ELMONT, N.Y. – What a short, strange trip this Triple Crown season has been, starting with a disqualification in the Kentucky Derby, a subsequent appeal and lawsuit, and then a Preakness where one of the horses lost his rider at the start, tried to keep up with his buddies, and briefly became a folk hero.
What might the Belmont Stakes have in store?
“I hope we have a nice, quiet Belmont,” said Mark Casse, the trainer of War of Will, who will be the only horse to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown this year.
There’s plenty on the line for War of Will. A victory here following his triumph in the Preakness three weeks ago will make him the leader in the clubhouse for the 3-year-old male title. Should any of the other nine 3-year-olds win, it will mean that all three legs of the Triple Crown will have gone to a different horse, setting the stage for a compelling second half of the year.
The Belmont, to be run for the 151st time on Saturday here at Belmont Park and worth $1.5 million, will bring the spring classics to a close. Unlike last year or 2015, when a Triple Crown bid was at stake, this Belmont isn’t even the best race on the card Saturday, with the Met Mile – featuring McKinzie, Mitole, and Thunder Snow – coming up a far more compelling race on a blockbuster program that features eight Grade 1 races.
War of Will drew post 9 in the field of 10 for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, just inside of Tacitus. Those two are clear standouts on form, which is reflected by the lines of both Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper, and David Aragona, who makes the official morning line for Belmont Park. Watchmaker has Tacitus at 8-5, with War of Will 9-5 and no one else lower than 10-1. Aragona has Tacitus at 9-5, War of Will 2-1, with Master Fencer his distant third choice at 8-1.
War of Will was involved in the controversial bumping incident in the Derby that led to the disqualification of Maximum Security, who crossed the wire first. War of Will originally finished eighth, then was moved to seventh on the DQ. Two weeks later, he got a gorgeous rail-skimming ride from Tyler Gaffalione to win the Preakness while earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 99.
“The key will be Tyler getting him to relax,” said Casse, who said War of Will “is an exceptional horse.”
“He can handle a lot of things,” Casse said.
Casse has been mindful of keeping weight on War of Will throughout this series, which is one reason he has elected not to work War of Will between the Preakness and the Belmont. War of Will has galloped with enthusiasm since his arrival here.
“If he gets beat in the Belmont it won’t be for a lack of fitness, I’ll tell you that,” Casse said.
No, it could be because he’s facing a worthy rival in Tacitus, who finished in front of War of Will in the Derby, then skipped the Preakness to head straight into the Belmont, a schedule utilized by four of the last seven Belmont winners. Master Fencer, Spinoff, and Tax are also on that itinerary.
Tacitus finished fourth in the Derby before being moved to third on the DQ. He has trained here since the Derby, recording three workouts on the Belmont Park main track, the most recent being the best of the day at the distance, a significant development for a colt who was an indifferent work horse earlier this year. He is a son of Tapit, who has sired three of the last five Belmont winners. His trainer, Bill Mott, won the Belmont in 2010 with Drosselmeyer, and his jockey, Jose Ortiz, won it two years ago with Tapwrit.
“I think they both have a lot of stamina,” Mott said of Tacitus and Drosselmeyer. “I’m not worried about the distance at this moment. It’s a test by fire. You only know when it’s over if they can do it or not.”
Everyone else will be trying to post an upset.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, a three-time winner of the Belmont, has two chances this year, with Intrepid Heart and Spinoff.
The lightly raced Intrepid Heart, who suffered his first loss in his last start, the Peter Pan, after stumbling at the start, is adding blinkers.
“He recovered pretty quickly from the stumble, but it still compromised his early position,” Pletcher said.
Like Tacitus, Intrepid Heart is a son of Tapit.
Spinoff was 18th in the Derby, beating one horse on the sloppy, sealed track. He was second in the Louisiana Derby in his final Derby prep.
“The Louisiana Derby signifies he has the quality to compete with these,” Pletcher said. “His style suits the race. He’s a good galloper. Hopefully he can get into a good rhythm.”
Casse also is doubling up, sending out Peter Pan runner-up Sir Winston.
“He needs pace. He needs things to work out to make him effective,” Casse said. “If the pace is hot it’ll help Sir Winston.”
Bourbon War, the third and final son of Tapit in this race, was eighth in the Preakness when adding blinkers for the first time. They are being removed for this race. Bourbon War raced wide the last half of the Preakness on a day when the rail was advantageous.
“He doesn’t mind being inside. He wants to run with horses,” said his trainer, Mark Hennig, who envisions a ground-saving trip from post 5. “Now we just have to make sure he gets a mile and a half and we’ll be all right.”
Everfast rallied up the gold rail to finish second in the Preakness at 29-1, his best effort since a second-place finish in the Holy Bull four starts earlier.
“Once they show it, don’t give up if they throw in a couple clunkers,” said Dale Romans, who trains Everfast.
Master Fencer closed furiously in the Derby to cross the wire seventh before getting moved to sixth. The Japanese-based runner is seeking his first stakes win.
“The added distance will be good,” said Julien Leparoux, who rides Master Fencer.
Tax crossed the wire 15th in the Derby after finishing second to Tacitus in the Wood Memorial. His biggest win came in the Withers earlier this year, but the form of that race has not aged well.
Joevia, infamous for wiping out half the field in the Wood Memorial, won the Long Branch at Monmouth last time against much softer company. He figures to take up the early running.
The Belmont is race 11 on a 13-race card that begins at 11:35 a.m. Eastern. It is preceded by seven Grade 1 races – the Just a Game, Ogden Phipps, Jaipur, Acorn, Woody Stephens, Met Mile, and Manhattan – with the Grade 2 Brooklyn the day’s finale.
Post time for the Belmont is listed as 6:35 p.m., but likely will be a few minutes later. The race will be shown live by NBC Sports during a three-hour telecast that begins at 4 p.m. There is coverage earlier, too, from 2:30 to 4 on NBCSN.
The National Weather Service predicts a high temperature of 80 degrees on Saturday, with no chance of rain.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.