NEW YORK (AP) – Todd Pletcher always had high expectations for Dunkirk.

The gray colt purchased for $3.7 million in 2007 has a chance to vindicate his trainer on Saturday in the $1 million Belmont Stakes.

Dunkirk showed enough flashes of talent to be considered one of top contenders heading into the Kentucky Derby, sent off the 5-1 second choice in only his fourth race.

In the slop at Churchill Downs, Dunkirk got off to a poor start and finished 11th.

Pletcher elected to skip the Preakness and have Dunkirk wait for the Belmont. Pletcher stands by that decision.

“He is training very well,” Pletcher said. “He’s put on some weight since the Derby. I stand by the fact he’s a very high-quality horse.”

Dunkirk is the 4-1 third choice from post No. 2.

in the 10-horse field. John Velazquez will ride Dunkirk for the first time.

Dunkirk will try to follow a pattern that has worked well in recent years: run in the Derby, skip the Preakness and win the Belmont. That was the course taken by Commendable (2000), Empire Maker (2003), Birdstone (2004) and Jazil (2006).

The nation’s top trainer from 2004-07, Pletcher got his lone Triple Crown victory in the 2007 Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches.

REMEMBERING RENE: Injured jockey Rene Douglas will be in the hearts and minds of the riders competing in the Belmont, who will join others across the country in a moment of tribute for Douglas and his fellow injured riders at approximately 4:15 p.m on Saturday.

Douglas went down in a spill May 23 at Arlington Park, suffering a spinal cord injury. He has not regained feeling in his legs. Douglas won the 1996 Belmont aboard Editor’s Note.

As part of the tribute, all active riders are asked to contribute to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. The New York Racing Association will donate $5,000 to the fund with Ron Turcotte, Triple Crown winner Secretariat’s rider, accepting the gift in a winner’s circle presentation.

Fans who wish to contribute can visit the fund’s Web site for more information. Direct donations for Douglas’ rehabilitation can be made to Citibank, 539 N. Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611.

HIRSCH MEMORIAL: The public is invited to the Joe Hirsch tribute service Friday starting at 10:30 a.m. in Belmont’s North Shore Terrace on the fourth floor of the clubhouse.

The dean of turf writers, Hirsch was the columnist for the “Daily Racing Form” for 50 years. He died Jan. 9 at age 80 following a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease.

BUSY BOREL: Defying tradition, Calvin Borel does not have a scheduled mount at Belmont Park this week prior to the Belmont.

Borel will try to pull off an unprecedented personal Triple Crown, winning all three legs of the series in one year on different horses. He was aboard Mine That Bird for the 50-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby before riding the filly Rachel Alexandra to victory in the Preakness.

With Rachel Alexandra not running in the Belmont, Borel hopped back on Mine That Bird.

Even though he is in town all week, Borel has no plans to ride prior to the Belmont. Many jockeys like to have acclimating races at tracks where they do not usually compete. Borel, based in Kentucky, doesn’t feel the need to get reacquainted with Belmont’s unique 11/2-mile oval.

“I’ve ridden there lots of times,” Borel said. “It’s like any track. You just turn left.”

Even though he is not riding, Borel is in the midst of a busy week.

He has already taped a segment with David Letterman that airs Friday night, and on Thursday morning, he’ll join the Mine That Bird team – trainer Chip Woolley and owners Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach – to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

AP-ES-06-03-09 1551EDT

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