NEW YORK (AP) - Orb and Oxbow. Oxbow and Orb. Anyway you draw it up, there will not be a Triple Crown on the line in the $1 million Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
Even without a Triple try, the Belmont is still an intriguing race. It matches Kentucky Derby winner Orb against Preakness winner Oxbow, Todd Pletcher sending out a record five horses and one of the largest fields in the 145-year history of a race also known as the "Test of the Champion."
So let's not overanalyze the rematch because there are many more story lines that will unfold when the 14-horse field begins its 1½ -mile run around Belmont Park on what could be a wet track following 24 hours of rain.
Orb is looking to bounce back after his fourth-place finish in the Preakness, following his 2½ -length win in the Derby. Oxbow is out to show his wire-to-wire Preakness win was not a fluke.
Todd Pletcher's quintet includes the filly Unlimited Budget, with Rosie Napravnik looking to become the second female jockey to win a Triple Crown race. Up-and-coming Freedom Child joins the Triple Crown fray for the first time off his 13¼ -length romp in the Peter Pan Stakes four weeks ago over a sloppy track at Belmont Park. And Kenny McPeek, who won the 2002 Belmont with Sarava at record odds of 70-1, is back again with 30-1 shot Frac Daddy.
"There's probably a few in there that don't figure, but they've got just as much license to run as Orb or Oxbow or anybody else," said Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, whose Derby winner is the 3-1 morning-line favorite. "I'm not going to worry about because it makes this a good, solid field."
Revolutionary is the second choice at 9-2, with Oxbow third at 5-1 and Unlimited Budget and Freedom Child each at 8-1 in the field of 14 - the largest since 1996 and one shy of the record set in 1983.
Weather could be a factor. A steady rain began early Friday and was expected to continue through Saturday morning, with as much as 3 inches predicted by the National Weather Service. The track was rolled and sealed after Thursday's races to compress the dirt so water doesn't seep into the racing surface.
If the track comes up wet, Orb, Golden Soul and Revolutionary - the first three finishers in the Derby run over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs - should be able to deal with it. So, too, should Freedom Child.
"I like what I'm seeing," said Freedom Child's trainer Tom Albertrani. "I'm getting all the good signs. He couldn't be doing any better."
The last Belmont run over the slop was two years ago when 24-1 long shot Ruler On Ice won. It also was the most recent Derby winner vs. Preakness winner matchup, with Preakness winner Shackleford fifth and Derby winner Animal Kingdom sixth.
In addition to Frac Daddy, there are few other long shots worth a look in 20-1 Will Take Charge and 15-1 Palace Malice.
D. Wayne Lukas will be out to win his 15th Triple Crown race with Oxbow, and he also trains Will Take Charge. The big colt may not have the nifty moves of some of his rivals, but Lukas says once he builds up a head of steam "he's dangerous."
Palace Malice is among Pletcher's squad - the others are the filly, Revolutionary, Overanalyze and Midnight Taboo. Despite only one win in seven starts, Palace Malice, the son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, looks to have the potential to win at the top level.
"He's always impressed us in his training, and he's shown hints of that in some of his races although he hasn't completely followed through and won a big race that we feel like he's capable of doing," said Pletcher. "We think he's well meant for this race."
The Belmont is known as a rider's race because it takes a savvy jockey familiar with the lay of the land to navigate the nation's only 1½ -mile oval. Belmont Park is like the Grand Canyon of racetracks, a much wider track than Churchill Downs or Pimlico, with long, sweeping turns.
It's also deceiving. Judging distance can be difficult. For example, at the top of the turn at Belmont, there's still a half mile left in the race. At other tracks, there's only a quarter mile to go.
Gary Stevens, who will be aboard Oxbow, knows all about the intricacies of the track. In 1997, he moved too soon aboard Silver Charm and had his Triple Crown spoiled by Touch Gold. A year later, he spoiled Real Quiet's Triple bid when Kent Desormeaux moved too early and Stevens' Victory Gallop won by a nose.
"''Belmont Park is like the ocean," said the recently unretired Stevens. "You can have a lot of fun in it, but it can hurt you if you don't respect it.
"It's a tricky place. It may look simple, but it's not simple. I think the best horse usually wins the Belmont, other than jockey error."
In the Preakness, Oxbow took charge from the start, set a slow pace and had enough left to win by 1¾ lengths. He should have plenty of company if he decides to gun for the lead on Saturday.
Look for Freedom Child, Frac Daddy and Palace Malice to give chase, with Orb, Golden Soul and Revolutionary back in the pack, most likely behind the mid-packers such as Unlimited Budget, Overanalyze and Will Take Charge. As the leaders move into the far turn, the real race riding should begin, with jockeys trying to pick the precise moment to ask their horse for a winning move.
Pletcher's Rags to Riches became the first filly in 102 years to win the Belmont in 2007. He believes any of his starters has a chance depending on how the race unfolds.
"The Belmont can be a very demanding race," he said. "Pace was a factor in both the Derby and Preakness and it'll dictate who is going to do what. A slower pace will allow some of these horses to run a little further and a fast pace will really expose some of them."
Despite the absence of a Triple Crown attempt, there's still a lot riding on the outcome. Says New Yorker Mike Repole, who owns Unlimited Budget, Overanalyze and Midnight Taboo: "Some owners get Kentucky Derby fever. I get Belmont Stakes fever."
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