The Belmont Stakes is usually an all-or-nothing proposition. With the possibility of a Triple Crown winner, the sports world awaits its outcome. Without one, it becomes another horse race.
But it is one-third of the Triple Crown -- and most trainers think, hey, if you don't want to win it, I'd sure like to.
Asked whether the Belmont had lost luster this year, Hansel's trainer, Frank Brothers, said: "Not for me. I'm just glad to be here."
The 123rd Belmont, to be run Saturday at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., is the second straight renewal lacking the prospect of a Triple Crown sweep. But with a sizable field, including the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, it is shaping up as a competitive race.
"Strike the Gold and Hansel won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, so obviously they're the ones getting respect," said Brothers. "But we haven't run anyone out of here. There are 11 or 12 horses, and every one of them has their merits. It's a pretty competitive race."
Hansel has remained quite healthy since winning the Preakness by seven lengths 18 days ago -- which is more than can be said of his trainer. While the colt worked a half-mile in 49 1/5 seconds yesterday morning, Brothers watched while standing on crutches. Several days ago, one of his horses in Chicago kicked Brothers, cracking his pelvis.
Whether Hansel will be the Belmont favorite may depend on how the New York fans perceive his Preakness victory. Was it a fluke? And if it wasn't, does it even matter, considering the difference in distance and complexion in the Preakness (1 3/16 miles) and Belmont (1 1/2 miles)?
Don La Place, Belmont oddsmaker, said he likely will make Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold the program favorite after entries are drawn tomorrow, with Hansel a close second choice.
But in the 12 Belmonts since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, only one Derby winner (Swale, 1984) and one Preakness winner (Risen Star, 1988) won the "Test of Champions."
That surprising statistic gives hope to the nine runners expected to challenge Strike the Gold and Hansel.
One of the contenders is Smooth Performance, a son of Seattle Slew whose nine career starts have all been in Ireland. Since the colt will be making his American debut, he will be the least familiar to fans. But the fact that his trainer, Dermot Weld, won the Belmont last year with Go And Go after shipping him from Ireland will likely make the colt one of the top secondary wagering choices in the race.
Other so-called second-tier horses will probably be Corporate Report, Mane Minister, Green Alligator, Scan and Lost Mountain.
Hansel and Strike the Gold, with 10 points each, are the leaders in the chase for the $1 million Triple Crown bonus. Besides them, only Corporate Report or Mane Minister has a chance to win it.
The Belmont will be simulcast to virtually every operating track in North America, including Pimlico Race Course and the Laurel intertrack outlet.