Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Preakness Stakes victor Oxbow try for a "best of three" outcome in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
The $1 million, Grade I Belmont is the final jewel of the Triple Crown and the gem in the tiara of weekend racing worldwide. The race drew a field of 14 and the weather forecast is iffy at best, so there's no guarantee either of the two "O" horses can put an "X" next to this box.
Elsewhere around the ovals, Belmont has a comprehensive and well-subscribed clutch of six graded stakes Friday and Saturday leading up to the feature. Hollywood Park's weekend centers on the Charles Whittingham Memorial, a $200,000, Grade II event at 10 furlongs on the lawn -- often a preview of the summer's remaining Grade I grass events.
Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Monmouth Stakes at the Jersey oval is 9 furlongs on the grass. Churchill Downs also is on the lawn on Saturday for the $100,000, Grade III Early Times Mint Julep Handicap, which finds fillies and mares going 1 1/16 miles.
Up north, Woodbine's Sunday card includes the $500,000 (Canadian) Woodbine Oaks, for 3-year-old, Canadian-bred fillies and the Plate Trial.
But, back to the Belmont Stakes.
After winning the Kentucky Derby, Orb drew the No. 1 post position for the Preakness Stakes and, for reasons still unexplained, never got into the race, finishing fourth and dashing Triple Crown hopes for yet another year. While the inside post position didn't appear to be a crippling handicap in the Preakness, it certainly didn't help jockey Joel Rosario get the position he wanted for Orb, so trainer Shug McGaughey heaved a silent sigh of relief when his colt on Wednesday drew No. 5 for the Belmont. Oxbow starts No. 7.
"I just didn't want to get down on the inside where maybe we might get stuck around the first turn," McGaughey said after the draw. "I like the middle."
Oxbow's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, noted the Belmont is 1 1/2 miles in length and Belmont Park's turns sweep gently between the straightaways.
"We tend to overanalyze the post-position draw," he concluded.
Orb was made the 3-1 morning-line favorite while Oxbow is third-favorite at 5-1. Between them is Revolutionary, the second pick at 9-5. He finished third in the Derby but skipped the Preakness Stakes and will start Saturday from gate No. 9. The runner-up in the Derby, Golden Soul, also bypassed the Preakness but drew the outside post for the Belmont and is a 10-1 long shot on the morning line.
A lively early pace was all but assured as Frac Daddy drew the rail and Freedom Child got gate No. 2. Their trainers said they expect to be gunning from the start.
Todd Pletcher will saddle five of the 14 starters -- Revolutionary, Overanalyze, Midnight Taboo, Unlimited Budget and Palace Malice.
The joker in the deck is Tropical Storm Andrea, gaining strength Wednesday in the Gulf of Mexico and forecast to move up the East Coast, arriving in time to deliver drenching rains over Belmont Park by Saturday. That could pose issues, especially for the turf races. But it's worth noting Orb won the Kentucky Derby over a sloppy, sealed track while Oxbow prevailed over a fast track in the Preakness.
The Belmont Stakes is the icing on a quite nice, five-layer graded stakes cake on Saturday's program.
Point of Entry is the star in the $500,000, Grade I Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap. The 5-year-old son of Dynaformer rose through the ranks last year and has won five of his last six starts -- a string interrupted only by a narrow loss to Little Mike in last fall's Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita. His rivals in a field of 10 include Optimizer, who comes off a second and a third in similar races accompanying the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Side Road has been making promise for his owner, Darley, and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Twilight Eclipse won the Grade II Pan American at Gulfstream in his last start.
The $400,000, Grade II Woody Stephens for 3-year-olds at 7 furlongs drew a field of 11, including some refugees from the early stages of the Triple Crown trail. It looks like a speedy, contentious and quality heat. Merit Man was last seen fading from the lead in the Grade I Florida Derby to finish third behind Orb and Itsmyluckyday. Declan's Warrior has won four of his five starts, including the Grade III Bay Shore going 7 furlongs at Aqueduct. Capo Bastone was second in the Grade III Derby Trial at Churchill Downs and is knocking at the door. Honorable Dillon won the Grade II Hutcheson at Gulfstream Park at 7 furlongs but faltered going longer. Forty Tales was second in the Hutcheson and won the Derby Trial. Clearly Now won the Grade III Swale at 7 furlongs in Florida, then finished second in the Bay Shore. A tough one to figure.
The $500,000, Grade I Longines Just a Game Stakes finds fillies and mares going 1 mile on the turf, with seven set to face the starter. Here's another tough bunch. Centre Court has won six of her last eight, a skein broken by second-place finishes behind Stephanie's Kitten and Dayatthespa -- both of whom are in this field. Hungry Island was second to Stephanie's Kitten last time out. Mizdirection has won eight of her last nine starts, including the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, all in California. And for a wild card, there's Laugh Out Loud, fresh off the plane from Europe, where she ran a month ago at Chantilly. She gets Gary Stevens for her first U.S. start.
Seven signed up for the $400,000, Grade II RTN True North Handicap at 6 furlongs on the main track. This is a real mixed bag, with horses ranging from promising and lightly raced 4-year-olds to the versatile, 8-year-old, New York-bred Caixa Eletronica -- who won this race last year but comes off a fifth-place showing in the $1.5 million, Grade II Charles Town Classic at 9 furlongs.
Friday's Belmont card has a pair of graded stakes.
The $200,000, Grade II Brooklyn Handicap is run at the Belmont Stakes distance of 1 1/2 miles, but for older horses. The morning-line favorite here is Calidoscopio, an Argentine import who won the Breeders' Cup Marathon in his first U.S. start but then finished fifth as the favorite in his seasonal debut in March in California. Two other starters in the field of eight have Belmont Stakes credentials. Birdrun, drawn No. 1, is a son of Birdstone, the 36-1 upset winner of the 2004 Belmont, beating Smarty Jones by 1 length. And Ruler On Ice, who got the outside post, won the Belmont two years ago at odds of 25-1, beating Stay Thirsty. Percussion and Fast Falcon bear watching.
The $150,000, Grade III Jaipur Stakes at 7 furlongs on the grass got nine entries, plus three for "main track only." Mr. Commons drew the rail and is the morning-line favorite despite not having won since February of 2012.
Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Charles Whittingham Memorial, named for the late, great trainer, picked up seven entries. All Squared Away has been in the money in four straight grass races at 1 1/4 miles or longer. Slim Shadey was second in this race last year but has struggled since. The others will need to move forward to figure in the outcome.
Also on the Saturday program, 11 3-year-old fillies signed on for the $150,000, Grade II Honeymoon Stakes going 9 furlongs on the greensward. Scarlet Strike has never been out of the money in 11 career starts -- albeit with only two wins -- and is the highweight at 122 pounds, including Rafael Bejarano. Charlie Em raced on secondary circuits in Europe last year but won her initial U.S. start last month, the Grade III Senorita Stakes, upsetting Scarlet Strike. There are a couple recent maiden winners in the field, too.
Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Early Times Mint Julep Handicap picked up six fillies and mares with Daisy Devine the highweight. She comes off a third place behind Stepanie's Kitten and Hungry Island in Churchill Distaff Turf Mile on Derby Day. The others have sketchier credentials at this level.
With the $1 million (Canadian) Queen's Plate set for July 7 and lots of contenders still in the offing, Sunday's $150,000 (Canadian) Plate Trial looms large as a preview of the big race. Ten are listed as probable with Dynamic Sky, Jagger M, Black Hornet and Pyrite Mountain among those to consider.
Canadian-bred 3-year-old fillies, meanwhile, will get their showcase in Sunday's $500,000 (Canadian) Woodbine Oaks at 9 furlongs on the all-weather track. Woodbine lists eight probable starters, including Spring In the Air, Nipissing and Original Script.
It's a quiet week with Sunday's Gran Premio de Milano in Italy the only Group 1 action in Europe and the Asian ovals hosting lesser action.