- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro is continuing his rehabilitation in rural Pennsylvania following life-saving surgery. Sweetnorthernsaint and Brother Derek are enjoying the good life in Maryland and California, respectively. And Bernardini, winner of the Preakness three weeks ago, is getting a break in New York.

That leaves today’s 138th Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown, with a minimal amount of buzz.

“It would be great [if those horses were in the race],” Steppenwolfer trainer Danny Peitz said. “I’m a racing fan, too, and I felt like somebody kicked me in the gut for a couple of days after the Preakness because of what happened to Barbaro.”

Steppenwolfer, who finished third in the Derby, is one of several horses who could win today’s $1 million Belmont. The field of 12 will go to post at 6:33 p.m. and run the longest race of their careers at 11/2 miles.

The field is headlined by five horses who ran in the Kentucky Derby five weeks ago, including the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers: Bluegrass Cat, Steppenwolfer and Jazil.

Bluegrass Cat is the morning-line favorite (3-1), followed by Sunriver (4-1), Bob and John (5-1), Steppenwolfer (9-2) and Jazil (10-1).

While a Triple Crown isn’t on the line and neither the Derby nor Preakness winner is in the field for the first time since 2000, the Belmont still holds some intrigue for the diehard horse player. As the odds show, there is plenty of value on the board and, looking ahead to the summer and fall seasons, several major talents could be on the track today.

“When you’re gambling, you can go in a lot of different directions,” Peitz said.

The five-week layoff between the Derby and Belmont has worked three times in the last six years. Commendable (2000), Empire Maker (2003) and Birdstone (2004) all won in New York after a month of rest.

Bluegrass Cat is the favorite, although he hasn’t won since February, finishing second, fourth and second in his last three starts. But his runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby — at 30-1 — was impressive because he was near the front the entire race and didn’t wilt down the lane like many of his competitors.

Returning to Belmont, where he is 2-for-2, Bluegrass Cat also gets regular rider John Velazquez back. Velazquez missed the Derby with a fractured shoulder.

“I’ll be 100 percent,” he said. “I thought I would be back by the end of June, beginning of July, but all of a sudden, my body started to feel good and I started running.”

Velazquez is New York’s top rider and is looking for his first Triple Crown race win. Todd Pletcher, who conditions Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver, is New York’s top trainer and is currently the nation’s best trainer to never win a classic race.

The Bob Baffert-trained Bob and John and long shots Double Galore and High Finance represent the speed in the race. Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver are mid-pack runners, and Steppenwolfer and Jazil will be coming from behind.

“I don’t think they’re going to run nearly as fast during the first part like they did in the Derby,” Peitz said. “My horse’s natural running style is to come off the pace from a pretty good ways back.”

Steppenwolfer was in sixth place midway through the Derby — closer than Peitz expected.

Jazil came from 19th — exactly where trainer Kiaran McLaughlin thought he would be — into a dead heat with Brother Derek for fourth.

“The large field helps,” McLaughlin said. “We always worry about the lack of pace, especially over a mile-and-a-half, but with 12 horses, there’s a better chance to have a more honest pace.”

Among the other contenders, Bob and John was 17th in the Derby but did win the Wood Memorial in early April. And Nick Zito is trying to make it two Belmonts in three years with Hemingway’s Key, who was an impressive third in the Preakness.

Among the newcomers to the Triple Crown scene, the best is Sunriver. Pletcher wanted to enter him in the Derby but he didn’t have enough earnings. On Preakness day, Pletcher opted to run at Belmont Park and Sunriver won the Peter Pan Stakes.

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