If you’re looking for compelling storylines in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, stop. There’s no Triple Crown on the line, and for the first time since 2010, neither the Kentucky Derby winner nor the Preakness winner will show up. Neither will the pre-race favorite, Classic Empire, who was withdrawn Wednesday because of a foot abscess.
The horse with the most intriguing back story, Japan-based Epicharis, has a sore foot and didn’t train Thursday or Friday. The 7-2 morning-line favorite by default, Irish War Cry, hasn’t raced since finishing 10th in the Kentucky Derby, and trainer Graham Motion didn’t decide to run him until last weekend.
Long shot Gormley is the only one in the 12-horse field with a Grade I trophy. Lookin At Lee hasn’t won since last July at tiny Ellis Park. Sentimental favorite Patch drew the outside post, as he did in the Derby. He has no left eye, so when the gates open at approximately 6:37 p.m., he won’t be able to see his opponents.
But it’s still the Belmont, New York’s signature race, and a crowd of about 50,000 is expected to wager many millions and party hard. Even though the 149th “Test of the Champion” will not be crowning one for posterity, it will be a pleasant way to spend a warm spring afternoon.
The undercard is tremendous, with eight other stakes, including superstar filly Songbird, and the Belmont is “a great bettin’ race.” Horse racing wouldn’t exist without gambling, and handicappers will make a case for all 12 runners. Newbies will play names, numbers and colors and may do better than the alleged experts. As Motion said: “I don’t think there’s a horse in here you’d be surprised if he won.”
Among the outliers is J Boys Echo, unraced since finishing 15th, beaten 23 lengths, in one of the roughest Kentucky Derbys ever. His brief chart comment was “bounced around start.”
“Besides this morning, the worst traffic I’ve seen was May 6 at 6:50 when he broke from the gate,” trainer Dale Romans said at Wednesday’s post-position draw at Rockefeller Center. “He had a worse trip than a hillbilly trying to drive through Manhattan today.”
That star-crossed performance didn’t put off celebrity restaurateur Bobby Flay, who bought a reported 25 percent of the colt this week. Shortly before last year’s Belmont, Flay became a part-owner of Creator, who rallied to win by a nose at 16-1. If you like following a rich man’s money, J Boys Echo is for you.
“That made me feel pretty good when Bobby wanted to be on our team,” Romans said, “and he did a good job of picking last year.”
Romans has won many seven-figure stakes, but never the Belmont, in which he’s been third four times. The mainstream media’s lack of enthusiasm for this one hasn’t diminished his.
“I mean, it’s a classic,” Romans said. “This is why we play the game. Whether it has the Derby winner or the Preakness winner, it’s still such a prestigious race, one of the three biggest ones we have in this country. It’s a great race, and I really, really want to get the trophy.”
Epicharis still in. The colt’s troublesome right front foot was fitted with a glue-on shoe, often used to protect a sore hoof, and he walked around the barn beneath a rider. The New York State Gaming Commission’s veterinary report said Epicharis was treated Thursday with ketaprofen, a milder anti-inflammatory than butazolidin, which he received Wednesday. New York Racing Association executive Martin Panza said trainer Kiyoshi Hajiwara was pleased with Epicharis’ progress and optimistic he could run Saturday.