont.

New York Sports