If the Triple Crown this year has failed to produce a compelling story line equal to the tales of War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, it has at least had its isolated thrills and surprises.
With Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and Preakness hero Afleet Alex set to face nine other 3-year-olds distinguished only by their lack of accomplishment in the 137th Belmont Stakes on Saturday, the race on its surface lacks intrigue. It would be wise, however, not to dismiss the 11/2-mile classic too quickly.
Giacomo survived the mass collapse of the field to win the Kentucky Derby at odds of 50-1, keying payoffs of lottery-size proportions. Afleet Alex took the Preakness after colliding with rival Scrappy T at the top of the stretch, nearly falling to his knees before recovering to win as more than 100,000 fans at Pimlico gasped in disbelief. Amid the drama has lurked a mysterious respiratory illness called "strangles" that has led to panicky quarantines of horses at racetracks across the country.
Even more mysterious has been the futility of star trainer Nick Zito, who threw waves of runners at the Derby and Preakness and watched them all return to their stalls utter failures. Zito takes one more swing in the Belmont, and his preparation of Andromeda's Hero, Indy Storm and Pinpoint in the cool, crisp confines of Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York follows the path he took last year when his Birdstone paid $74 to win in a stunning upset of Smarty Jones.
"That was a wonderful thing last year," Zito said. "That's why you play the game."
When asked last year if he would be happy to see Birdstone finish second behind Smarty Jones, Zito cracked, "Where do I sign up," but it's hard to gauge whether he believes any of his horses can get to Afleet Alex, a commanding 6-5 favorite in the morning line, or Giacomo.
"I'm hoping he's a quality horse," Zito said of Andromeda's Hero, who finished eighth in the Derby -- like Birdstone -- and skipped the Preakness.
Zito also is hoping Pinpoint can follow the route of Sarava, who in 2002 won the minor Sir Barton Stakes on the Preakness undercard and then shocked the Belmont at odds of 70-1, the longest-priced victory in the history of the race.
"The Triple Crown wears on these horses, and he's a fresh horse and qualifies, so we're here," Zito said. Indeed, the first two legs of the Triple Crown wore down all but Afleet Alex and Giacomo, the only two horses who will compete in the three races.
Trainer Tim Ritchey has continued his demanding morning workout schedule for Afleet Alex, jogging him a mile and galloping him a mile and a half as recently as Friday morning.
The colt, who so far has proven the best of his generation, has, however, followed his two winning performances prior to the Preakness with losses, and questions remain about whether he has the stamina and style to win at the Belmont distance.
Afleet Alex came up short in the 11/4-mile Derby, taking the lead before fading to third, and then showed a remarkable burst of speed on the far turn in the 13/16-mile Preakness, a move often neutralized on the vast Belmont dirt course over the testing mile and a half.
Ritchey believes Afleet Alex has, besides sizable talent, one trait in his favor -- an unflappable nature. The past two favorites in the race, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, were headstrong, eager competitors. Afleet Alex, while a fighter, waits until jockey Jeremy Rose gives him his cue to go.
"Funny Cide and Smarty Jones were different types of horses," Ritchey said. "They weren't as tractable and as ratable as my horse. I think Funny Cide never really got to relax like he should have [in the 2003 Belmont] and Smarty Jones certainly didn't get to relax like she should have to go a mile and a half. They just need to make that one good, sustained run and hopefully we'll get that kind of trip."
The Belmont is a race in which horses usually reach the winner's circle by remaining in striking distance of the pace by galloping fluidly. Which horse will make that pace has been open to conjecture: Pinpoint, A.P. Arrow and Reverberate all come into the Belmont off front-running efforts. Reverberate, second in the Peter Pan Stakes on May 28 in Belmont, is the fastest of the three, but trainer Sal Russo said he would be happy to watch his horse stalk.
"How about Chekhov?" ventured Giacomo's trainer John Shirreffs, referring to the lightly raced $3.3 million horse entered by trainer Patrick Biancone.
Shirreffs has been a little miffed there hasn't been more buzz around Giacomo and hopes to prove in the Belmont that his horse wasn't a one-hit wonder.
"We were a little disappointed after the Kentucky Derby," he said. "I don't think everyone appreciated the effort Giacomo made. But we're not too disappointed because we were walking home with the trophy."