Belmont lengths back in terms of excitement

ELMONT, N.Y. — ELMONT, N.Y. -- The $695,800 Belmont Stakes tomorrow has the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners in a rematch and nearly had the winner of the Kentucky Oaks for fillies, too.

But there aren't a whole lot of fireworks going off as this third and final race in the Triple Crown series builds to an almost anticlimactic climax.


"In this game we play the Super Bowl first," lamented trainer Nick Zito, thinking how interest in the Triple Crown has waned since his Strike the Gold won the Kentucky Derby six weeks ago May 5.

"We need to find a way in New York where the third leg is the most important or at least equally important," Zito said.


Part of the problem this year is that there is no prospect for a Triple Crown winner -- and the $5 million bonus. But some horsemen also think the Triple Crown is too mired in tradition, and fails to meet the changing needs of the sport.

The 123rd Belmont Stakes -- which drew a field of 11 including Preakness winner Hansel -- will take center stage on an outstanding day of racing that also includes the return of the fallen future-book Derby favorite, Fly So Free, in the Riva Ridge Stakes. Fly So Free has not raced since running fifth in the Kentucky Derby.

Tomorrow's program will include a rematch of those older standouts, Farma Way, Festin and Jolie's Halo, in the Nassau County Handicap, another event in the $8.25 million American Championship Racing Series. On Sunday, filly champion Meadow Star will meet Kentucky Oaks winner Lite Light in the Mother Goose Stakes. Lite Light was a possibility for the Belmont Stakes, until her connections decided last week on the Mother Goose instead.

But it has not been lost on horsemen that the Belmont Stakes program will attract a crowd of less than 100,000 -- in an area where there are 12 million people to draw from. The Derby and Preakness outdraw the Belmont Stakes on population percentage.

"It becomes more of an event at other places," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will race Corporate Report in the Belmont, and Farma Way in the Nassau County Handicap.

"I don't know if crowning the Queen in New York would get anybody excited," Lukas added.

The Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the Triple Crown races, but often the least exciting. Its 1 1/2 -mile distance is considered a marathon for modern horses who are bred for speed or middle distances. And the Triple Crown races are run so close together that often, by the time of the Belmont Stakes, the stars have dropped out.

No more than 11 horses have won the elusive Triple Crown, beginning with Sir Barton in 1919.