Will War Emblem become Thoroughbred racing's 12th Triple Crown winner by adding Saturday's Belmont Stakes to his earlier victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness?
The talented son of Our Emblem certainly has the ability. But he will have to overcome 11 rivals, all bent on preventing the first Triple Crown sweep since Affirmed turned the trick in 1978. Here is a look at the would-be upsetters, in post-position order from the rail out.
This Marquetry colt is the longest of longshots. He broke his maiden on the fourth try at Aqueduct just a month before the Kentucky Derby, then came back with a victory in a 1-mile conditioned allowance race on the turf three weeks ago. Trainer Jennifer Leigh-Pederson's decision to send him in this race is optimistic. He does have the advantage of jockey Jose Santos. In his recent races, the colt has come from just off the pace to win with a stretch move but that' probably irrelevant for Saturday's race.
Like A Hero
Here's another longshot but perhaps a little less long. The son of Pleasant Colony won twice at Santa Anita, then captured the Alydar Stakes at Hollywood Park on May 23. That was enough for trainer Beau Greely to send him right into the big time. Laffit Pincay Jr. rode him in California but Pat Day takes over the duties for the Belmont. He also has done his best running from just off the early pace. "The fact he can stalk is huge," Greely said after the post-position draw. "The first half mile in the Belmont usually decides the race."
This son of Hennessy is a little bit of a "wise guy" horse. He started his career in Ireland under trainer Aiden O'Brien, running moderately well in top company as a 2-year-old. He then was turned over to trainer Niall O'Callaghan to run in the United States at 3. After a tune-up at Gulfstream Park this winter, he was a dominating winner in a Keeneland allowance event in April, then posted a mild upset victory in the Lone Star Derby in Texas on May 11. The 104 Beyer Speed Figure he earned in that race makes him the only newcomer in this field with credentials close to those of the Derby and Preakness veterans. He is the only confirmed front-runner other than War Emblem and keeps regular rider Jorge Chavez.
Essence of Dubai
One of these years, the Dubai-based Godolphin Racing crew is going to break through with a top 3-year-old. Essence of Dubai, a son of Pulpit and grandson of A.P. Indy, won two of three starts last year in California but staggered home last of 12 in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile over the Belmont surface in late October. He won his first two starts this year in Dubai but then finished ninth in the Kentucky Derby with a trip that was rough enough to give him a legitimate excuse. Jerry Bailey takes over from David Flores in the saddle. In each of his three career wins, the colt has come from off the pace. "We skipped the Preakness hoping the distance of the Belmont would help him," said assistant trainer Tom Albertrani. "The way he ran in Dubai, he came from way back and finished well. His works have been good since the Derby."
This Japanese-bred son of Forty Niner is another "wise guy" selection. He finished a good third behind Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro in the Wood Memorial but couldn't get into the Kentucky Derby because he didn't have enough earnings. Instead, trainer Neil Drysdale sent him to the Peter Pan at Belmont two weeks ago. He won that event with something to spare, earning his trip to the Belmont. Drysdale has turned the Peter Pan-Belmont double before with A.P. Indy, so this is not an experiment. Adding to the intrigue, Japanese horses have been red hot in international competition for the past nine months. The colt has four wins, one second and two thirds from seven lifetime starts and -- like many of his rivals -- likes to come from just off the pace. Gary Stevens has ridden him in every start and keeps the mount Saturday.
He came a long way from finishing second in the WEBN Frog Stakes at Turfway Park to winning the Spiral Stakes at that northern Kentucky track, then finishing third in the Kentucky Derby. The gelded son of Dynaformer has been off since his Derby run and trainer Jonathan Murray has been training him amid the relative calm of the Churchill Downs Training Track. His typical running style is stalking the early pace and taking charge in the stretch. In the Derby, he was losing ground to War Emblem and Proud Citizen in the final 1/16. Eddie Delahoussaye rode him in the Spiral and the Derby and will be aboard Saturday. The only gelding winner of the Belmont in its 133 previous runnings was Crème Fraiche in 1985.
This Pine Bluff colt was pulled out of the race Thursday after he came up lame. Trainer H. Allen Jerkens said he had no idea how the injury occurred. Jerkens said he seemed fine after Monday's 1 1/8-mile workout. Jerkens said the runner-up in the Grade 2 Peter Pan suffered a bruised right front foot and that an abscess had formed around the injury. Puzzlement didn't make his career debut until March 2 and didn't post his first win until March 30. He then won an allowance race at Aqueduct against older horses and finished second to Sunday Break in the Peter Pan.
A son of El Prado, he won the San Felipe at Santa Anita, finished second in the Wood and then took fourth in the Derby. Sent off at 3-1 in the Preakness, he started sharply, then faded badly to finish eighth. The Preakness action resulted from a Derby running that looked like he was the only runner gaining on War Emblem. In fact, he was just about holding his place while rivals were fading. Still, he is a fast colt and if he gets a clean break he could join War Emblem and Wiseman's Ferry in the first flight on Saturday. Bobby Frankel trains the colt and Kent Desormeaux picks up the ride from Bailey as Bailey moves over to the Godolphin runner. "I never found a reason why he didn't run well in the Preakness," said Frankel. "I thought he ran decent in the Derby and he had some excuse because he was one of the only horses to close."
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas appeared out of Triple Crown contention until Proud Citizen upset the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland two weeks before the Derby. He then tracked War Emblem all the way around the Churchill Downs oval, finishing second in the Run for the Roses. It was the same story in the Preakness except that Magic Weisner closed sharply in that race to take second. Lukas is hoping the extra distance of the Belmont will benefit the son of Gone West. Neither the Derby nor the Preakness gave much indication that will be the case, however. Mike Smith took over riding duties in the Lexington and retains the mount for the Belmont.
The favorite. Winner of four straight and the only horse in the field with a chance to win the Triple Crown. Jockey Victor Espinosa will have him on or near the lead, depending on what his rivals do, and we'll all see whether he can hold on for a 1 1/2 miles. This is the third time in five years that trainer Bob Baffert has had a chance at the Triple Crown and no one knows better how tough it is to nail down the third jewel.
This gelded son of Ameri Valay hasn't been worse than second in his last nine races, including his second-place finish in the Preakness. And he was gaining on War Emblem with every jump in that race after going five-wide to get running room. Those are good credentials for the Belmont but they need to be put into context. The Belmont will be his first race outside Maryland. Three of his wins at Laurel Park were in stakes events restricted to Maryland-breds. And he has been training at Laurel. Richard Migliore, who picked up the mount for trainer Nancy Alberts in the Preakness, will be back aboard.
Trainer Kenny McPeek expected to be a factor in the Triple Crown races with Repent this year but that colt came out of the Illinois Derby with an injury that forced him to the sidelines. Now McPeek is back with a longshot. The Wild Again colt struggled in England last summer, broke his maiden in November at Churchill Downs, then posted three straight second-place finishes at three different tracks before winning the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico on the Preakness undercard. Jockey Edgar Prado will try to recreate that effort on Saturday. "He's got to pick his game up about 4 or 5 lengths," McPeek said. "If he does, he's got a chance to be a big part of this race."