ELMONT, N.Y. — After another difficult morning working in the starting gate, third-place Preakness finisher Social Inclusion will not run in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
"I don't want to hurt the horse," owner Ron Sanchez said as he watched Social Inclusion take a bath Wednesday morning. "There's no good reason to put him in that gate in front of 140,000 people."
The speedy colt will instead run in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens, earlier on Saturday's race card. The key difference, Sanchez said, is that the Woody Stephens will start on the far side of the track, away from the crowd.
"It's going to be better for him," he said. "Obviously, I wanted to run in the Belmont. But sometimes, it's not about me. It has to be about him."
Social Inclusion's absence could significantly alter the tactical outlook for California Chrome as he pursues the first Triple Crown since 1978. Sanchez's horse seemed the likeliest to push a fast early pace and that could have lured California Chrome to accelerate too early for a 1 ½-mile race. It's the trap Smarty Jones fell into when he narrowly lost his Triple Crown shot in the 2004 Belmont.
Without Social Inclusion in the race, California Chrome might be able to sit on or near the lead without running too fast and thus reserve energy for the long stretch drive.
"That's what I would do," Sanchez said.
He hopes Social Inclusion will mature past his difficulties with the gate and have another shot at California Chrome later in the year. "But I hope he wins the Triple Crown," Sanchez said.
California Chrome and Ride On Curlin will run against each other for the third time in five weeks Saturday, and one byproduct of their rivalry is a growing kinship between the connections of each horse.
The horses have different personalities, which were on display Wednesday morning as they washed off side by side outside Barn 26 at Belmont Park. Where California Chrome often pauses serenely and watches his admirers, Ride On Curlin is more apt to gnash his teeth and whip his head about.
"He's powerful, and he's going to let you know who's boss sometimes," said exercise rider Bryan Beccia. "When he drops one ear, I know he's going to do something."
There is no such feistiness between the camps. They palled around as stall neighbors before the Preakness. And earlier this week, they went into Manhattan to take in the sights together.
"Oh yeah, they're good people," Ride On Curlin trainer Billy Gowan said. "They're fun to be around."
As the horses washed off Wednesday, California Chrome's exercise rider, Willie Delgado, teased Gowan about which man would be more fit to ascend the stairs in the Belmont grandstand.
"Not me," Delgado said with a laugh. "I got bad knees."
The on-track rivalry is real — Ride On Curlin was the horse trying to chase California Chrome down in the Preakness. But you get the sense that if Gowan can't win, he'd like to see Chrome make history.
"They've got a real nice horse too," he said.
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