NEW YORK – Orb and Oxbow. Oxbow and Orb. Anyway you draw it up, there will not be a Triple Crown on the line in the $1 million Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
Even without a Triple try, the Belmont is still an intriguing race. It matches Kentucky Derby winner Orb against Preakness winner Oxbow, Todd Pletcher sending out a record five horses and one of the largest fields in the 145-year history of a race also known as the “Test of the Champion.”
So let’s not overanalyze the rematch because there are many more storylines that will unfold when the 14-horse field begins its 1½-mile run around Belmont Park on what could be a wet track following 24 hours of rain.
Orb is looking to bounce back after his fourth-place finish in the Preakness, following his 2½-length win in the Derby. Oxbow is out to show his wire-to-wire Preakness win was not a fluke.
Todd Pletcher’s quintet includes the filly Unlimited Budget, with Rosie Napravnik looking to become the second female jockey to win a Triple Crown race. Up-and-coming Freedom Child joins the Triple Crown fray for the first time off his 13¼-length romp in the Peter Pan Stakes four weeks ago over a sloppy track at Belmont Park. And Kenny McPeek, who won the 2002 Belmont with Sarava at record odds of 70-1, is back again with 30-1 shot Frac Daddy.
“There’s probably a few in there that don’t figure, but they’ve got just as much license to run as Orb or Oxbow or anybody else,” said Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, whose Derby winner is the 3-1 morning-line favorite. “I’m not going to worry about it because it makes this a good, solid field.”
Revolutionary is the second choice at 9-2, with Oxbow third at 5-1, and Unlimited Budget and Freedom Child each at 8-1 in the field of 14 — the largest since 1996 and one shy of the record set in 1983.
If the track comes up wet, Orb, Golden Soul and Revolutionary — the first three finishers in the Derby run over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs — should be able to deal with it. So, too, should Freedom Child.
In addition to Frac Daddy, there are few other long shots worth a look in 20-1 Will Take Charge and 15-1 Palace Malice.
D. Wayne Lukas will be out to win his 15th Triple Crown race with Oxbow, and he also trains Will Take Charge. Lukas said once he builds up a head of steam “he’s dangerous.”
Palace Malice is among Pletcher’s squad – the others are the filly, Revolutionary, Overanalyze and Midnight Taboo. Despite only one win in seven starts, Palace Malice, the son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, looks to have potential.
“We think he’s well meant for this race,” said Pletcher.
The Belmont is known as a rider’s race because it takes a savvy jockey familiar with the lay of the land to navigate the nation’s only 1½-mile oval. Belmont Park is like the Grand Canyon of racetracks, a much wider track than Churchill Downs or Pimlico, with long, sweeping turns.
It’s also deceiving. Judging distance can be difficult. For example, at the top of the turn at Belmont, there’s still a half- mile left in the race. At other tracks there’s only a quarter-mile to go.
Gary Stevens, who will be aboard Oxbow, knows all about the intricacies of the track. In 1997 he moved too soon aboard Silver Charm and had his Triple Crown spoiled by Touch Gold. A year later he spoiled Real Quiet’s Triple bid when Kent Desormeaux moved too early and Stevens’ Victory Gallop won by a nose.
“Belmont Park is like the ocean,” said the recently unretired Stevens. “You can have a lot of fun in it but it can hurt you if you don’t respect it.”