BELMONT – The 151st edition of the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes might not have the importance of a Triple Crown chance at stake, but don’t tell the trainers and jockeys trying to capture the final classic of 2019 that the race is not meaningful.
“I think there are some good storylines in this race,” said Everfast (12-1) trainer Dale Romans. “We don’t have the Derby winner, but you have the Preakness winner and the runner-up. It’s still an impactful race.”
Impactful in that putting a classic win on your résumé can lift your reputation in racing circles. Jockey Javier Castellano, who will ride Spinoff (15-1), put it in perspective outside the Belmont Café during Thursday morning’s workout session.
“I have been fortunate to win a lot of big races in my career, including six Travers, which is amazing,” Castellano said. “One thing missing is the Triple Crown, I have won the Preakness twice, but not the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont. The Belmont is important because I’m local, my family is here, my primary residence is New York; this race would add some prestige for myself.”
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, making a record 23rd start in the Belmont, added what the classics mean to him.
“If you don’t get jazzed up for these races and you don’t get excited, you better quit your job and look for something else," he said. "I’m still here because I’m really excited and this is what brings you back for the races.”
The $1.5 million final leg of racing’s Triple Crown will go to post at 6:37 p.m. (NBC, Ch. 2) in the twilight at Belmont Park as Race 11 on a star-studded card. NBC will televise from 4 to 7 p.m. with NBC Sports Network showing some of the early races starting at 2:30 p.m.
On a race course where local knowledge is key, Preakness winner War of Will (2-1) will attempt to complete the 12th Preakness-Belmont double since 1940 on enemy territory. Bill Mott, who will train the 9-5 favorite Tacitus, and Todd Pletcher, who has two colts entered, are stationed here at Belmont Park.
“This is Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher’s home base," War of Will trainer Mark Casse said. “It would be like them coming into my house at Woodbine.”
Mott said the home-field advantage doesn’t hurt his colt, who finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby and then was placed third via the disqualification of Maximum Security.
"The horses actually get used to training on a mile-and-a-half track," he said. "I think that’s an oddity for some horses. A lot of horses aren’t used to it and you go around on this track and you have to keep going. Going from Churchill Downs to here, you get on this track and it’s unbelievable, a different sensation.”
Tacitus also has the Tapit factor in his corner, a leading reason why he was tapped the morning line favorite over the Preakness winner. Tapit has sired three of the past five Belmont winners as well as place horse Frosted, who finished behind Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015.
Romans said Tacitus and War of Will seem to be a cut above the rest of the field.
“They are the two that it’s their race to lose and then there’s the rest of us, who are all exactly the same basically,” Romans said. “The mile and a half will be the deciding factor in my opinion.”
Casse insists that War of Will is coming into the race better than he was before winning the Preakness. He will be the only horse to complete all three legs of the series when he crosses the line Saturday.
“I think he’s an extremely talented horse," Casse said. "I feel really good after the last few days that he’s at the top of his game. I had concerns about him, obviously with the three weeks, but that’s not a concern for me anymore."
In an era in which horses don’t run as often as in the past, War of Will is making his sixth start of the year and his third in five weeks. Casse said he’s a throwback and compared him to some of his other champions.
“I’ve trained some really good horses like Tepin and World Approval, who actually got better with more races,” he said. “Maybe that’s what separates the good from the great, those who actually thrive on it.”
One interesting storyline is the decision that Velazquez made in selecting between the two Pletcher horses, Intrepid Heart and Spinoff, with Castellano committed to ride whoever Velazquez didn’t choose.
“It was a very tough choice for me. I think the horses are pretty close,” Velazquez said. “The horse that I’m riding, Intrepid Heart, is very lightly raced and is still not 100 percent focused on the things we need to do. I think that’s why Todd is putting blinkers on him. He won two races and then he came over here and stumbled pretty badly out of the gate and pretty much couldn’t focus on the race after that.”
“The other horse (Spinoff) is the complete opposite. He’s so very focused and very aggressive in doing the things you want him to do. But I’ll tell you what, he’s a dangerous horse. So it’s hard to gauge which one you want to go with.”
The deciding factor for Johnny V to select Intrepid Heart was likely the breeding by Tapit and that horse’s proven sire record in the race. Castellano, who took time to pose with his fellow Hall of Famer after the interview, shrugged his shoulders when discussing the choice.
“In this game, there’s no right or wrong choice, you got to be lucky," Castellano said. "We all try to pick the right horse. He went with his gut. He tried to pick the breeding, by Tapit, long distance, we all know that. Putting on blinkers, big horse, long strides, I think he’s a serious horse. It doesn’t mean he’s right, though."
A horse that is under the radar is Sir Winston (12-1), the “other Casse” in the race. His late running style seems to give him a big chance to crash the exotics underneath.
“The interesting thing about him is he wants ground but he’s not a plodder,” Casse said Friday. “He has an extremely quick turn of foot. A lot of times you’ll see those races and they’re a grinder and they go and go. They don’t ever just run fast; they run the same speed. That horse ran a mile and an eighth in the Peter Pan and ran the last quarter in 23 and 2. That tells you he has a little bit more and he’s not just a plodder.
“Going a mile and a half, he’s not going to be as far back. Now the question is will that kill his kick, we don’t know. But he’s got probably the best rider, that’s what Joel [Rosario] is good at. He’s won a lot of big races for me coming from last.”
Post Time Outlook (Fast Track): 1 – Tacitus; 2 – Intrepid Heart; 3 – War of Will; 4 – Sir Winston