After staging one of the most dramatic finishes in any Triple Crown race of recent years, Chief's Crown and Tank's Prospect face each other again Saturday in the 117th running of the Belmont Stakes.
Their rematch (5:40 p.m. post time, WDVM-TV-9) finally should prove who the best horse in the Preakness really was. Tank's Prospect won the photo finish at Pimlico, but he got a superb ground-saving ride from jockey Pat Day. Don MacBeth was widely criticized for making a premature move aboard Chief's Crown and, as a result, lost the riding assignment in the Belmont.
Did Chief's Crown weaken at the end of the Preakness because MacBeth had moved too soon, or because he is not a true classic horse and he was running out of gas? The 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont should answer that question unambiguously.
Chief's Crown earned the championship of his generation as a 2-year-old by beating Tank's Prospect by less than a length last fall. The Belmont could determine which (if either) of them becomes the champion 3-year-old.
Chief's Crown has been a paragon of consistency throughout his career, giving a solid, workmanlike performance in every race, but his reputation has declined since his losses in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Tank's Prospect, by contrast, has been the quintessential in-and-outer, scoring powerful victories in the Preakness and the Arkansas Derby while being trounced in other stakes.
The outcome of their confrontation Saturday may be heavily influenced by the presence of a horse who has little chance to win: Eternal Prince. The speedball was a surprise entrant in the Belmont field Thursday, but trainer Butch Lenzini said this morning, "I don't know if he's going to run. There is some indecision about starting the colt. As of right now, it's up in the air."
If Eternal Prince does go, he surely will be the pacesetter, and he will create the same problem for Chief's Crown that he did at Pimlico. He could lure Chief's Crown into making an early challenge and get him involved in a speed duel that helps the chances of the stretch-runners in the field. Not surprisingly, the trainer of Tank's Prospect, Wayne Lukas, said, "I think it's great that Eternal Prince dropped into the (entry) box."
If Lenzini and owner Brian Hurst decide Saturday to scratch Eternal Prince, the task of Chief's Crown would be considerably simplified. He might be able to control the pace all the way, as Swale did last year.
In the 11-horse field, there are six other horses with at least an outside chance of winning: Fast Account, El Basco, Important Business, Cutlass Reality, Stephan's Odyssey and Creme Fraiche.
The last two will get heavy support from the expected crowd of 40,000 because they are part of an entry trained by Woody Stephens. The Hall of Fame horseman is trying to make history by winning the Belmont a fourth straight time, after saddling Conquistador Cielo in 1982, Caveat in 1983 and Swale in 1984.
Asked for the secret of his success in this race, Stephens said, "I think I had the best horse the last three years." That usually is the best way to win the Belmont.