Winner of buzzless Belmont could be star in making 

With no Triple Crown on the line, not to mention a Kentucky Derby or Preakness winner in the field, the 142nd running of the Belmont Stakes could still turn out to be a starting point for a championship season.

Summer Bird came out of nowhere last year and won the Belmont with a thrilling stretch run, then won the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup en route to being voted a champion 3-year-old.

A similar scenario is possible, beginning with next Saturday's $1 million Belmont.

Sure, star power may be absent with Derby winner Super Saver and Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky sitting this one out, and attendance and TV ratings could suffer. But the runner-ups from both races — Ice Box in the Derby, First Dude in the Preakness — could be rising stars, along with Fly Down, an impressive winner of the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park earlier this month.

"Although it lacks a big name as we sit here in late May, I think it's going to be a very competitive race, a good betting race," says Charles Hayward, president and CEO of the New York Racing Association, which operates Belmont, Saratoga Race Course, and Aqueduct Racetrack.

"You're going to have some really quality runners that are going to do some good things the rest of the year. It's a bigger spectacle when we've got a horse running for the Triple Crown, but we don't have that this year."

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin says the main concern is winning the Belmont, not who's in and who's out.

"The bookkeeper still pays you the same, and it's still an American Classic and a Grade 1," says McLaughlin, who sends out Uptowncharlybrown in the Belmont. "And we don't mind if the Derby winner and the Preakness winner are not in there. It makes it a little bit easier, and we're happy about that."

McLaughlin was the beneficiary of the last no Derby-no Preakness winner in the Belmont, winning the 2006 race with Jazil.

Dale Romans, who trains First Dude, doesn't blame racing fans for wanting the Triple Crown races to have the best of the best.

"It would be nice to see one or both of the horses show up and take them on, but the Belmont is still a good race," says Romans. "I'm sure we'll hook up with the Derby winner and the Preakness winner down the road."

Until then, it looks like a field of 11 3-year-olds will be entered for the 1½-mile Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the Triple Crown races.

Others expected to be entered Wednesday are Lone Star Derby winner Game On Dude, Blue Grass winner Stately Victor, Dave in Dixie, Drosselmeyer, Make Music for Me, Spangled Star and Stay Put.

Florida Derby winner Ice Box and Fly Down are both trained by Hall of Famer Nick Zito, who has won two of the past six Belmonts — with Birdstone in 2004 and Da' Tara in 2008.

Zito would never consider this a buzzless Belmont.

"Right now, everything is positive and we want to keep it that way," Zito said from Saratoga, where his colts are training until being shipped to Belmont on Wednesday.

Once again, though, the Belmont is left without a high-profile story line: There's no Triple Crown try for the fifth time in the past six years; there's no filly taking on the boys as Rags to Riches did in winning in 2007; and there's no Derby winner vs. Preakness winner as in Giacomo vs. Afleet Alex in 2005. The race known as the "Test of the Champion" will be run for the third time since 1970 without the Derby and/or the Preakness winners.

Nonetheless, Romans says, "It's a quality group of horses doing well right now. You'll see them between now and the end of the year go on and win a lot of big races."

Although Ice Box finished 2½ lengths behind Super Saver in the Derby, the chestnut colt may have been the best horse in the race. Despite a troubled trip in which he was blocked and forced to check, he came barreling down the stretch with a full head of steam to finish second.

Fly Down, who has beaten First Dude twice, produced an eye-opening effort in pulling away from favorite Drosselmeyer in the Dwyer.

Dave in Dixie is the latest addition to the field, and the rider will be Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel. A year ago, Borel fell short on his victory guarantee aboard Mine That Bird, who finished third.

The Belmont also comes at a time when racing in New York is on shaky financial footing.

Earlier this week, the state legislature approved a $25 million loan to NYRA as part of an emergency budget appropriation.

The deal came a few days after the association disclosed that it was considering closing the tracks on June 9.

The loan, said NYRA chairman Steve Duncker, "guarantees world-class thoroughbred racing" at the three tracks.

NYRA is still owed more than $17 million by New York City Off-Track Betting Corp., which filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

Hayward said he's "cautiously optimistic" about New York's racing future, but will turn his attention to coming up with the Belmont winner.

"I try to look at this race as a handicapper rather than a track president," says Hayward.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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