With no Triple Crown at stake, the Belmont stands as its own reward
- Always Dreaming won the Kentucky Derby, Cloud Computing won the Preakness. Neither is running in the Belmont Stakes.
As soon as Always Dreaming fell far behind three weeks ago at the Preakness Stakes and it became clear the dark bay colt would not deliver a Triple Crown this spring, some luster was bound to come off this year’s Belmont Stakes. Even as Cloud Computing slipped past Classic Empire for a heart-stopping, don’t-even-blink victory at Pimlico, that fact lingered in the background.
Indeed, while many American sports thrive on parity, horse racing (and the three premier events that make up its Triple Crown) often thrives on incredible dominance. It’s a sport that derives much of its magic from legendary horses that have circled its tracks like Secretariat, Affirmed and most recently American Pharoah. Such horses tromp their way into the sporting imagination with victories across the three unique legs of the Triple Crown, the last and longest race always waiting on Long Island at Belmont Park.
But the overarching theme at this year’s Belmont Stakes will not be the chances of any single aspirational horse. Rather, the hopes of the many in an open field will linger over the track in advance of the race for a blanket of white carnations.
Always Dreaming will not participate in the race, nor will Cloud Computing, ensuring that a different horse will capture each of this year’s Triple Crown races. The Belmont field seemingly widened further Wednesday morning when Classic Empire, then the favorite among oddsmakers, was scratched due to a hoof abscess. The news rendered Irish War Cry the morning-line favorite following the post position drawing at Rockefeller Center Wednesday afternoon. But it surely left the owners of the other 11 horses in Saturday’s race dreaming as well.
Sans a clearly dominant horse, and with the favorite scrubbed, there’s plenty of reason to imagine Epicharis could become the first Japan-based horse to win the Belmont. Or that Patch, the one-eyed horse, might see the finish line first. Or perhaps even that Hollywood Handsome might overcome the longest odds of any horse in the race and steal victory.
“It’s wide open, obviously,” said jockey John Velazquez on Wednesday after the post position draw. “Whoever can handle the distance and get a good trip I think will be the winner.” Velazquez, a two-time winner at the Belmont, will ride Patch after coming up short on Always Dreaming at the Preakness.
In many sports, the collective hopes of the field bring drama and excitement. Upsets and raw randomness have turned March Madness into one of America’s premier sporting events. Parity helped build the NFL into America’s pro sports league of choice, with a competitive regular season giving way to an engrossing playoff. Conversely, many feel today’s superteam-driven NBA has seen its postseason diminished by its lack of drama.
If one sport runs against this grain, it is horse racing. It’s a sport made up of races, not seasons, and one without siloed fan bases. Beyond bets placed, horse racing fans root in large part for excellence and history. A wide-open field and an assurance of no Triple Crown therefore may render the 2017 Belmont Stakes anticlimactic.
Or perhaps not. A Triple Crown, itself a creation of the media, may not be at stake this year at the Belmont. But the mile-and-a-half horse racing extravaganza can stand on its own outside of races at Churchill Downs and Pimlico preceding it.
Irish War Cry, the Belmont’s unlikely favorite, struggled his way to a 10th place finish in the sludge of a muddy Kentucky Derby in early May. Trainer Graham Motion said Wednesday that, after the disappointment at the Derby, he “really didn’t want to think about any more Triple Crown races, but [Irish War Cry’s] done really well since then.”
Motion noted that the horse beat both of the first two finishers at the Preakness in separate races earlier this year (the Holy Bull and the Wood Memorial).
“As long he was doing well,” Motion said, “I thought he needed to be here. And he’s had a really good couple of weeks.”
Jockey Rajiv Maragh will ride Irish War Cry, and he said Wednesday the track at the Belmont should help the horse. “It suits him, it [has] big wide turns,” Maragh said. “He should be able to get into a nice rhythm, which I think that’s how he runs his best race—to get into a nice flow.” For his part, Maragh said his own experience at Belmont Park, where he rides almost every day, leaves him confident.
The favorite certainly has a great shot Saturday. But seemingly so do several others going into the Belmont, where uncertainty reigns over a loose field. Some of the sheen is gone, no doubt, but dreams remain in Elmont.