Is No. 11 a 'natural' for Belmont Stakes?

By ROBERT KIECKHEFER, UPI Racing Writer  |  June 7, 2012 at 4:17 PM
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The singular focus of this weekend's racing is easy: I'll Have Another needs to win the Belmont Stakes to sweep the Triple Crown.

Not so easy to answer is the question: Can he do it?

Eleven horses have won the crown. The last 11 with a chance to win it have been turned away. And now 11 rivals stand in the way of I'll Have Another.

A little luck couldn't hurt. It's worth noting that in the 11 failed bids since 1978, the Kentucky Derby-Preakness Stakes winner finished worse than fourth only twice. So those were good horses who certainly had every chance.

On the other hand, the crown has been won 11 times. And, while it's true racing has changed dramatically in the past 34 years, I'll Have Another does look like a legitimate contender.

And if he were to win the Triple Crown, it would be interesting to see if history repeats in the sense of winners coming in bunches.

Sir Barton won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in 1919, although there was no thought at that time of such a thing being a "Triple Crown."

The trick was turned again in 1930, 1935, 1937, 1941, 1943, 1946 and 1948. Then there was a drought until 1973 when Secretariat, "moving like a tremendous machine," opened the door. Seattle Slew became the only undefeated Triple Crown winner three years later and Affirmed's legendary rivalry with Alydar produced the most recent sweep.

So what about Saturday?

I'll Have Another drew post position 11 for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes and trainer Doug O'Neill said that's okay with him.

"We're going to huddle up and talk," O'Neill said after the draw. "Being in the 11th hole, we're able to kind of see how the pace sets up. If they're crawling, we'll hopefully be leading the crawl. And if they're flying, we'll be sitting in behind the horses flying."

I'll have another and rider Mario Gutierrez probably won't be the only contenders with that game plan. Dullahan, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby, and Union Rags, who finished seventh in the Run for the Roses, are back in the fray after passing up the Preakness. If I'll Have Another gets into the stretch with the lead, he's likely to have either or both of those rivals testing his ability to stay the 1 1/2 miles.

American horses seldom run that far and Dullahan's trainer, Dale Romans, said Thursday he has discussed that issue with rider Javier Castellano.

"I said, 'I don't want you to be quite as concerned with how fast you're going as you are with how much horse you have under you,'" Romans said. "'Don't worry about if you're 5 lengths off or 10 lengths off. Just try to be in tune with the horse, how much horse you think you have, and just realize that you have a long ways to go, even when you start into the final turn."

John Velazquez, who replaces Julien Leparoux as the rider of Union Rags, likely will have similar thoughts and, if all plays to the script, it could be an epic stretch run.

Still, the Belmont is famous for producing longshot winners and if the favorites roll boxcars rather than 11, the contenders with stakes experience and/or blazing speed include Paynter from Bob Baffert's barn, Optimizer from D. Wayne Lukas's stable and late entry My Adonis, trained by Kelly Breen.

The others: Street Life, Unstoppable U, Atigun, Ravelo's Boy, Five Sixteen and Guyana Star Dweej.

The National Weather Service says there is a 20 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms Friday afternoon and evening but calls for mostly sunny skies and a high near 82 for Saturday.

The Belmont Stakes will be broadcast on NBC-TV with an approximate post time of 6:40 p.m. EDT.

Other than the Belmont itself, there is a lot of weekend action on the grass and in some top-level sprints.

The 1 1/4-mile grass specialists will be in action on both coasts -- in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap on the Belmont undercard and in Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park. Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Monmouth Stakes at Monmouth Park is run at 9 furlongs over the turf.

The Manhattan drew an internationally spiced field of eight including Omayad, making his first start outside his native Chile; Desert Blanc, making his second start after coming from France; and Boisterous, winner of his last three starts at New York tracks. Hudson Steele is the likely choice, not having missed the exacta in his last seven starts.

Acclamation, the champion older male of 2011, will make his first start in eight months when he aims to win the Whittingham for the third straight year. Acclamation hasn't raced since winning the Grade II Clement L. Hirsch Oct. 2. The victory was the fifth in a row for the son of Unusual Heat. He is scheduled to have five rivals in the 1 1/4-mile event.

Filly and mare turfers will go 1 mile in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Longines Just a Game Stakes at Belmont Park. Three-year-old fillies will try 9 furlongs on the grass Saturday in the $150,000, Grade II Honeymoon Handicap at Hollywood.

Winter Memories, Taptisfly and Hungy Island look like the stickout prospects in the 7-horse Just a Game. In the Honeymoon, look for Lady of Shamrock, winner of three stakes during the Santa Anita meeting and four of her seven career starts. A field of five was drawn.

Turf sprinters have stakes chances Saturday at Belmont Park in the $150,000, Grade II Jaipur Stakes, at Monmouth Park in the $60,000 Crank It Up Stakes, at Woodbine in the $125,000 (Canadian) Bold Ruckus Stakes, at Hollywood in the $70,000 Manhattan Beach Stakes and in Sunday's John McSorley Stakes at Monmouth.

The Belmont is the marquee event but not the only one in the handicap division. Belmont on Friday offers the $200,000, Grade II Brooklyn Handicap at 1 1/2 miles on the main track. Saturday, 3-year-olds not ready for the Belmont go 1 1/16 miles on the main track in the Easy Goer Stakes.

Among the 12 set to go in the Brooklyn is last year's winner, Birdrun, a son of Birdstone, who upset the 2004 Belmont Stakes after finishing eighth in the Kentucky Derby. He, in turn, is a son of Grindstone, winner of the 1996 Kentucky Derby. The Easy Goer features a field of nine, ranging from recent maiden winners to Teeth of the Dog, who finished third in the Wood Memorial.

Weekend sprints on the main track are headlined by Saturday's $400,000, Grade II True North Handicap at Belmont, featuring Giant Ryan and Caixa Eletronica, coming back in two weeks after running fourth in the Met Mile. On the same card is the $400,000 Woody Stephens featuring the likes of Derby Trial winner Hiero, Triple Crown trail refugees such as Currency Swap, Isn't He Clever, Il Villano and Trinniberg.

In a bit of an oddity, two of the likely favorites in Belmont's sprint stakes are owned by the same person. Shivananda Parbhoo, a 43-year-old native of Trinidad & Tobago, owns Trinniberg, who goes in the Woody Stephens, and Giant Ryan, set to contest the True North. The contenders are trained by the owner's father, Bisnath Parboo, and both already are graded stakes winners.

Calder Race Course has three main-track stakes sprints on Saturday that serve a local preps for the "Summit of Speed" July 7. Two of the 6-furlong events are restricted to 3-year-olds while the others are open to 3-year-olds and up. The "Summit" itself consists of six sprints worth a total of $1.3 million and draws top sprinters from around the country. Local preps often fail to reflect the quality of the "main event" but that isn't so here. Saturday's four races drew good-size fields with quality contenders.

Things are quiet on the foreign front this weekend, although less than two weeks' time brings the historic pageantry, sometimes outlandish style and stellar racing of Royal Ascot. Australian superstar mare Black Caviar got the "style" part off to a good start by wearing a custom-designed Lycra compression suit for her first-ever plane rides and a date in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes.

Black Caviar completed the three-leg trip through Singapore and Dubai without incident and is being bedded down at Abington House Stables as a guest of Sheik Mohammad bin Khalifa al-Maktoum. Australian commentators, confident their sprinters are the world's finest, are predicting Black Caviar will have no trouble winning her 22nd straight race.

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