When there's a Triple Crown on the line, the mainstream media converges on the Belmont Stakes, and it becomes an international happening. With no sweep possible, "The Test of the Champion'' becomes an oxymoron: a million-dollar event with not that much at stake, except for the horses' connections.
NBC race caller Larry Collmus was anticipating monumental drama Saturday at 6:40 p.m. With Friday's scratch and retirement of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another, almost all of the air went out of racing's balloon.
"It's very disappointing, but it's still the Belmont Stakes, and I'm looking forward to calling it,'' Collmus said in Belmont Park's press box, about 90 minutes after trainer Doug O'Neill announced I'll Have Another's career was over because of a tendon injury in his left foreleg. "When the horses come onto the track, I'm sure I'll be excited.''
So will all of the people who backed their opinions with money. When the 11 horses enter the stretch, few will be lamenting the absence of the marquee 3-year-old. But he'll still make a cameo. NYRA issued a release saying that I'll Have Another, with rider Mario Gutierrez, will lead the post parade. From potential immortal to four-legged grand marshal -- more proof that racing is a crazy sport.
Many would have tried to beat the 4-5 morning-line favorite with Dullahan, who became the favorite by default on oddsmaker Eric Donovan's revised line. Trainer Dale Romans' colt looked inviting at 5-1, but at 9-5 he becomes the hunted instead of the hunter. Donovan cut Union Rags' odds from 6-1 to 3-1. Paynter went from 8-1 to 7-2. So, where's the value?
Dullahan has trained brilliantly but he's 0-for-4 on conventional dirt. Do you want to take less than 2-1 on a horse to do something he's never done, at a distance he's never tried? His closing style also could be a liability in the 1½-mile Belmont, in which front-runners often keep going.
Paynter, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, looks like the controlling speed. Unless 30-1 shot Unstoppable U puts early pressure on him, Paynter may lead into the stretch. But he's raced only four times and never has been beyond 11/8 miles, so he may get tired.
My original pick was Union Rags, and I'm not enthused about taking 3-1 or thereabouts instead of 6-1, but sometimes you have to accept what the tote board gives you. He's a long-striding colt who had significant traffic problems in his last two races, the Florida Derby (third) and the Kentucky Derby (seventh).
Trainer Michael Matz replaced jockey Julien Leparoux with John Velazquez, a New York regular for two decades. Johnny V. is on a colt with more tactical speed than Dullahan, and he should have Union Rags in position to stalk and pounce in upper stretch. I'll play Union Rags to win and key him in exacta boxes with Paynter, Dullahan and 8-1 Street Life. I can't see anyone else in the field of 11 being a serious threat.
There's a sense of regret that the Triple Crown excitement disappeared, but no one cashing a ticket will be feeling bad.