It's been a good ride, and while the drama of a Triple Crown sweep is absent, this year's 133rd running of the Grade I, $1 milllion Belmont Stakes should be altogether memorable: a decent-sized field, with most of the important Kentucky Derby and Preakness horses brought together for one last chance to be listed in the annals of the turf sport.
Who have been the warriors, the iron horses who have danced all the proverbial dances, waltzing to victory at times, at times having to do the limbo?
There are, of course, your natural rivals: Monarchos and Point Given.
Monarchos, winner of the Kentucky Derby, has done a remarkable amount of good in a short period of time, breaking his maiden only on Jan. 13 of this year, finishing first or second in five of his six starts, the last four of which have been against the best of his generation. Like Fusaichi Pegasus last year, he is disproving the old business about Triple Crown contenders needing a solid two-year-old foundation: Monarchos, beaten a combined 18 lengths in his two tries as a juvenile, upset the time-tested paradigm.
He might have paid for it a little in the Preakness, but he comes into the Belmont as the second choice on the morning line.
Point Given, winner of the Preakness, was a stakes winner before October of his two-year-old season, and runner-up in two Grade I's before Thanksgiving. He could have turned out to be a child prodigy whose development became arrested, but he won both -- and some say two wasn't enough -- his Derby preps and emerged as a prohibitive favorite.
It didn't work out for Point Given on the first Saturday in May, but on the third Saturday of the month, he came back firing, dispatching of his rivals with the ease and nonchalance he displyed in his Derby preps.
But Monarchos and Point Given, while the headliners, have had company.
A P Valentine, who conquered Point Given as a two-year-old, has yet to match that rival's accomplishments at age 3. But not for lack of trying. A P Valentine might not have come into the Derby on a traditional path, but he has six starts so far in 2001, including his nice rebound in the Preakness most recently. Now, back on his home track, with, perhaps, renewed memories of what it takes to win and be competitive, A P Valentine is the third choice on the morning line.
Dollar Bill, Web site and all, is the fourth member of the perfect-attendance quartet, and its least accomplished member. Without a Grade I win to his credt or an in-the-money finish in the Spring Classics, Dollar Bill plods on, preferring opportunity to talent, but finding precious little opportunity while nudging his way into troubled trip upon troubled trip.
Can it happen again? The sweepingly majestic mile-and-a-half layout of Belmont Park and a select nine-horse field seem unwilling to conspire, but if any horse can bump and grind his way to traffic problems from post 3, it's the dependable Dollar Bill.
And then there are the horses coming back after sitting out the Preakness.
Two of the horses in that category share the same trainer. The trainer is Todd Pletcher, and the horses are Balto Star and Invisible Ink, who bring complimentary running styles to this year's Belmont.
You remember Balto Star, don't you? A blur on the lead before the Kentucky Derby, he was inexplicably asked to sit in second in that race, effectively removing him from consideration for the win. Unwilling to repeat that failed experiment in Baltimore, Pletcher sat out the Preakness and began working to hone his speed for the Belmont.
And it might be a stroke of genius. True, Balto Star has a pedigree more-suited for half the number of furlongs of the Belmont, but that's what they said before the mile-and-an-eighth Spiral Stakes and Arkansas Derby. Pletcher knows there aren't any struggles lurking for the Belmont lead, and the scary -- not scared -- version of Balto Star seems ready to re-emerge.
Invisible Ink had a bundle of potential before the Derby, and finally delivered on it at Churchill Downs, running a nice second to Monarchos and finishing the fastest of all. Rather than frustrate the horse to go a half-furlong shorter in the Preakness, Pletcher waited for the Belmont, with enough distance to perhaps suit his horse's effectiveness in the late stages. And that is the strategy that he will get to employ, though the early fractions and way this race shape up don't figure to be as beneficial to him.
Then there's Thunder Blitz, another horse who outran his odds in the Derby before sitting out of the Preakness. But he faces the same challenge as Invisible Ink's, and when those two line up for the right to that role, Thunder Blitz loses every time.
Two left, and they are the tactically placed Buckle Down Ben and the European import Dr Greenfield. Both are 30-1 on the morning line, but, it seems, Dr Greenfield appears to have more -- though still little -- to recommend him. Then again, isn't it a national pastime to write trainer D. Wayne Lukas off in big races and watch him spring the shocker anyway? So Buckle Down Ben has that at least.
And where does that leave us? From cozy post 2, Balto Star will have the nice, easy lead he needed in the Derby.
However, somewhere down the backstretch, his decidedly sprint-oriented pedigree should come calling, and the mid-pack horses should be ready to strike.
Buckle Down Ben will be the first to try to move, given that he'll likely be in second, right behind Balto Star, but big guns like Point Given and A P Valentine (and maybe Thunder Blitz) will be rolling right alongside him. And it doesn't take much imagination to see which of those three horses gets the short end of that deal.
At the top of the lane, Point Given and A P Valentine will engage in your classic Belmont-type duel. Monarchos and Dollar Bill and Invisible Ink will try to make up some kind of ground, but it will not be easy. The wild card Dr Greenfield should be among that number, too, though his scenario is not as clear as those of the domestic runners.
No doubt Point Given will be hammered at the windows, likely favored again. Monarchos should receive some win-end action too, and don't forget the perennially underlaid Dollar Bill.
Which means for a straight wager, there's but one option: A P Valentine, who doesn't figure to be anything less than 7-2. At that price, you're in business, with anything higher simply a bonus.
Good luck tomorrow, and thank you for sharing the ride with us.
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