ELMONT, N.Y. -- When Strike the Gold drew the far outside post position yesterday for tomorrow's 123rd Belmont Stakes, Nick Zito saw it as a test for a champion.
Strike the Gold drew No. 11 in the 1 1/2 -mile "Test of Champions," prompting Zito, the colt's trainer, to say, "Now maybe we'll see what a special horse he is."
The draw was a letdown for Zito -- but then the whole spring has been an emotional roller coaster for him and others involved in the Triple Crown. Strike the Gold's Kentucky Derby victory was followed by a sixth-place finish in the Preakness. Zito said his luck was so bad in Baltimore that "Dracula must live there."
Strike the Gold did win the Derby, however, and Zito accepts it all as a package deal. He could have had a spring like Scotty Schulhofer's -- disappointing, with little joy.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. Less than three months ago, Schulhofer, 64, was in the garden spot. He had the Derby favorite, Fly So Free. He had Cahill Road, a promising brother to Unbridled. And in the background, as insurance, he had Scan, a son of Mr. Prospector who had flashed potential.
But Cahill Road broke down when winning the Wood Memorial two weeks before the Derby. And Fly So Free simply couldn't continue dominating his rivals the way he did as a 2-year-old.
Now all that's left for Schulhofer in the Triple Crown is Scan, the stepchild of the group. The colt skipped the Derby and Preakness but has stayed active leading to tomorrow's race at Belmont Park.
Scan finished second in the Wither Stakes on May 8, then a close third in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont 12 days ago.
"I thought he ran a hell of a race in his last start," said Schulhofer. "He carried 126 pounds [the Belmont weight] and was down on the inside in the deep going the whole way. I thought he put in a courageous effort."
Although offspring of Mr. Prospector are noted for speed, the notion that they cannot go a distance was shattered when dTC Conquistador Cielo, a son of Mr. Prospector, won the 1982 Belmont by 14 1/2 lengths.
"He'll get the mile and a half better than a lot of these others," Schulhofer said of Scan. "Whenever you breed Mr. Prospector to the right kind of mare, you can get a whole lot of stamina." Scan is out of the mare Video, a daughter of Nijinsky II.
Scan, to be ridden by Chris McCarron for the first time, drew the No. 2 post, which should not alter his running style of stalking the pace.
Strategy is more limited for Strike the Gold, made the 5-2 morning-line choice by Belmont's Don LaPlace. He has little choice but to drop well back early in an attempt to save ground, said Zito.
"Simple instructions," he said, referring to what he will tell jockey Chris Antley. "Take him back to last."
Zito said that in the Preakness, which Hansel (No. 5, 3-1) won by seven lengths, Strike the Gold "had no chance to run. He was pinned
down along the inside and from the three-eighths pole to the quarter pole, when the real running starts, he was checking. He couldn't possibly run his race the way it shaped up.
"I hope everything works out [tomorrow]. Strike the Gold wants to get outside and make a run. That's when he wants to, not when the jock wants to. He's got a strong will, and I honestly think he's the horse to beat."
NOTES: The Belmont, as usual, highlights the best weekend of racing in New York. Among the big races are tomorrow's $500,000 Nassau County Handicap, for which 10 were entered yesterday. Farma Way (8-5) drew the No. 8 post, Jolie's Halo (3-1) No. 9 and Festin (5-1) No. 1. . . . Stanley Burrell, better known as rap star M.C. Hammer, will be at Belmont with his family tomorrow and Sunday. Lite Light, owned by the Burrell family's Oaktown Stable, squares off against Meadow Star in Sunday's $200,000 Mother Goose Stakes. Oaktown's Media Plan goes against Fly So Free and 9 other 3-year-olds in the $100,000-added, 7-furlong Riva Ridge Stakes tomorrow. . . . Phantom Breeze heads a field of 12 in today's $150,000 Early Times Manhattan Handicap, final leg of the spring Turf Triple. . . . Cool and dry weather is forecast for this weekend in New York. The temperature is not expected to top 80. . . . Thirty Six Red, trained by Zito, has been retired to stud. The 4-year-old colt, second in last year's Belmont, will stand at Gainesway Farm in Kentucky. Thirty Six Red became lame at Pimlico soon after winning his career finale in the Churchill Downs Handicap. . . . Pimlico/Laurel will be among the many outlets simulcasting the Belmont but will not be taking advance wagering on the race today.