Belmont hopes that gray look hides gold; Though stars absent, 'wait and see' urged


ELMONT, N.Y. - After such a promising beginning to this year's Triple Crown, it has boiled down to this: 11 uncelebrated 3-year-olds contesting the Belmont Stakes, the so-called "test of the champion."

With neither the Kentucky Derby nor Preakness winner in the field today at Belmont Park, the third jewel of the Triple Crown appears a lackluster affair. At first glance, no "champion" seems evident.

But horse racing is a marvelously unpredictable sport, the thoroughbred a continually evolving athlete. Racing creates champions, and lackluster fields sometimes produce unpolished gems.

That could be the saving grace of this, the 132nd running of the oldest of the Triple Crown races.

"So far, these horses have taken turns beating each other," said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Impeachment, the only Belmont horse to run in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

"Who's to say the best 3-year-old is not running in this race? By the end of the year, we might consider this the best field of them all."

Carl Nafzger, trainer of the Belmont entrant Unshaded, jumped to the defense of this race and the Triple Crown in general.

"This is a great Triple Crown. What's wrong with it?" Nafzger said. "We've got a great bunch of 3-year-olds this year. You've got good horses running against each other.

"Let's wait and see what happens before we dismiss this bunch. Let's wait and see how a horse like Impeachment does against older horses later in the year."

That Nafzger chose Impeachment for the example speaks volumes about the Belmont.

After Fusaichi Pegasus dominated the Kentucky Derby, the racing world anointed him the next great horse, a near shoo-in for the Triple Crown.

Hold on a minute. Fusaichi Pegasus faltered in the Preakness, finishing a non-threatening second.

But alas, Red Bullet won the Preakness as impressively as Fusaichi Pegasus had won the Derby. So Red Bullet became the next great horse, even though he had skipped the Derby, the country's defining race for 3-year-old greatness.

Fusaichi Pegasus's defeat in the Preakness meant that for the first time in four years the Belmont would not shimmer with the excitement of a possible Triple Crown winner.

Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and Charismatic in 1999 swept into New York after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

But in their bids to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, each failed in the final leg here at historic Belmont.

With no Triple Crown on the line, the hope for the Belmont became the showdown between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners. But Fusaichi Pegasus was lost to the Belmont when he sustained a minor hoof injury.

And Red Bullet was withdrawn when his owner and trainer decided that their lightly raced colt needed a rest.

Their absence helped swell the field to 11 horses, all undistinguished - so far. None has won a Grade I race. Only one won his last race. That was Postponed, who captured the Peter Pan Stakes two weeks ago at Belmont.

He could provide Jinny Vance and Laddie Dance their second straight Belmont conquest. They own Postponed as well as Lemon Drop Kid, last year's Belmont winner. Vance and Dance, who are married, own Taylor's Purchase Farm in Sparks in Baltimore County.

"I think Lemon Drop is special, but from the first day I saw Postponed as a yearling, I fell in love with him," Dance said.

"I think he can give us another special year."

Vance and Dance bought Postponed as a yearling at Saratoga for $835,000, the most they've ever paid for a horse - "and the most we hope we'll ever have to pay," Dance said.

They purchased Lemon Drop Kid for $200,000. If Postponed wins the Belmont, Lemon Drop Kid could cap a memorable weekend for his Maryland owners. He races here tomorrow in the Brooklyn Handicap.

But to gain the laurels, Postponed would have to defeat Aptitude, the Belmont's morning-line favorite based on his second-place finish in the Derby. And he would have to defeat Impeachment, who finished third in the Derby and Preakness.

Both Aptitude and Impeachment, however, have won only one race. Other Belmont entrants seem equally suspect.

Unshaded is a wild-acting, gelded son of Unbridled who has trouble staying focused in his races. Wheelaway is a lightly raced colt, also by Unbridled, whose claim to fame is a victory in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Curule is another of the Dubai-based Godolphin Racing's horses of which Americans know little. Commendable finished 17th in the Derby.

Globalize must prove he's recovered from a cut on his left hind leg that required six stitches.

Two days before the Kentucky Derby. Globalize tried to bite his pony, and his pony, sick and tired of the 3-year-old's antics, kicked him in the leg.

It's been that kind of a Triple Crown - so far.

Belmont Stakes

What: 132nd Belmont Stakes

Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.

When: Today, post time 5:27 p.m.

TV: Ch. 2, 4:30 p.m.

Distance: 1 1/2 miles

Purse: $1 millionRAWNAME:z2094201_23-39-38.txt

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