Elmont, N.Y. -- Trainer Dan Peitz watches Steppenwolfer, his big, gray 3-year-old, approach from the other end of the shedrow and remembers how he had mapped out plans for his horse the morning after the Kentucky Derby.
"I said I was skipping the Preakness so my horse could be ready and waiting with fresh legs for Barbaro at the Belmont," Peitz said. "I really wanted to be the bad guy to quiet the 120,000 fans who would be here hoping for a Triple Crown. I really wanted to see Barbaro here."
Now, as he prepares to run Steppenwolfer in the 138th Belmont Stakes without Barbaro, who is recovering from the broken right rear leg he sustained in the Preakness, Peitz has been forced to change his game plan.
"I'd really like to get off the Killer B thing," he said, referring to the dominating victories of Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby by 6 1/2 lengths, and Bernardini, who won the Preakness by 5 1/4 .
"My horse's name doesn't start with B. In this field are there any other B's besides Bluegrass Cat that we have to beat?"
Bluegrass Cat is the morning line favorite for today's Belmont that goes to post this evening at 6:33 with a competitive, but low-key, 12-horse field. It is the first time since 2000 the Belmont has run without the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness winner and it is only the third time it has happened in 36 years.
The absence of Barbaro is even more difficult to absorb, given almost everyone expected this Belmont to be a coronation for the star 3-year-old who wowed with his crushing victory in the Derby. He emerged from Louisville as the horse that was supposed to end a 28-year drought between Triple Crown winners.
Instead, racing sustained a crushing blow at the Preakness when Barbaro broke down within 100 yards of the starting gate and set off a national outpouring of sympathy.
Now, the Belmont, the third race in the Triple Crown, which is also without Preakness winner Bernardini because his trainer decided to freshen him for races later this summer, goes off with little pizzazz. It is a fact that leaves a number of trainers with horses in the field mystified.
"Every year it seems you hear the 3-year-old crop is weak," Peitz said. "But this year was different. Before the Derby, people were talking about how deep the 3-year-old crop was. They said it was pretty deep. Then we lose the best 3-year-old, Barbaro, and all at once it's not deep anymore. I don't get it."
Trainer Bob Baffert, who brings Wood Memorial winner Bob and John to the race, doesn't get it, either. In fact, he believes Barbaro's presence is still being felt, but in a positive way.
"I think more people are interested in this race because of Barbaro," he said. "The Derby winner is always endeared by the American public and we saw that with the reaction people have had to his injury. I've had people who don't even care about racing ask me how Barbaro is doing. People have seen that horses can be saved. I think it has created more interest and more people will be interested in what happens in this race.
"You know it is going to be a very competitive race. The only difference is it won't have Barbaro and a Triple Crown on the line. But there are a lot of tough horses in this race."
No one is quite sure what will happen over 1 1/2 miles today. Few trainers know if their horses can last. No one knows if there will be enough speed in the race for a "deep" closer like Jazil or enough for a not-so-deep closer like Steppenwolfer to beat everyone else to the finish.
Or if trainer Todd Pletcher's Bluegrass Cat or Sunriver can break Pletcher's 0-for-19 run in Triple Crown races. No one knows if Barbaro jockey Edgar Prado can work his magic on Deputy Glitters, who he will be riding for the first time. There seems to be no end to the questions.
But Tony Finley, the managing partner of West Point Stable, which has High Finance, a horse who has never won a stakes race and never gone two-turns, let alone 1 1/2 miles, is as sure as he can be that his horse will have the lead at the start of the race.
"I think we're the fastest horse and that we'll be on the lead," Finley said. "I don't think anyone is going to risk cooking themselves [going too fast early]. It could set up well for us. But it is a very intriguing race, though it doesn't have the glamour it could have had if Barbaro was here." email@example.com
The field for today's Belmont Stakes, with post positions, jockeys, trainers and morning line:
PP Horse Jockey Trainer Odds
1. Platinum Couple J.Espinoza Lostritto 30-1
2. Sunriver Bejarano Pletcher 4-1
3. Hemingway's Key Rose Zito 15-1
4. Bob and John Gomez Baffert 5-1
5. High Finance Coa Violette 12-1
6. Oh So Awesome Smith Jerkens 20-1
7. Deputy Glitters Prado Albertrani 15-1
8. Jazil Jara McLaughlin 10-1
9. Bluegrass Cat Velazquez Pletcher 3-1
10. Double Galore Luzzi Kwon Cho 30-1
11. Steppenwolfer Albarado Peitz 9-2
12. Sacred Light V.Espinoza Hofmans 15-1