ELMONT, N.Y. — To hear the connections of Dullahan tell it, they’ll have no less than the spirits of the sport’s greatest runners pushing their horse in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
“It’s our job,” said Jerry Crawford, leader of the colt’s Iowa-based ownership team, when asked about the chance at spoiling a Triple Crown bid. “This is what we owe to Affirmed, Seattle Slew and the rest.”
Dullahan, at 5-1, is the second favorite on the morning line for the 144th Belmont. The heavy favorite is I’ll Have Another, at 4-5. He can become the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown, and first since Affirmed in 1978.
Dullahan, though, can become the 12th spoiler since that race.
I’ll Have Another drew the No. 11 post position Wednesday — “Perfect,” said trainer Doug O’Neill — and Dullahan, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby but only a length and a half behind the winner, will start from the fifth position.
And while he acknowledged what I’ll Have Another has accomplished, and said the colt is on the verge of verging on super horse status, Dullahan trainer Dale Romans also offered this: “I’ll be surprised if we don’t win.”
Having skipped the Preakness, Dullahan is fresh. Romans has used what he’s consistently called “old-school” tactics to prepare the horse for the long mile-and-a-half trip around the deep, difficult track at sweeping Belmont Park.
“The other thing it does by skipping the Preakness, it lets you do some things in training that you can’t do when you’re going to run in the Preakness to try to go a mile and a half,” Romans said. “Longer gallops, longer breezes, just little things like that that might help us get to the mile and a half.”
Clearly, Romans believes the tactic has worked. “We’ve been monitoring how he looks and his weight and how much he’s eating to make sure we’re not doing too much with him,” he said. “The more we do, the better he does.”
I’ll Have Another, meanwhile, hasn’t run his hardest since Preakness. O’Neill’s plan of “galloping him into the race” bucks tradition — something he’s done several times during this run.
“I found it interesting that Doug’s not going to work him between races and I think others are kind of looking at that a little bit cross-eyed,” said trainer Ken McPeek, whose horse Sarava pulled off the biggest upset in race history, thwarting War Emblem’s Triple Crown bid and paying $143.80 in 2002. “I’ve never known a horse not to work between those races. But you know what? Maybe he’s making the right move. He knows his horse much better than us.”
Only five horses were given better than 20-1 odds on the morning line. Union Rags came in just behind Dullahan at 6-1, while Bob Baffert’s Paynter is 8-1 and Street Life is 12-1. Five of the 12 horses in the field are at 30-1 or worse.
I’ll Have Another has never been favored, but O’Neill didn’t expect such a high margin.
“The fact there is so much separation on the morning line between Dullahan and I’ll Have Another is a little bit surprising to me but other than that everything else is perfect,” he said. “God. What an honor. Its unbelievable feeling, now we’re hopeful he runs to it. I think he will, the way he’s training and running.”
Romans isn’t surprised.
“The horse has won the first two legs,” he said. “He’s supposed to be the heavy favorite, he supposed to get all the press and the accolades until we dethrone him.”
I’ll Have Another and his young jockey, Mario Gutierrez, will, at the very least, get a clean look at how the race breaks. O’Neill said he hasn’t crafted a race strategy with his jockey yet, but that the outside spot will help him decide whether to set or chase the pace.
Dullahan will be under a new rider, Javier Castellano. Kent Desormeaux was removed after failing a Breathalyzer test last month.
“It’s not the perfect situation to have to change riders going into a big race like this, but if you’re going to change we had a good one to pick up,” Romans said. “He knows this racetrack, he rides here all the time. I think that’s an advantage. This is a tough racetrack to train or ride on.”
Gutierrez has never ridden at Belmont. He has just a few days to figure out the unusually large track before bringing I’ll Have Another to the gate, assured of nothing but being remembered one of two ways: as one of the top horses of all time, or as another could-have, would-have.
“All those past Triple Crown winners, when you look back, were true super horses and if this horse is one, he’s going to win no matter what happens that day,” Romans said. “But we can’t give it to him.”