NEW YORK - For the first time in 30 years, the third jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown will not have the Kentucky Derby winner or the Preakness winner in the starting gate. Trainer Neil Drysdale announced yesterday that Fusaichi Pegasus injured his right hoof and will not race in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
The injury occurred Saturday at 2 p.m. when a blacksmith working on another horse in Barn 1 at Aqueduct dropped a tool and startled Fusaichi Pegasus, who was asleep in the back of his stall. The Derby winner jumped forward, lost his footing, slid into the door and sustained a cut about the size of a dime in his right front hoof wall.
"He was immediately treated and bandaged and there is no soreness," Drysdale said. "He'll be fine in five or six days, but if we trained him for the Belmont, it could lead to a larger crack in his hoof wall. You have to do what is right for the horse."
The mishap occurred seven days after Frank Stronach and Joe Orseno - the owner and trainer of Red Bullet - decided that their lightly-raced colt needed to rest after beating Fusaichi Pegasus by four lengths on a wet and taxing track in the Preakness on May 20.
With no stirring rematch and no inherent drama of a horse trying to capture the Triple Crown as in the past three years, the focus for the Belmont had been on the $4 million horse with a penchant for rodeo-style bucking in the morning and for showing effortless and overpowering speed in the afternoon.
Now, the Grade I, $1 million Belmont is a wide-open race with a different kind of significance. Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Charismatic each failed in their bid to become only the 12th horse in 123 years to sweep the grueling series, which demands the 3-year-old horses prevail over the varying distances of 1 1/4 miles, 1 and 3/16ths miles and 1 1/2 miles in a span of five weeks.
But not since 1970, when Dust Commander followed his victory in the Derby with a ninth-place finish behind Preakness-winner Personality has the Belmont been without the winner of either classic race. Dust Commander skipped the Belmont and Personality scratched the day before the race because of an injury.
"We were intending to run no matter who showed up," said Todd Pletcher, who trains Impeachment, the third-place finisher in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. "This shows you how tough it is for horses to run these races. It just makes the Belmont that much more wide-open."
If Impeachment indeed makes it to the starting gate, he will be the only one of 19 Derby starters to run in all three Triple Crown races.
So far, there are nine probable starters for the Belmont, though with the loss of the formidable Fusaichi Pegasus as well as Red Bullet, that number may grow, perhaps to as many as 14.
The likely favorite now is Derby runner-up Aptitude, who skipped the Preakness, as did other contenders such as fifth-place Derby finisher Wheelaway and the seventh-placed Curule.
The trainer of Aptitude, Bobby Frankel, acknowledged his colt can run himself into contention for winning year-end honors with a victory in the Belmont.
The new Belmont faces include Peter Pan-winner Postponed, Globalize, Tahkoda Hills, Appearing Now and Chief Seattle.