ELMONT, N.Y. — For all the prestige that comes with its status as an American classic, the $1 million Belmont Stakes loses some of its edge with the absence of Triple Crown hopes.
Despite having both Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Preakness Stakes victor Oxbow in the mix, Saturday's 145th running of the 11/2-mile race lacks some sizzle.
What has emerged to some surprise is an upstart entrant attracting buzz during preparations for this year's "Test of the Champion."
With every trip to the track Freedom Child has made leading up to his scheduled start in the Belmont Stakes, the Malibu Moon ridgling has made an admirable case as to why 13 other challengers could end up in his wake Saturday evening.
One could argue Freedom Child's morning outings have been the most impressive of the Belmont contenders with his gallops routinely fluid with just the right amount of aggressiveness.
Adding to his respect is the prospect of the Belmont track being in the same sloppy condition Saturday that it was May 11 when he freaked over it during his 131/4-length, gate-to-wire win in the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes.
While big wins over sealed, wet tracks can be among the most deceiving when trying to judge true form, Freedom Child's front-running style — something he'll need when he breaks from post No. 2 — makes him an X-factor in a race that tactically hinges on pace.
"If I'm managing another horse in the field, my thoughts right away, they're going to go to Freedom Child especially if I'm a horse who will be forwardly placed," said Terry Finley, founder of West Point Thoroughbreds, which co-owns Freedom Child along with St. Elias Stable and his breeder, Spendthrift Farm. "If I'm a rider or a trainer and I look at the Peter Pan and especially if it's sloppy on Saturday, I'm probably a little concerned if I would make the right decision.
"If he gets a shot to get comfortable and get framed up down the backside ... we're going to be smiling. Then it's just going to be a matter if he's good enough and if one of the other ones doesn't have a really good day."
The more positive chatter surrounding Freedom Child the more it helps his connections get over the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 6.
Freedom Child was declared a non-starter in the 11⁄8-mile Kentucky Derby prep after the assistant starter still had hold of his bridle as the gates sprung open. That he was a 45-1 shot was further salt in the wound that day as he had come into the race off a 51/4-length win going 11⁄8 miles at Gulfstream Park on March 10.
"After that happened, we knew it would be a matter of regrouping with the horse and hoping he came back as good as he did when he broke his maiden," trainer Tom Albertrani said. "It was very satisfying to have him come back and draw away by 13 lengths that day."
"I think he ran a sneaky good race in the Wood considering what happened to him at the start," added trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the Wood Memorial with Verrazano and will saddle five Belmont starters Saturday. "You looked up in the far turn and said, 'Wow, this horse is actually running a huge race.'"
Both of Freedom Child's victories have come in gate-to-wire fashion, but with Frac Daddy expected to gun it to the lead out of post No. 1 and Oxbow and Palace Malice looming outside, his ability to take back if needed might be challenged.
"He doesn't act like a horse who is a run-off freight train," Finley said "He just gets into a very good rhythm and he has a very high cruising speed. Often times when a horse is talented and he has a high cruising speed, he's going to be on the lead because he's faster than the other horses. That doesn't mean he needs it."
In his second career start, Freedom Child finished as the runner-up in a 1-mile race at Aqueduct last November, sandwiched between Orb and graded stakes winner Revolutionary, who would run third in the Kentucky Derby.
If the company he previously kept is an indication, Freedom Child could make those touting his current ability appear prophetic.
"This is the first time we've ever had a buzz horse like this in a real big race," Finley said. "I'm very confident. I've kind of learned over the years, why not be confident, even if you're 15- or 20-to-1? People get to fretting, but it's just great what's happening. What if we're not disappointed? It'd be a pretty cool day."
When: 6:35 p.m.
Where: Elmont, N.Y.
Distance: 11/2 miles
Purse: $1 million (Grade I)
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.