- Last Updated: 7:30 AM, June 9, 2012
- Posted: 12:56 AM, June 9, 2012
Suddenly, the Belmont Stakes is a whole new horse race.
The classic, billed for a hundred years as “the test of the champion” is no longer a test. The champion is missing. I’ll Have Another’s devastating withdrawal from the lineup has turned the great race from an historic event into a million dollar contest in search of a star and even a favorite.
The race that appeared to be at the mercy of I’ll Have Another is now up for grabs. Consider this: There are now only two horses in the field that have ever won a graded stake — Dullahan took the Blue Grass on Keeneland’s synthetic surface and Union Rags won the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, in addition to two stakes as a 2-year-old.
The Belmont does not get more modest than that.
The rest of them are all reaching up, hoping to get lucky, praying the gods will smile on them. This being the Belmont, whose recent history is filled with shockers, the gods could do exactly that.
At least that’s the way I’m going to play it in the absence of I’ll Have Another. Here’s the reasoning: of the last four winners of the race, all longshots — Ruler on Ice, Drosselmeyer, Summer Bird and Da’Tara — not one had ever won a stakes race before upending the Belmont. And they all had subpar speed figures.
The favorite today may be Dullahan, third in the Kentucky Derby and training up a storm, or Union Rags, looking to regain some luster off two awful races in the Florida and Kentucky Derbies.
Dullahan skipped the Preakness to aim directly at the Belmont. His trainer, Dale Romans, has stacked the work into him, including a firecracker half mile in 45.4 over the Belmont strip.
In most of his races, Dullahan has lagged miles behind, a style that seldom works in the Belmont. Hence, the decision to fire some speed into him. Whether that works remains to be seen.
Union Rags is an uncertain trumpet. He looked like a world-beater last year and went within a head of being crowned the nation’s outstanding juvenile. But this year, he has fallen apart. A nervous horse, he has a tendency to wash out. But what is most disconcerting is that he ran higher speed figures last year as a baby than he has this year.
Still, New Yorkers remember him, love him and will bet him. The rider switch to John Velazquez is a potent move in his favor.
Next in the betting will be Paynter, Bob Baffert’s lightly raced colt, who comes off a huge allowance win at Pimlico, giving him a high 106 Beyer speed figure.
Ordinarily, he’d be a no-no. He has only had four races, all of them this year, and now he’s being pitched into a mile-and-a-half marathon. But early this year the stable regarded him superior to Bodemeister, who was second in the Derby and Preakness.
At the barn, Baffert made no secret of what he thinks of Paynter, named after the contractor who built the Baffert house.
“Paynter is a big-framed horse and we sent him to Pimlico to get a win under his belt,” Baffter said. “That race was pretty impressive and he was getting stronger at the end of it.
“It was always the plan to send him to the Belmont. You need tractable speed in this race and Paynter will be up there, pretty close and we hope he can just keep it going. I think he’s going to run well.”
Baffert made a salient point. “Paynter won his first race, a five-and-a-half furlong maiden, then we ran him in the mile and an eighth Santa Anita Derby where I’ll Have Another only beat him by three lengths. That was only his second start.”
At least four horses fit the winning Belmont long shot profile: Atigun, Street Life, Unstoppable U and My Adonis.
Former ace jockey Jerry Bailey’s tip: Dullahan.Follow @NYPostsports