Sun, Jun 11, 2006 - Page 22 News List

Belmont Stakes a test of leftovers as champions vanish

AP , NEW YORK

The Kentucky Derby winner is recovering from a life-threatening injury at a hospital in Pennsylvania, and the Preakness winner will remain in his barn for today's 138th Belmont Stakes.

Without Barbaro and Bernardini, the final leg of the Triple Crown will be anything but a "Test of the Champion."

"It's the test of the leftovers," trainer Bob Baffert joked Friday morning, ``I mean champions.''

For the first time in years, there's little to get excited about heading into the 2.4km Belmont. No Triple Crown try, no rivalries, no pizazz.

And probably not many people showing up, either.

"Clearly, it's not as exciting when there isn't a Triple Crown prospect, but that doesn't mean I want to win the Belmont any less," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "For us, that would be exciting."

Pletcher has the two favorites in his bid to win his first Triple Crown race and end an 0-for-19 records. The nation's top trainer sends out Bluegrass Cat, the 3-1 morning line choice, and Sunriver, the 4-1 second choice.

The field of 12 3-year-olds has five horses who ran in the Derby, including 2-3-4 finishers Bluegrass Cat, Steppenwolfer and Jazil (dead heat with Brother Derek). Two Preakness starters are entered, too, including third-place finisher Hemingway's Key.

"I think it's a competitive field, an interesting field," was the best Hemingway Key's trainer Nick Zito could muster about a race he's won once -- with Birdstone in 2004 -- and finished second six times.

This Triple Crown season fell apart at the start of the Preakness with Barbaro's horrifying breakdown. It has racing fans caring less about the Belmont and more about the brilliant colt's chances of survival.

To that end, ABC Sports plans several reports on Barbaro's condition during its telecast of the race.

"A lot of people will be following and tuning in to see the update on Barbaro," Baffert predicted. "It's a good story for racing because it shows how modern medicine has updated everything."

The race itself offers intriguing betting options, from sticking with horses who have been on the Triple Crown trail to looking for rising stars such as Sunriver, winner of the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 20, or High Finance, an allowance winner at Belmont on May 4.

Dan Peitz, who trains Steppenwolfer, offers his take: "I think the Derby horses are the ones to beat. They've been tested all spring, are seasoned, and now have had some time to catch their breath."

Baffert has one of those Derby horses in Bob and John, who finished 17th after being bumped at the start and was steadied along the backstretch at Churchill Downs. The Belmont may be a better fit for Bob and John, who came to New York in April and won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Baffert's colt is the only Grade 1 winner in the field.

"He's still like a young kid. He's got to have things go his way," Baffert said "He's not a real, big tough kind of horse. He won't take a lot of jostling. He can't stop and go."

Baffert has been part of some of the most electrifying moments in recent Belmont history. He nearly won the Triple Crown three times, with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. But each time, his Derby and Preakness winner fell short in the Belmont.

When he showed up at Belmont Park on Thursday, he looked around and wondered: "Where is everybody? Where's the love?"

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