Here are five storylines to watch for in the 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes
1. How will Animal Kingdom handle the sandy track at Belmont Park?
It seemed as if Animal Kingdom had put to rest any questions about how comfortable he is running on dirt after his impressive win at the Kentucky Derby. When he fell well back going around the first turn in the Preakness, though, it was clear that having a considerable amount of dirt and mud kicked in his face bothered him. Trainer Graham Motion said this week he didn't blame jockey John Velazquez for putting the colt in that position. "There is nothing anyone could have done," Motion said. Nevertheless, it hurt his chances at the first Triple Crown since 1978; Animal Kingdom likely would have won the Preakness had he not needed to come from so far behind, or had the race been 100 yards longer. Dirt flying in Animal Kingdom's face at Belmont Park shouldn't be as big of a factor in the race simply because it's unlikely to be as thick, considering the sweltering temperatures this week and the track's sandy mixture. But will the horse be able to handle the way the track tends to cup horses' hooves? Motion's decision to ship Animal Kingdom to New York a week early and train him at Belmont Park, as opposed to shipping him the night before the race, might give Animal Kingdom all the experience he needs to handle it.
2. Can a speed horse like Shackleford hang on in a mile and a half race, especially if he has to work hard to grab the lead?
Trainer Dale Romans said he subscribes to Woody Stephens' belief that the Belmont is a speed horse's race. (Stephens won the Belmont five times, so he certainly had results to back up his theory.) Stephens believed that the race is so long (it's the longest track in the country), it doesn't matter who was a closer and who was a sprinter, the best horse is going to win. Romans believes Shackleford has a "high cruising speed" and that he'll be able to maintain it to the finish line. Barry Irwin, who runs the partnership that owns Animal Kingdom, scoffed at Shackleford's chances, saying he was more worried about Mucho Macho Man, a bit of trash talk that Romans called "one of the dumbest things [Irwin's] ever said." Irwin may have a point though. Shackleford likes to run on the lead, and because he drew the No. 12 post position, he may need to expend extra energy coming around the first turn to get out front. It will take a perfect ride from Jesus Castanon for him to win.
3. How will the temperatures affect the race?
Belmont Park canceled racing on Thursday because of record-breaking highs in New York, and though it's expected to cool down somewhat by Saturday, it's still going to be in the high 80s or low 90s. That might give a horse with extra rest -- such as Nehro, who finished second at the Derby but skipped the Preakness -- an advantage. Nehro finished second at the Louisiana Derby, the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby, but his connections don't seem worried that he's yet to show the burst to overtake the leader. Trainer Steve Assmusen said he believes Nehro is a late bloomer, and that he's running better each time he steps on the track. He might have a boost of energy Animal Kingdom, Shackleford and Mucho Macho Man don't coming down the stretch.
4. Could this be the year a sleeper emerges and steals the show?
In 2008, when Big Brown entered the race a heavy favorite to win the Triple Crown, few people gave 38-1 long shot Da'Tara a second glance. But the Nick Zito-trained colt ran wire-to-wire and pulled off one of the most stunning wins in recent memory. (He still hasn't won since.) Could Monzon be that horse this year? Trainer Ignacio Correas believes he can. Monzon, who was bred in Maryland at the revamped and restored Sagamore Farm, is a late-runner who will likely stick close to the rail and make one big run. An upset by him would be a big boost to Sagamore Farm owner Kevin Plank, who has slowly nursed the historic operation back to health.
5. Just how good — or how bad — is this crop of 3-year-olds?
Motion and Romans are understandably a bit sensitive when they hear writers and handicappers dismiss this year's group of 3-year-olds as one of the weakest in years. They believe their horses are quality thoroughbreds who are about to begin impressive careers. But both the Kentucky Derby winner and the Preakness winner posted some of the slowest times in years, and with injuries knocking out some of the best athletes in the class (such as Uncle Mo, who is sidelined by a liver disease, and Archarcharch, who was retired with a broken bone in his foot) it's hard to not to come to that conclusion. Either Shackleford or Animal Kingdom could erase some of those concerns with a strong finish to the Triple Crown season, but the Belmont track is a cruel and unforgiving test. If neither can seize the moment, this might go down as a class of 3-year-olds few people care to remember.