An hour before Tuesday’s Belmont Stakes draw at Citi Field, a sour-faced man in a Noah Syndergaard jersey offered his unsolicited take on Saturday’s race.
“No Triple Crown on the line, no Derby winner, so who cares?” he said. “Nobody’s going to show up.”
True, there’s very little mainstream buzz for the 151st edition of the “Test of the Champion,” but the Mets fan’s prediction on the crowd size was about 55,000 on the low side, maybe more. It’s still the Belmont, an event day for New Yorkers to see and be seen at Long Island’s huge horse park, and the forecast of 80 degrees and no chance of rain should produce a few thousand walk-ups.
Betting action will be a powerful attraction for serious and casual handicappers, and only Breeders’ Cup weekend’s two days can match this Belmont card. Besides the $1.5 million main event, there are nine stakes, including seven other Grade I’s, on a 13-race program that starts at 11:30 and ends shortly after 8 p.m. Parking lots open at 8 a.m., an hour before the track gates.
Another race on the card is just as compelling as the centerpiece. The Metropolitan Handicap, better known as the Met Mile, was a Memorial Day fixture for decades before being switched to Belmont day five years ago. Why? Because it produces far more handle as a supporting event than as a stand-alone feature. This loaded Met has generated more interest than it has in many years. A mile tests stamina and speed, and the best sires transmit both. The Met is called “the sires’ race,” and victory can produce megabucks in a stallion career besides the $720,000 from the $1.2 million purse. McKinzie, Mitole, Thunder Snow, Promises Fulfilled and Pavel are Grade I winners, yet Firenze Fire, a horse for the course who’s 3-for-3 at Belmont, could be the one to beat.
Last year’s Belmont offered the possibility that undefeated Justify would make history, and he did. Amid a wall of noise from a crowd that was capped at 90,000, trainer Bob Baffert accepted his second Triple Crown trophy in four years. No matter who wins Saturday, there will be no thundering ovation like that one. But it’s always fun to see which 3-year-old can stay the distance in the 1½-mile marathon. The Belmont is a unique puzzle because no horse in it has run beyond 1¼ miles. The final quarter-mile is uncharted territory.
“None of them have done it before, and very few will do it again,” trainer Dale Romans said. “You just don’t get a lot of opportunity to train to go a mile and a half.”
Romans will saddle long shot Everfast, who rallied for second in the Preakness Stakes.
“The Belmont is just a grueling, tough race,” Romans said. “By the time they get to the eighth pole, they’re all tired, and it’s hard for a horse to kick. I think it comes down to a horse’s natural ability to get there, and you really don’t know if they have it or not until you try them.”
Preakness winner War of Will will attempt to give trainer Mark Casse a classic double. He’s the only horse who will be running in the entire series. Will he have enough juice left to be at his best?
“It’s just a different race,” Casse said. “I think speed is much tougher going a mile and a half. I think the key to it all is having a horse that will relax, because a horse that’s going to fight you early is going to be tiring in the end. Nobody knows how they’re going to react.”
The challenge is trying to predict that. But here’s a sure thing. After the last Belmont Stakes runner in the field of 10 is loaded into the gate at approximately 6:35, the fans will unleash that New York roar. They always do.
151st BELMONT STAKES
No. HORSE JOCKEY TRAINER ODDS
1 Joevia Jose Lezcano Gregory Sacco 30-1
2 Everfast Luis Saez Dale Romans 12-1
3 Master Fencer Julien Leparoux Koichi Tsunoda 8-1
4 Tax Irad Ortiz Jr. Danny Gargan 15-1
5 Bourbon War Mike Smith Mark Hennig 12-1
6 Spinoff Javier Castellano Todd Pletcher 15-1
7 Sir Winston Joel Rosario Mark Casse 12-1
8 Intrepid Heart John Velazquez Todd Pletcher 10-1
9 War of Will Tyler Gaffalione Mark Casse 2-1
10 Tacitus Jose Ortiz William Mott 9-5
Weights: 126 pounds. Distance: 1 1/2 miles. Purse: $1.5 million. First place: $900,000. Second place: $300,000. Third place: $165,000. Fourth place: $90,000. Fifth place: $45,000.