Even the horse, Uptowncharlybrown, knows something is different going into tomorrow's Belmont Stakes. His feeding program has changed. He has a new blacksmith and jockey (Rajiv Maragh). When he bursts from Post 3 in the 12-horse race, there will be another revelation: no blinkers.
What he can't know is the source of the adjustments, the fatal heart attack suffered by his trainer on May 11. Alan Seewald, who was 62, was employed by Uptowncharlybrown's principal owner, New York financial consultant Bob Hutt, for a quarter century, and it was Seewald who told Hutt last fall, "I think we have the best horse we've ever been around in Uptowncharlybrown."
The colt had not yet run a race when Hutt and Seewald - "my best friend, my brother" - began plotting a shot at the Belmont Stakes. It would be the first Hutt-owned, Seewald-trained entry in a Triple Crown event - "The thrill of a lifetime," Hutt said, "Just getting in the starting gate is honor enough.
"Just before he died, Alan said, 'Bob, we're going to win the Belmont and then we're going to win the Haskell [in August at Seewald's home track, Monmouth]. We're going to be the last horse standing.'"
And now? There still are 59 owners who have a piece of Uptowncharlybrown - all of whom get daily e-mail updates from Hutt - but, with Seewald gone, Hutt and Uptowncharlybrown were facing the 11/2-mile Belmont, often described as a "trainer's race," minus a trainer.
Belmont's demanding distance, said Dale Romans, trainer of 7-2 shot First Dude, is what puts an added emphasis on preparation. "You don't want to overdo or underdo," Romans said. "You just want to keep them happy. Nature makes them fast; we just want to keep them fit."
Hutt settled on Kiaran McLaughlin, who four years ago saddled Belmont winner Jazil in a race, like tomorrow's, absent both the Derby and Preakness champions.
McLaughlin knew Seewald when the former was working as an assistant trainer at Monmouth two decades ago. Their wives both were pregnant at the time and combined their baby showers.
"We weren't real close," McLaughlin said, "but we were associates and friends. He was a good horseman and did well even though he had a smaller operation.''
McLaughlin also knew Uptowncharlybrown. In February, he tried to buy the horse, and that interest, he said, likely prompted Hutt to hire him after considering Tim Ice, who won last year's Belmont Stakes with Summer Bird.
Given the circumstances, "this race will be a little more emotional," McLaughlin said, "for Bob and for Alan's wife and son." Uptowncharlybrown is facing 10-1 odds but, all along, Hutt insisted, "we were lying in the weeds" after two winter victories in Tampa.
"Alan had no ego. He felt pushing him [to run the Derby or Preakness] would be bad for the horse. This is very emotional. We were brothers; he was a kid from Brooklyn and I was a guy from the Bronx. I only wish to heaven Alan was with me here today. When Alan passed, the game changed a little bit.
"We want to win this one for Alan. But the real race I want with all my heart for Alan is to win the Haskell in our home park, Monmouth Park."