Triple Crown season lost steam unusually early this year when none of the top finishers in the Kentucky Derby went on to run in the Preakness.
But this is a familiar conundrum for the Belmont Stakes, where organizers are used to waiting anxiously for the next Triple Crown candidate. In the years when no such contender emerges, the race invariably loses appeal for the casual fan. It’s still an important event for the thoroughbred racing industry, especially given the packed undercard. There’s just no easy hook for the viewer who only perks up for super horses such as American Pharoah or Justify.
In the absence of such a star, here are five stories to watch heading into the final leg of the Triple Crown on June 8.
Is there any reason for a casual sports fan to watch the 2019 Belmont Stakes?
Might as well jump right to the elephant in this room. The Belmont always holds some fascination because it presents a unique endurance test for the top 3-year-old horses in the country. None of them have ever raced over 1½ miles and most of them never will again.
That’s still not much of a hook for those outside the bubble. So in the absence of a potential Triple Crown winner, is there some other narrative carryover from the Derby or Preakness?
The controversial finish to the Derby — where Country House was handed victory after Maximum Security was disqualified for swerving into the paths of other contenders — generated fierce national debate. But neither horse showed up for a rematch in Baltimore and neither will run in New York next weekend. So the intrigue and squabbling did little to build drama for the remainder of the Triple Crown series.
We saw evidence of waning interest in television ratings for the Preakness, which were down about 21 percent nationally compared to 2018.
The Preakness produced a worthy champion in War of Will, one of the horses impeded by Maximum Security in the Derby. But even as he received his winner’s blanket in Baltimore, viewers seemed more smitten with the riderless Bodexpress, who’d run the race after dumping jockey John Velazquez at the starting gate.
Will the Belmont offer us another dose of weird? Perhaps that’s the reason to continue watching the most askew Triple Crown series in recent memory.
Can War of Will establish himself as the king of this class?
The Mark Casse-trained colt lost his chance at a Triple Crown as soon as Maximum Security halted his momentum in the Derby.
But he showed no ill effects from that rugged race as he beat a large (and largely fresh) field in the Preakness. Casse said all along that his horse should not be written off because of a dud outing in the Louisiana Derby. And War of Will made his trainer sound like a sage.
Could he follow in the hoof prints of past Preakness champions such as Point Given and Curlin, who failed to win the Derby but ran on to Hall of Fame careers? A win in the Belmont would give him serious momentum.
Casse is not one to keep his horses waiting in barn, so if War of Will has that kind of enduring talent, he’ll probably get the chance to prove it.
Can Bill Mott claim another leg of the Triple Crown with a different horse?
Mott, a Hall of Fame trainer, saddled two horses for the Derby. Almost no one thought Country House was the one we’d be talking about after the finish.
Tacitus, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby and the Wood Memorial, was supposed to be the star.
He actually ran well in the Derby, moving up to third after Maximum Security was disqualified, but he quickly became an afterthought in the tumult.
The morning after, Mott spoke with obvious enthusiasm about bringing Tacitus back for the Belmont. Now, he’ll have a chance to convince racing fans he was really the best 3-year-old in his barn all along.
Tacitus’ versatility and steady improvement marked him as potentially the best 3-year-old in this class heading into the Derby, and he could be favored over War of Will in the Belmont.
Which other returners from the Derby and Preakness could snatch the race?
Japanese qualifier Master Fencer has generated interest because of his surprise sixth-place finish in the Derby and his potential to pull international betting revenue into the Belmont. Lani was the last Japanese horse to run the third leg of the Triple Crown, and he finished third.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will try to win his fourth Belmont Stakes with 18th-place Derby finisher Spinoff. It would be easy to dismiss this colt, who never seemed comfortable on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs, but Pletcher has always excelled at timing his preparations for the Belmont.
Fourteenth-place Derby finisher Tax and Preakness runner-up Everfast are also expected in the field. New York-based Tax has the better overall resume, highlighted by his runner-up finish in the Wood Memorial and his victory in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct.
Is the Belmont Stakes the best race on the Belmont card?
This is the easiest question to answer: no.
The $1.2 million Metropolitan Handicap is stocked with accomplished older horses such as Thunder Snow, Coal Front, Mitole, McKinzie, Firenze Fire and Promises Fulfilled.
Will any of those names register for a national audience? Probably not, and that’s an enduring dilemma the sport faces as promoters attempt to generate interest outside the Triple Crown series. The Belmont card offers the best top-to-bottom day of racing in North America outside the Breeders’ Cup. But with no Triple Crown on the line, it’s largely a regional and industry event.
Just know that if you’re looking for the most interesting race to bet and watch June 8, look to the undercard.