A difficult-to-handicap Belmont Stakes became even more wide open Wednesday when likely favorite Classic Empire was scratched from the field because of an abscess in his right front foot.
His injury cleared the way for Maryland-based Irish War Cry to become the 7-2 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $1.5 million race. It was a remarkable turn of events given Irish War Cry was not even considered likely for the field two weeks ago.
“Never imagined we would have the favorite for the Belmont when I left Fair Hill this morning,” Irish War Cry trainer Graham Motion wrote in an early-afternoon tweet from New York.
The Belmont plot twist seemed fitting for this erratic class of 3-year-old thoroughbreds. From the Kentucky Derby prep season through the Triple Crown series, no horse has stepped forward as the clear star of the bunch.
With Classic Empire out of the race, Lookin At Lee is the only horse left who ran in the Derby and the Preakness. Neither Derby winner Always Dreaming nor Preakness champion Cloud Computing is in the Belmont.
It’s telling that Irish War Cry, who will start from the No. 7 post, is the favorite despite finishing 10th in the Derby. Motion described the 12-horse field as a “very confusing, muddy picture.”
That’s on top of the inherent unpredictability created by the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont, an unfamiliar endurance test for these horses.
“I just want Irish War Cry to be able to show what he’s really made of,” said jockey Rajiv Maragh, who was pleased with the post position.
Japanese horse Epicharis, dominant in his own country but largely untested against elite competition, is the 4-1 second choice in the morning line. He’ll start outside from the No. 11 post.
Lookin At Lee, the third choice at 5-1, will start next to Irish War Cry in the No. 6 post. The durable late charger will try to give Steve Asmussen a second straight Belmont victory after the Hall of Fame trainer took the 2016 race with Creator.
Though trainer Todd Pletcher opted against entering Derby champion Always Dreaming, he’ll saddle sixth-place Derby finisher Tapwrit and one-eyed fan favorite Patch for the Belmont. Tapwrit is the 6-1 fourth choice in the morning line and will start from the No. 2 post. Patch, a 12-1 choice in the morning line, will start from the outside No. 12 post.
Although Preakness winner Cloud Computing will also sit out the Belmont, his trainer, Chad Brown, will take a shot with Twisted Tom, who won the Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel Park. The 20-1 long shot in the morning line drew the No. 1 post.
Third-place Preakness finisher Senior Investment, a 12-1 choice in the morning line, will start from the No. 8 post. Gormley, returning from a ninth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, is an 8-1 choice in the morning line and will start from the No. 3 post.
Meantime (No. 9 post), J Boys Echo (No. 4 post) and Multiplier (No. 10 post) are all 15-1 choices. Hollywood Handsome rounds out the field as a 30-1 long shot, starting from the No. 5 post.
Though the lack of a clear favorite will create intrigue for some handicappers, the story of this Belmont will inevitably be marked by the horses not present. With Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing out, the race seemed to set up as a shot at delayed glory for Classic Empire, the 2-year-old champion who’d endured a brutal trip in the Derby and had been caught late in the Preakness.
But the gifted colt’s hard luck continued.
Trainer Mark Casse said Classic Empire’s abscess is almost identical to the one that bothered him after his disappointing third-place finish in the Feb. 4 Holy Bull Stakes. That was the same race in which Irish War Cry stamped himself a strong contender for the Triple Crown series.
The Maryland-based colt went on to win the Wood Memorial and broke from the gate as the second betting choice in the Derby. Irish War Cry appeared to be in perfect position at the top of the stretch, stalking the leader, Always Dreaming. But he faded rapidly, leaving Motion puzzled at his seeming lack of stamina.
Motion initially thought he’d give Irish War Cry a long rest to prepare for the July 30 Haskell Invitational, a race named after the father of the colt’s owner, Isabelle de Tomaso. But Irish War Cry seemed eager to resume training. And after Motion watched Cloud Computing — a horse Irish War Cry had beaten easily in the Wood — take the Preakness, the trainer decided his plan was perhaps too conservative.
The Belmont was back on the table.
“You don’t get a chance to run in these races very often,” Motion said. “And to just sit at home on a whim really would have done a disservice to the horse and the owner.”