ELMONT, N.Y. - The morning after the Kentucky Derby, Bobby Frankel, the Hall of Fame trainer, said that Giacomo's 50-1 victory would open the floodgates of the Derby for years to come. After that implausible outcome, Frankel reasoned, nobody would ever think his horse didn't belong.
The floodgates opened sooner than Frankel expected.
Two weeks after the Derby, the Preakness attracted its first full field of 14 horses in 13 years. And now, three weeks after the Preakness, the Belmont apparently won't reach its maximum of 16, but 11 horses are expected for the $1 million race Saturday at Belmont Park.
It's not the number that's surprising; the Belmont often features fields of 10 or more. It's the quality that raises eyebrows. Six of the prospective entrants - more than half the field - have never won a stakes race.
If there's luster on this final jewel of the Triple Crown, then it's the rematch between Afleet Alex, remarkable winner of the Preakness, and Giacomo, long-shot winner of the Derby. That's the Belmont's only story line, but even John Shirreffs, trainer of Giacomo, isn't buying it.
"I've never really thought about the Belmont that way," Shirreffs said. "There is still a lot more racing left this year after the Belmont."
Giacomo and Afleet Alex are by far the most accomplished of the prospective Belmont starters. Entries will be taken and post positions drawn today at this majestic track on Long Island within sight of Manhattan.
Afleet Alex has emerged as the top 3-year-old with seven wins in 11 races and earnings of $2,165,800. His near-miraculous recovery from a collision on the final turn in the Preakness at Pimlico - combined with the touching stories of his human connections - have transformed the people-loving horse into a fan favorite.
Giacomo remains without widespread respect or a large following despite his come-from-behind victory in the Derby and third-place finish in the Preakness. In nine starts, he has won only twice - the Derby and a maiden race.
If Giacomo can win the country's biggest race after having won only a maiden race, then why can't Nolan's Cat win the Belmont after having never won any race, or A.P. Arrow, Chekhov and Watchmon after only winning a maiden race, or Indy Storm and Reverberate after winning only a maiden and allowance race?
New York trainer Nick Zito, who started five horses in the Derby and three in the Preakness - matching records for starters by a trainer - is back with three for the Belmont. That would equal another mark. Trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons started three in 1936 - and won with Granville.
Zito's undistinguished threesome is Andromeda's Hero, Indy Storm and Pinpoint. Elected this year to racing's Hall of Fame, Zito has started already to diffuse any criticism with this quip: "With strangles, with herpes and Iraq, what's the big deal if I run three horses in this race?"
Strangles and herpes are equine diseases that have flared recently at various tracks. The best finish of Zito's eight horses in the first two legs of the Triple Crown was Sun King's fourth in the Preakness.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, already enshrined in the Hall of Fame, plans on starting a maiden winner in the Belmont. A.P. Arrow has won one of three races. A son of A.P. Indy, who won this race in 1992, the chestnut colt will relish the Belmont's 1 1/2 miles, Lukas said.
"The game changes so much when you get here," said Lukas, who recruited Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey. "It's a new arena. We never get a chance to practice a mile and a half."
Prospective Belmont field
Horse Trainer Jockey Last race
Afleet Alex Tim Ritchey Jeremy Rose 1st Preakness Andromeda's Hero Nick Zito Rafael Bejarano 8th Kentucky Derby A.P. Arrow D. Wayne Lukas Jerry Bailey 1st Churchill Downs maiden Chekhov Patrick Biancone Gary Stevens 4th Peter Pan
Pinpoint Nick Zito John Velazquez 1st Sir Barton Reverberate Sal Russo Jose Santos 2nd Peter Pan Southern Africa Mike Puhich Jon Court 1st Lone Star Derby Watchmon Patrick Reynolds Javier Castellano 2nd Belmont allowance
At a glance
What: 137th Belmont Stakes
Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.
When: Saturday, post time 6:38 p.m.
Purse: $1 million
Distance: 1 1/2 miles
TV: Chs. 11, 4, 5:30-7 p.m.