ELMONT, N.Y., JUNE 8 -- Unbridled will race without Lasix in the Belmont Stakes Saturday and, as a result, the anti-bleeding medication has been the object of more attention here than the horses themselves.
Will a drug-free Unbridled be able to deliver the same powerful performance that carried him to a victory in the Kentucky Derby and a second-place finish in the Preakness?
The colt's situation evokes memories of Alysheba, who lost his bid for glory in the 1987 Belmont when he tried to race without the medication. Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Unbridled, seems convinced his colt will be able to do it, saying that by altering the horse's diet he will be able to duplicate the effects of Lasix.
Despite all the obsession with pharmacology here, it is possible Unbridled's main problem in the Belmont will be a more conventional one -- i.e., another horse. He has to contend with the front-running speed of Thirty Six Red.
Five weeks ago, Thirty Six Red was one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby, but he got involved in the early battle that took a toll on all of the speed horses, and finished 22 lengths behind Unbridled. Trainer Nick Zito wasn't thinking seriously about the longer Belmont Stakes until other speed horses defected.
"We were going to skip it," Zito said, "but when Dotsero dropped out and Mister Frisky dropped out, we were the lone speed, and that's always dangerous no matter how far you go."
Even though the Belmont always attracts plodders who are supposedly favored by the 1 1/2-mile distance, this race is won by speed horses more frequently than the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
Not only is Unbridled a habitual stretch-runner, but the rest of the nine-horse field is heavily populated by plodders -- Yonder, Video Ranger, Country Day. Jockey Mike Smith will be able to set a slow pace with Thirty Six Red, and if he gets a comfortable lead, Zito says he has no concerns about the distance. "His pedigree is terrific," the trainer said. "He's by Slew o' Gold out of a Stage Door Johnny mare. Believe me, he'll get the distance."
There is only one other challenger in this weak field with a plausible chance of upsetting the favorite, and he merits attention largely because he is an unknown quantity: Go And Go. The colt is based in Ireland, but last fall he came across the Atlantic to win the Laurel Futurity in very fast time.
Trainer Dermot Weld said every move he has made with Go And Go this year has been designed to prepare him for today's race. "We planned on this after he won the Futurity last year," Weld said. "We decided on the Belmont rather than the Kentucky Derby for two reasons. It's easier to ship to New York and I think the distance of the Belmont will suit him better."
When Nafzger was asked whom Unbridled had to fear, he said: "I love Go And Go. He's shipping in and European horses seem to do well the first time after shipping over."
Even if Unbridled loses the Belmont, he will still be a big winner. Because Summer Squall, the Preakness victor, isn't running today, Unbridled has virtually clinched the $1 million bonus that goes to the horse who performs best throughout the Triple Crown series. Unbridled can finish last and earn more than the $411,600 that the winner will collect -- an anomaly that has provoked widespread criticism.
However, Nafzger will hardly be happy if he were to win the $1 million by losing this race. Even though Thirty Six Red's speed could enable him to beat Unbridled legitimately, and Go And Go may have the credentials to deliver a top performance, the racing world will interpret an upset in only one way: He couldn't run without Lasix.