ELMONT, NY — Though the 144th Belmont Stakes lost its historic implications and biggest draw, there are still 11 horses for whom a victory in the final leg of the Triple Crown will resonate.
With Friday's announcement that I'll Have Another was withdrawn from the 11/2-mile race and subsequently retired because of a tendon injury, Saturday's Belmont Stakes became an anticlimax.
Though there'll be no Triple Crown winner for the first time since Affirmed in 1978, there is an opportunity for an entrant to put a milestone achievement on his résumé.
"From the standpoint of a purist, it's a blow," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will saddle Optimizer in the Belmont. "It will be a very good race, anyhow."
Moving into the role as the favorite is Donegal Racing's Dullahan, the only other 3-year-old male besides I'll Have Another with multiple Grade I victories.
Dullahan was considered the main threat to derail I'll Have Another's Triple Crown hopes, having run a strong third in the Kentucky Derby and taken down the likes of juvenile champion Hansen in the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in April.
The son of Even the Score sat out the Preakness Stakes with specific designs on the Belmont, and he has been training like a monster since arriving in New York.
"He's done everything super. I couldn't be more pleased with him," trainer Dale Romans said. "Having the extra time (between the Kentucky Derby and Belmont), you can do a few more things, try to get your horse ready to go a mile and a half and you can bring a fresh horse in here."
Other than whether he was good enough to beat I'll Have Another, the main question for Dullahan coming into the Belmont had centered on whether he can adjust his closer style and be more forwardly placed in a race that often favors tactical speed.
Romans is confident his trainee can do that.
"The mile and a half will put him into the race more naturally," he said.
Grade I winner Union Rags is the only other horse left in the Belmont field with a graded-stakes victory. Once considered the leader of the 3-year-old division, the son of Dixie Union has seen his reputation take a hit thanks to a third-place finish in the Florida Derby and a seventh-place result in the Kentucky Derby.
As he demonstrated in winning the Grade II Saratoga Special in August, Union Rags can sit just off the early pace. The bay colt has yet to win beyond 11⁄16 miles, however, and his bloodlines suggest 12 furlongs could be a problem.
Trainer Kelly Breen pulled off a Belmont stunner a year ago when Ruler On Ice upset a field that included Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness winner Shackleford. This year, Breen is back with My Adonis, most recently third in the Canonero II Stakes at Pimlico.
Along with Paynter, second in the Derby Trial, and unbeaten allowance winner Unstoppable U, My Adonis is among the candidates to set the early pace.
Whoever ends up with the blanket of carnations given to the Belmont winner will forever be known as a classic winner, even if the race is ultimately remembered for who didn't run.
"I feel bad for (I'll Have Another's) connections, to be honest," Breen said. "I'm sure the fans will be disappointed, but the Belmont's the Belmont. It's still a Triple Crown race."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676.Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com.