Minus top steeds, Belmont lacks buzz


NEW YORK (AP) – The Belmont Stakes will be run June 10, the 11th of 13 races at Belmont Park that day. Post time, 6:35 p.m.

The way the field for the final leg of the Triple Crown is shaping up, many more reminders may be necessary to keep sports fans interested: This Belmont will be different, for sure.

For just the third time in 36 years, neither the Kentucky Derby winner nor the Preakness winner will be in the race.

Derby winner Barbaro is convalescing in a hospital in Chester County, Pa., after shattering three bones in his leg at the start of the Preakness. Bernardini, who won the Preakness, will remain in his stall on Belmont day-his owner, Dubai’s Sheik Mohammed, decided to give the colt a breather.

Only a handful of Derby runners will be back for the Belmont after skipping the Preakness, while Sweetnorthernsaint would be the only horse to run in all three Triple Crown races – but he’s no cinch to show up.

The unlikely set of circumstances adds up to a Belmont without buzz: No Triple Crown on the line; no rubber match between the Derby and Preakness winners, no crowds of 100,000-plus.

So how will track announcer Tom Durkin gear up to call the race?

“There’s no question the Belmont doesn’t have the cache had Barbaro or Bernardini been there, but it stands on its own as an important race,” Durkin said.

“But the words I use to describe it will not be as big and will not have a historical ring to them. The list of superlatives I can use will be shortened.”

It’s still early, but a field of 10 appears likely for the 1mile Belmont. Returning after skipping the Preakness are Bluegrass Cat, Steppenwolfer and Jazil, the 2-3-4 finishers in the Derby.

Other Derby runners coming back for the Belmont include Deputy Glitters (eighth), Bob and John (17th) and possibly Point Determined (ninth).

Hemingway’s Key (third in the Preakness) and Peter Pan winner Sunriver also are set, with Sir Barton winner High Cotton and Oh So Awesome under consideration.

Todd Pletcher, looking for his first win in a Triple Crown race, trains Bluegrass Cat, Sunriver and High Cotton.

He says the public may not be pumped, but the trainers are.

“No doubt, when you have a Triple Crown prospect it’s exciting,” Pletcher said. “But that doesn’t mean I want to win the Belmont any less than if Barbaro was here going for the Triple Crown. It’s up there on the list of races we’d like to win. For us, it would be exciting.”

In six of the past nine years, fans flocked to Belmont in record numbers, hoping to witness history – the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978. But each time, the Derby-Preakness winner fell short.

Silver Charm lost by three-quarters of a length in 1997; Real Quiet by a nose the next year, and Charismatic finished third in 1999 after injuring his leg in the stretch. Then it was War Emblem stumbling at the start of the 2002 Belmont, Funny Cide never taking to a wet track the following year and Smarty Jones being caught in the final strides two years ago, a result that left a record crowd of 120,139 in stunned disbelief.

When a Triple Crown is on the line, the crowds swell, averaging about 108,000 from 2002-2004. Last year, just 62,274 turned out to see Preakness winner Afleet Alex beat Derby winner Giacomo.

In 2000, the last time the Belmont was run without the Derby and Preakness winners, Commendable won in front of a crowd of 67,810.

A similar crowd would be welcome this time around.

“While you’d always love to have the Derby winner and Preakness winner in the starting gate for the Belmont, the day itself is big enough to deliver enough box office appeal to attract a big crowd,” New York Racing Association senior vice president Bill Nader said.

“It’s the third jewel in racing’s Triple Crown. It’s a Grade 1. It’s a million-dollar purse. It looks terrific on any horse’s resume. If that’s not enough to bring them in the starting gate, then I’m not sure what else we really need to do.”

The Derby and Preakness certainly have taken a toll on the participants this year. Only three of the 20 horses who ran in the Derby competed in the Preakness – Barbaro, Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint.

Of the nine Preakness starters, only trainer Nick Zito’s Hemingway’s Key is a probable, with trainer Michael Trombetta still undecided about runner-up Sweetnorthernsaint.

This year, it seems trainers are giving their prized 3-year-olds longer layoffs between races. And that may be a reason for the rash of defections along the Triple Crown trail, a grueling challenge of three races over five weeks at different race tracks.

Barbaro came into the Derby with five wins in five starts. His Derby win was just his second race since winning the Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4 – more than three months ago. After just two weeks off, Barbaro shattered three bones in his right hind leg at the start of the Preakness, his racing career over and his life still in jeopardy.

Perhaps that led to the decision to keep Bernardini out of the Belmont. The well-bred colt won the Withers Stakes on April 29, then came back three weeks later to take the Preakness.

“We feel that he climbed the ladder of competition quite quickly,” said James G. Bell of Sheik Mohammed’s Darley Stable. “We believe he deserves a break.”

Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Jazil, would be one of only two trainers to saddle a horse in each of the Triple Crown races. Bernardini’s trainer Tom Albertrani is the other – he also conditions Deputy Glitters.

“We have talked about only three horses coming out of the Derby (and running in the Preakness),” McLaughlin said. “They are not machines … back in two weeks. Now, Bernardini is a top horse, maybe the best 3-year-old in America. If he ran in the Belmont, that would be three races in six weeks.”

AP-ES-05-27-06 1207EDT