Go ahead and call it a rubber match.
Sure, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners will be going head-to-head once again, but it also seems like everyone else is bouncing off the walls to take a run at the 145th Belmont Stakes.
Orb and Oxbow will square off for the third time in five weeks when they enter the starting gate at Belmont Park this evening.
They’ll be joined by 12 horses, including the filly Unlimited Budget, whose connections haven’t been scared off by the Big Two, making it the biggest Belmont field since Editor’s Note beat 13 rivals in 1996.
“Sometimes you throw deep and it goes incomplete, but you can’t score if you don’t throw,” trainer Kenny McPeek said,
echoing the analogy he used after his 33-1 long bomb Golden Ticket dead-heated with Alpha for the Travers win last summer at Saratoga. He’ll saddle Frac Daddy, 30-1 on the morning line, in the Belmont.
“You have to respect Oxbow and Orb. We all do,” Kiaran McLaughlin said. “But like [D.] Wayne [Lukas] said, you’ve got to be in it to win it. You never know.”
McLaughlin trains 20-1 Icognito, who will attempt to tackle the $1 million Belmont off a fifth in the Peter Pan at Belmont.
Post time for the Belmont is 6:36 p.m. and will be televised live on NBC as the highlight of a broadcast from 5-7.
This edition of the Belmont has a little bit of everything.
There’s the Derby winner, Orb, who was fourth in the Preakness, and the Preakness winner, Oxbow, who was sixth in the Derby.
The Hall of Fame combination of the 77-year-oldLukas as trainer and Gary Stevens, 50, in the saddle makes Oxbow a compelling story. “The old guys got it done,” Lukas said with a laugh.
There’s jockey Rosie Napravnik, the first woman to ride in all three Triple Crown races in the same year; she’s on Unlimited Budget.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches in 2007, has five entered, including Unlimited Budget.
Another Pletcher horse is Midnight Taboo, whose claim to fame is a maiden win and no stakes attempts in three starts. He’s one of three in the field owned by Mike Repole, who grew up near Belmont Park and is dying to win this race.
For the third time in the 2013 Triple Crown series, rain will be a factor, although the forecast calls for it to stop by mid-morning, which could give NYRA track superintendent Glen Kozak and his crew time to get the track fast by 6:36.
Despite the Preakness disappointment, when Orb and jockey Joel Rosario got bottled up on the rail, trainer Shug McGaughey and co-owners Phipps Stable and Stuart Janney are still riding a high from the Derby victory.
With Belmont Park’s gigantic layout, McGaughey expects Orb will get a chance to show his stuff, as he did in the Derby.
“I’m sure I would’ve been on pins and needles a lot more than I am or have been if we had won the Preakness,” he said. “I don’t think we got to see the real horse three weeks ago. I’d sure like to have an opportunity to see the real horse show up. If he gets a chance to run his race, it’ll take a pretty nice horse to beat him.”
Orb is the 3-1 favorite and will break from post No. 5, with the Preakness winner two stalls to the outside of him.
He’ll likely be the fan favorite, too, since he’s a Derby winner and a New York-based horse.
On Preakness Day, some fans on the rail at Pimlico asked McGaughey to sign memorabilia when he was done talking to the media, and he graciously obliged even though the loss was so fresh.
“They were still behind me and pulling for us,” McGaughey said. “It was my obligation not to walk by them. The response I got after I talked to you all was absolutely amazing.
“It’s [Derby attention] waaay, way bigger than I thought it was. I’ll tell you, I didn’t have a clue. I knew it would be a thrill, but I had no idea that it would be the thrill it’s been and the recognition that it brought.”
McGaughey won the Belmont with Easy Goer in 1989 and has never finished worse than fourth in five attempts, including a third by the filly My Flag in 1996.
Lukas is the king of this race, though, having won it four times.
He won three straight from 1994-96, teaming up with Stevens on Thunder Gulch in 1995, and added Commendable’s win in 2000.
It was a sweet reunion with Stevens, who had been retired for six years, in the Preakness.
“I think we’re going to send a better-prepared horse, mentally, in the Belmont than we did in the Preakness,” Lukas said. “Whether he’s a faster horse or a winning horse remains to be seen.”
Lukas will also saddle Will Take Charge, eighth in the Derby and seventh in the Preakness.
Counting his former assistants, nine of the 14 Belmont horses are “Lukas”-connected.
Pletcher and McLaughlin worked for him, as did Dallas Stewart, who will saddle Derby runner-up Golden Soul.
Pletcher played host and cooked steaks for the Lukas guys at his house on Wednesday.
“We were having a ball. Todd did a great job,” Stewart said. “Bobby Flay probably gave him some pointers. He had the Bobby Flay cookbook out.”
Golden Soul, 10-1 and breaking from the extreme outside, seems to be one of the buzz horses since he closed well in the slop at Churchill Downs and finished 21⁄2 lengths behind Orb.
“You kind of get what you out into it,” Pletcher said of his time working for Lukas. “I think over a period of time, if you cover all your bases and pay attention to the little things, then things fall into place.”
Repole will take three whacks at the Belmont, with Unlimited Budget, Midnight Taboo and Overanalyze, who was 11th in the Derby.
“I’ve been coming to Belmont for 30 years, and the Belmont is the No. 1 race I want to win,” the Queens native Repole said. “For some people, it’s the Derby, but the Belmont is the race I want to win.”
Pletcher also has Revolutionary, the 9-2 second choice off his third in the Derby, and Palace Malice.
He called the pairing of Napravnik and Unlimited Budget “good karma.”
Two horses who missed or skipped the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but are generating a little bit of buzz are the Peter Pan horses, winner Freedom Child and Incognito.
Freedom Child won the race on the front end and is expected to be one of the early leaders, along with Frac Daddy, Oxbow, Palace Malice, who will lose the blinkers after his Derby 12th, and perhaps Unlimited Budget.
“Right now, my confidence level is pretty big,” trainer Tom Albertrani said of Freedom Child, who will carry the familiar black-and-gold West Point Thoroughbreds silks. “Whatever happens is going to happen, but by the way he’s been training, I can’t be more pleased.”
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