Fourteen 3-year-old thoroughbreds will be asked to go 1 ½ miles, a distance none of them has tried and none was bred to handle. At least half of them seem in way over their head, and there's a 60-percent chance of showers. Embrace the chaos. Rely upon uncertainty. Welcome to Saturday's 145th Belmont Stakes.
Gary Stevens will ride Preakness winner Oxbow, the 5-1 third choice behind Kentucky Derby winner Orb (3-1) and Revolutionary (third in the Derby, 9-2). Although Belmont Park is Stevens' "favorite racetrack in the world" and he has three Belmont trophies, he has some reservations. "I just wish there weren't 14 horses in it," Stevens said. "It's going to be run like a Kentucky Derby."
That means a crowded rodeo ride to the first turn, a distance of slightly more than three-sixteenths of a mile. Stevens didn't expect to get the early lead in the Preakness, but that's how it shook out, and he figures he'll be first, second or third this time.
"I see a decent pace early on," Stevens said. "Where I'll be depends on the fractions. I'll have a number in my head, and that will help determine what I'll do."
Orb's fourth-place dud at Pimlico extended the Triple Crown drought to 35 years, but Wednesday's post-position draw made history with Pletcher's five entries, two above the previous high. Mike Repole owns three, tying an 1875 record.
"We talked about a few other ones, believe it or not," Pletcher said, "but we ended up with three."
Oddity alert: If Repole's Overanalyze wins, it would mean each classic would have gone to a different horse whose name begins with "O." That trivia answer would be harder to match than Woody Stephens' five consecutive Belmont victories from 1982-86. Rosie Napravnik, on Repole's Unlimited Budget (8-1, post 13), seeks the second Belmont win for a female jockey and the first by one riding a filly.
"I think this is one year when the fillies are as good as the colts," Repole said. "The numbers show that. She's a big filly, and she's bigger than half of the colts in the race."
Repole chose the Belmont because he considers it an easier spot than the Grade I Mother Goose, to which Pletcher's star 3-year-old filly, Dreaming of Julia, is headed June 22.
It's the first 14-horse Belmont since 1996, one off the 1983 record. "That could add to the traffic problems," Pletcher said. "It's hard enough just to have the energy to finish a mile and a half."
The speedy Freedom Child (8-1) drew post 2, so jockey Luis Saez probably will go for the early lead. The lightly raced colt is training brilliantly and appears to be peaking. He led throughout a 13 ¼-length rout in the 11/8-mile Peter Pan Stakes in the slop May 11 at Belmont, and his connections are rooting for similar conditions.
Co-owner Terry Finley, a 1996 West Point graduate, joked about using his military connections to gain an edge.
"We've already called the Pentagon and the Air Force guys," Finley said, "and we're going to seed the clouds."
That also would probably help Orb, like Freedom Child a son of hot sire Malibu Moon. Orb came from far back on a wet track in the Derby after Palace Malice rocketed through a half-mile in 451/5 seconds.
"I think, on paper, there is going to be a bit of a pace," trainer Shug McGaughey said. "I think Orb will be able to drop out of it and dictate what he wants to do. I just hope he has some place to go when the time comes."