It’s a throwback that goes way, way back. They’ve been running the Belmont Stakes since 1867, so the longest Triple Crown event also has the longest history. On Saturday at Belmont Park, it will be staged for the 151st time, compared to 145 for the Kentucky Derby and 144 for the Preakness.
Making 3-year-olds take a 1 1/2-mile lap around North America’s biggest racetrack is an anachronism in an era in which speed, not stamina, is king. It’s been a long time since breeders focused on producing thoroughbreds who excel at 12 furlongs on the dirt. Now a Belmont winner tends to be the one that dislikes the marathon distance the least.
In 2015 and last year, Triple Crown heroes American Pharoah and Justify validated their claims for immortality by acing “The Test of the Champion” for Bob Baffert. The platinum-haired wizard, America’s most successful and most recognizable trainer, won’t be in Elmont this weekend. He’ll be in Southern California for his son Bode’s eighth-grade graduation. Baffert’s longtime assistant, Jimmy Barnes, will be here to saddle some runners, but not in the big race.
The absence of a Baffert contender seems appropriate for a Belmont defined more by what it lacks than by what it promises. Not a surprise, considering it’s been perhaps the most bizarre Triple Crown ever. The disqualification of Maximum Security, the first Derby winner ever taken down for an on-track violation, handed America’s Race to 65-1 shot Country House. Neither will be in the Belmont, which we knew shortly after the Derby. Maximum Security is at Monmouth Park, pointing for a summer campaign, with the goal the Haskell in mid-July. A minor illness canceled the Preakness for Country House, the first Derby winner to skip it since 1996.
Preakness champion War of Will is the only Grade I winner in the Belmont and the only horse who will compete in all three classics. “I think with him in the Belmont it all depends on whether he’s willing to rate early,” trainer Mark Casse said. “I think he’s got improvement in him. I think he’s a better horse even than what you saw in the Preakness.”
Besides War of Will, the most interesting runner may be Tacitus, who was placed third in the Derby.
Tacitus, Country House’s stablemate, was considered trainer Bill Mott’s best chance for his first Derby win, but the racing gods had a better idea. Before the Derby DQ was announced, Mott told NBC he planned to point both colts for the Belmont. Tacitus never looked like a winner on Derby Day, when he was 16th early and did his best running far too late, making up 3 1/4 lengths in the final furlong under Jose Ortiz.
Tacitus tuned up Sunday at Belmont with a 5-furlong breeze in 1:01.16.
“It was very good, very even,” Mott said. “I liked the rhythm of it. Each furlong was in about 12 seconds, and he galloped out in about 12 seconds, so I thought it was a very steady, solid work.”
Few are better at stretching out horses than Mott, whose only other classic win came with Drosselmeyer in the 2010 Belmont. Tacitus is by Tapit, sire of three of the past five Belmont winners — Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016) and Tapwrit (2017). Tacitus’ dam, the champion Close Hatches, won at 1 1/8 miles, so the rangy gray should have a pedigree edge. Having five weeks off also should help. Besides American Pharoah and Justify, the last 11 Belmont winners sat out the Preakness. So maybe War of Will will be vulnerable at a short price as the favorite by default, with Tacitus the likely second choice.
Ortiz, the 2017 Eclipse Award winner, is upbeat about Tacitus’ chances.
“My horse ran a huge race,” Ortiz said of the Derby. “He was digging in late. I have no excuse, but we were a little unlucky because the pace didn’t collapse. In the Belmont, he will be much better running 1 1/2 miles.”
Bourbon War in. Trainer Mark Hennig said Friday he will run Bourbon War, eighth in the Preakness, which expanded the field to 10. Other potential challengers to War of Will and Tacitus are Preakness runner-up Everfast; Derby also-rans Master Fencer (sixth), Tax (14th) and Spinoff (18th); and newcomers Intrepid Heart, Joevia and Sir Winston.