Belmont an intriguing puzzle Many in field of 15 have legitimate shots

June 08, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. -- The Kentucky Derby winner isn't here. Grindstone was retired with a knee injury five days after his photo-finish Derby win.

The Kentucky Derby favorite isn't here, either. Unbridled's Song, fifth in the Derby, is sidelined with a sore hoof and ulcer.

But consider who is here at Belmont Park for today's 128th Belmont Stakes -- the Triple Crown's final jewel that might have ++ lacked luster but has turned into one of the year's most intriguing races.

A bulging field of 15 -- matching the largest field in Belmont history -- will embark at about 5: 30 p.m. on a 1 1/2 -mile adventure worth $734,800, of which $440,880 is reserved for the winner. Among those contesting the Triple Crown's most demanding race are:

Cavonnier, beaten by a nose in the sixth-fastest Kentucky Derby.

Louis Quatorze, co-holder of the Preakness Stakes record.

Skip Away, holder of the Blue Grass Stakes record.

My Flag, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Jamies First Punch, annihilator of Unbridled's Song, supposedly America's best 3-year-old, in the Peter Pan Stakes.

So who says these Belmont contenders are a mediocre bunch of 3-year-olds? David Loder, that's who.

"The reason we're here," said Loder, trainer of the English colt, South Salem, "is because your top bracket of horses has been decimated."

That apparently is the sentiment among some of these owners and trainers who watched an array of horses win the various Kentucky Derby preps and then saw six different horses finish 1-2-3 in the Derby and Preakness.

Nick Zito, seeking his first Belmont win with the two-horse entry of Louis Quatorze and Saratoga Dandy, senses this lack of respect for the six Derby and Preakness veterans.

"I've been using a phrase that might be catching on," Zito said. "If you're not in it, you can't even lose."

The Belmont features no obvious favorite. So if you have a strong betting preference, and you're correct, you stand to make a lot of money.

Even if you don't bet, you stand to have a good time watching this race. A whole herd of horses will stampede around the country's only 1 1/2 -mile track in a marathon that will last about 2 1/2 minutes, an eternity in this sport.

And consider this subplot:

Zito vs. D. Wayne Lukas.

Their horses have combined to win the past eight Triple Crown races. In those races, Zito- and Lukas-trained horses accounted for 15 of the 24 first-, second- and third-place finishes.

Lukas' horses won, and Zito's finished second, in the past two Belmonts. But Zito's Louis Quatorze, by winning the Preakness three weeks ago, ended Lukas' unprecedented string of six consecutive Triple Crown victories.

Lukas looks to start a new streak today with Prince of Thieves or Editor's Note.

And Zito looks to win his second Triple Crown race in a row. His main threat is his Preakness winner, ridden by Pat Day, who has won the past five times he has climbed aboard Zito-trained horses.

And consider another subplot:

The filly My Flag vs. 14 colts and geldings.

In 127 runnings of the Belmont, 19 fillies have competed and two have won -- Tanya in 1905, when the race was 1 1/4 miles, and Ruthless in 1867 (the inaugural Belmont), when the race was 1 5/8 miles.

But the respected Shug McGaughey, My Flag's trainer, is not one to enter a filly in the Belmont just because he wants complimentary seats for his relatives.

"I've been thinking about this for a long time," McGaughey said. "I haven't seen a standout yet [in the 3-year-old division]. A lot of them are suspect on going a mile and a half. I don't think she is."

If any horse was bred to win the Belmont, it is My Flag.

Her father, Easy Goer, won eight of 10 starts at Belmont Park, including two at 1 1/2 miles, the Belmont and Jockey Club Gold Cup, both in 1989.

Her mother, Personal Ensign, was retired after winning 13 straight races, 10 at Belmont.

"He loved it here, and she loved it here," McGaughey said of Easy Goer and Personal Ensign, both of whom he trained. "And I think [My Flag] has a fondness for it. Since coming back from Kentucky she's trained great here."

She also won last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies championship here.

The only real blemish on her chart (10 starts, four wins, two seconds, two thirds, all against fillies) is a dull fifth place in her last race, the May 3 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, a track neither parent liked.

Although My Flag, because she is a filly, receives a weight break in the Belmont -- she carries 121 pounds, males carry 126 -- she carries one disadvantage: her running style.

She usually drops far back early in her races. And the Belmont is not often won by horses coming from far back.

In the past 25 years, only three Belmont winners have rallied from farther than seven lengths off the pace. Tactical speed, which places a horse neither in the lead nor at the rear, has been the crucial factor for most of the Belmont champions.

That would seem to favor horses such as Cavonnier, Prince of Thieves and Jamies First Punch, and hinder closers such as Saratoga Dandy, My Flag and Editor's Note.

And a brutal burst of early speed expected from Appealing Skier -- a burst expected to fizzle after about a mile -- could stifle potential early leaders such as Louis Quatorze, Skip Away and Illinois Derby-winner Natural Selection.

So the 128th Belmont, the fourth-oldest stakes race in the country, shapes up as a fascinating blend of various factors that should serve as a fitting conclusion to another year's Triple Crown series.

128th Belmont

When: Today, 5: 32 p.m.

Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.

TV: Channels 2, 7, 4: 30 p.m.

Favorite: Cavonnier, 3-1.

Miscellaneous: Third leg of Triple Crown; 1 1/2 miles; 3-year-olds; 15 entered; all carry 126 pounds except My Flag (121); purse is $734,800 if all 15 start, including $440,880 to winner.

Pub Date: 6/08/96

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