WHEN THE Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners are in the starting gate, the Belmont Stakes is always a terrific standalone race.
The 1 1/2-mile distance may be an anachronism. You may need a high-powered telescope to see the horses on the backstretch. And, in the end, it may not really tell you that much because none of these horses will ever run the distance on dirt again.
Still, it is hard to resist this Belmont with Animal Kingdom against Shackleford, alongside 10 others in the starting gate, all with their own stories. And when you combine the Belmont with five other graded stakes, including three Grade I stakes, it is annually America's best racing card this side of the Breeders' Cup in November.
The brilliant 3-year-old filly Turbulent Descent comes east for the Acorn Stakes, with five wins and a close second in six starts. Serious speed will be on display in the True North Handicap. Some very quick 3-year-olds will run in the Woody Stephens, named for the training legend who won five consecutive Belmont Stakes (1982-86). The Just A Game features some pretty nice fillies on grass. The race before the Belmont, the Manhattan, on grass, is the 2011 American debut of the amazing 6-year-old Gio Ponti. The horse has been first or second in 19 of his 24 starts and has earned more than $5.3 million.
If you can find a way to get the numbers right in those five races, you can be alive in the Pick 6 to the Belmont. The reward could definitely be worth the risk.
Animal Kingdom will be favored. Nehro, second in the Derby, is the likely second choice. Shackleford may get overlooked a bit, as most will assume he can't last at the distance.
Assumptions are never wise anywhere. They are an even bigger mistake at the track where, if you can't think for yourself, you won't last long.
So, Shackleford could go all the way. Or he could get run down by Animal Kingdom. Or something completely unexpected could go down.
It is, after all, the Belmont Stakes, the culmination of the American Triple Crown.
"The fact that it is a unique distance to me is what it's all about," said Animal Kingdom's trainer, Graham Motion. "This is why people breed horses, to do these amazing things. And I think it's what makes the Triple Crown so special, even if it is a unique thing. It's what sets them apart."
Through the years, some have suggested making the Belmont a mile-and-a-quarter race. That actually would make some sense, given the reality of the modern thoroughbred. But it would not make the final race of the Triple Crown unique.
"It is becoming an extraordinarily popular series to compete in," Motion said. "Everybody wants to be in these races, and that's a good thing. That's why it's become so hard to win these races, because you are running against such big fields every time."
It was 19 in Louisville, 14 in Baltimore and now 12 in New York, a mere 45 in the three races. None of these races is ever easily won, especially the Belmont.
"I think so many of our races are run on very similar tracks, but this is one of the races that really is unique to anything else we do all year," Shackleford's trainer, Dale Romans, said.
Belmont Park is 50 percent bigger than the typical American track, 1 1/2 miles from finish line to finish line.
"Horses have to stay on the left leads a long time," Romans said.
You see jockeys make more mistakes in the Belmont than just about any race. They are either too conservative or too daring. It is the jockey who times his move to fit the track who has the best chance of getting to the winner's circle.