Belmont gate to be packed with intrigue

BELMONT, N.Y. — BELMONT, N.Y. -- The last time a horse who was unraced as a 2-year-old won the Belmont Stakes was 1918. You can look it up. But Johren, who won that day, could have company by tonight if Curlin can stand up to the punishing, 1 1/2 -mile "Test of the Champion."

Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen, took his colt to the main Belmont Park track at 6:30 a.m. yesterday for his last warm-up for the Grade I, $1 million endurance test. Then, with prayer beads attached, but hidden from view on his belt, he told a large crowd of reporters that he's taking nothing for granted.


"Curlin has shown a special ability to make adjustments and overcome," Asmussen said. "But a quarter mile added to the distance of the Kentucky Derby seems extreme. And we won't know the answer to what any of these horses can do until late [today]."

The Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown series, which will be run at 6:25 this evening, has shaped up as one of fascination. It conjures a plethora of questions and promises the possibility of historic significance.


Do Curlin, the Preakness winner and third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, and Hard Spun, who finished second in the Derby and third in the Preakness, have enough stamina to run one more brilliant race?

Can a filly named Rags to Riches become the first in 102 years to beat the colts in America's longest, toughest race and become only the third filly in history to win?

Will the designer Fiji water that Tiago, the Santa Anita Derby winner, drinks daily be enough to fuel him to join his brother, Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, to victory in a Classic race?

Does the fact ImawildandcrazyGuy finished a strong fourth in the Derby and then galloped out another quarter mile have real significance? Will the gradual improvement of Slew's Tizzy, the Lone Star Derby winner, be enough to prepare him to take his biggest step forward?

And are C P West's connections right to be encouraged by their horse's fourth-place finish in the Preakness?

What is known for sure is that while the field is strong, Curlin, Hard Spun and Rags to Riches are three tough, valiant customers.

Curlin is the boxer who won't stay down, Hard Spun the distance runner who won't stop running and Rags to Riches the tomboy who won't be told to know her place.

Hard Spun set a pace in the Derby that would have won most of the time on the first Saturday in May, only to be caught by Street Sense, who ran the last quarter mile in an incredibly fast 24 2/5 seconds. In the Preakness, Curlin stumbled out of the gate and was passed by Street Sense, but still rallied into a head-to-head duel that ended in a head-bob victory that tied the official race record.


"Pace makes the race," Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones, has said time and again this week. "Curlin and Street Sense, with the help of Hard Spun, had paces that made them very effective. Going a mile and a half, you're not going to see half-miles in 45 or 46 seconds, or three-quarters in 1:09 and change. That's out of the question."

And Rags to Riches let everyone know she was a player when she rallied from seventh by going five-wide around two turns to win the Grade I Las Virgenes by three-quarters of a length last February.

"I can't tell you what Rags to Riches will do," said Asmussen of the filly who will break from the far outside in the No. 7 post. "But I can tell you I'm curious about her. ... I'm eager to see how she stacks up against the best colts in the country.''

Yet another question. Everyone is curious about something. Let the race begin.

Notes -- Laurel Park-based Dove Houghton is the trainer of record for four horses on the Belmont Stakes undercard today. Houghton, who worked as an assistant trainer for Tony Dutrow for six years before going on her own, is filling in for her former boss through next Saturday while he serves a 14-day suspension for a positive drug test on one of his horses at Delaware Park. "I'm excited," Houghton said. "I'm excited to see what they do. And this has been a great learning experience for me. I've learned I have to have great people in place in management positions and that the show must go on." Among the horses Houghton will send to post is Bill Place, a Laurel Park claimer last winter who turned into a Grade III winner in the Bay Shore Stakes April 7. He'll be among a strong, 10-horse field of sprinters in the $250,000, Grade II Woody Stephens Stakes that also includes the Michael Trombetta-trained Street Magician. ... Better Talk Now, the nationally known 8-year-old based At Fair Hill, will run in the Grade I Manhattan just before the Belmont Stakes. ... ESPN will televise Belmont races from noon to 5 p.m., when ABC takes over for a two-hour telecast.