Tim Ritchey and John Shirreffs sat on the dais at the post position draw breakfast for the 137th Belmont Stakes on Wednesday morning as not only the trainers of the two favorites to win the third leg of the Triple Crown, but the series's sole survivors.
Twenty horses went to the post May 7 for the Kentucky Derby, and only 50-1 upset winner Giacomo and Afleet Alex, who took the Preakness, are still around from both races to contest the 11/2-mile "Test of the Champion" this Saturday.
The quality of the nine runners lining up to face them is suspect at best. Trainer Nick Zito, recently elected to the National Racing Hall of Fame but looking worn down at the breakfast, is back with three horses after failing to hit the board with five in the Kentucky Derby and three in the Preakness. From there it's a grab bag, with three horses eligible for entry-level allowance conditions, an also-ran on the Southern California circuit who has found success at lesser tracks in Arizona and Texas, and an outright maiden named Nolan's Cat.
With no Funny Cide or Smarty Jones on the cusp of the Triple Crown, and neither Ritchey nor Shirreffs the type to turn a rubber match into a grudge match, the Belmont appears to lack the zing of recent renewals.
"It's hard to have a rivalry this early," Shirreffs said, defusing an offer to say something provocative. "I don't feel the rivalry aspect of it yet."
"Whether it will define a rivalry, who knows?" Ritchey seconded.
The Belmont Park dirt course, at a mile and a half, is the largest in North America. Its wide, sweeping turns greatly reduce the importance of immediately securing an inside position on the first turn and, consequently, a particular post position.
Shirreffs, whose Giacomo took a 2 a.m. flight from California to New York on Wednesday, said during the draw that he would like to see his colt get post position No. 5. When his number came up, impressed master of ceremonies Tom Durkin quipped, "Who do you like in the double today, John?"
After Giacomo finished a non-threatening third in the Preakness, 93/4 lengths behind Afleet Alex, who nearly fell in the stretch, Shirreffs took his horse home and tried to find a reason to skip the Belmont.
The trainer looked for cracks in Giacomo by putting him through two hard workouts in the weeks following the Preakness and the gray colt showed he wanted more, finishing with gusto in both. Finally, Shirreffs felt the tug of responsibility to help maintain the dignity of the historic races and decided to go to New York.
"This is the first time we're in the Belmont Stakes," Shirreffs said. "He ran so well in the Preakness and won the Kentucky Derby and this is part of the series. I can't say, 'Sorry, I'm staying home [at Hollywood Park] for the Swaps [Stakes].' "
Linemaker Eric Donovan installed Afleet Alex as a commanding 6-5 favorite, with Giacomo next at 4-1. Reverberate, second in a fast running of the Peter Pan Stakes on May 28 at Belmont, is third choice at 6-1. The odds then travel up sharply, ending with Nolan's Cat and Watchmon at 50-1.
The most intriguing outsider in the field might be Chekhov, a horse who brought $3.3 million at a Keeneland auction in 2004, and races for top conditioner Patrick Biancone.
Chekhov, whose grandsire, A. P. Indy, won the 1992 Belmont, broke his maiden with a victory May 8 against older horses at Belmont Park. He then was bumped at the start of the Peter Pan, finishing fourth as a heavy favorite.
Biancone had the Belmont in mind for Chekhov well before the Peter Pan and hasn't backed off after the defeat.
"He is nice and relaxed and very proud of himself," Biancone said. "He's the only one who doesn't know he lost last time."