A year after Justify capped an undefeated run to the Triple Crown with a thrilling wire-to-wire effort in the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, becoming the 13th thoroughbred immortal, a wacky 2019 series commences this Saturday on Big Sandy.
Any chance of a third Triple Crown winner in five years went up in smoke days after Country House captured the Kentucky Derby in never-seen-before fashion. He was ruled out of the Preakness — as well as the Belmont — by Hall of Fame Trainer Bill Mott, who announced on the first Tuesday in May Country House was dealing with a virus.
“He developed a little bit of a cough this morning and is off the training list,” Mott told the Daily Racing Form three days after Country House was placed first in the Derby following the historic disqualification of Maximum Security from the top spot due to interference.
Country House became the first Derby winner to miss the Preakness since a knee injury derailed Grindstone in 1996. War of Will, who took the brunt of Maximum Security’s lane change in Kentucky, won this year’s second leg of the Triple Crown on May 18 at Pimlico.
Starting from the No. 1 post for a second straight start, War of Will, with jockey Tyler Gafflione aboard, ran the fastest Preakness (1:54.34) since Curlin in 2007 and earned a career-best 99 Beyer Speed Figure. Should War of Will reach the winner’s circle at Belmont, the drama that transpired on the first Saturday in May will forever be a topic.
War of Will is aiming to become the 19th horse to complete the Preakness-Belmont double. The last horse to accomplish the feat was Afleet Alex in 2005. “There are only three Triple Crown races and they are pretty important,” War of Will’s trainer, Mark Casse, told the New York Racing Association. “If you can do it, you should do it. Two years ago, I think we were going to be the only one to run in all three with Classic Empire. It took three days of him before the race where he could not walk [before scratching with a foot abscess], so I think that was a legit reason not to run. That’s us, that’s what we do. We run.”
While there won’t be the buzz of a horse looking to join Justify, American Pharoah (2015), Affirmed (1978), Seattle Slew (’77), Secretariat (’73), Citation (’48), Assault (’46), Count Fleet (’43), Whirlaway (’41), War Admiral (’37), Omaha (’35), Gallant Fox (’30), and Sir Barton (’19) in the history books, the Belmont is never short on excitement.
Tacitus, also trained by Mott and one of the Derby favorites who finished fourth but bumped to third after the disqualification, projects as the stiffest challenger to War of Will. Tacitus had a strong five-furlong workout at Belmont on May 26 with jockey Jose Ortiz piloting. “It was very good, very even,” Mott said. “I liked the rhythm of it - 12, 12, 12, 12. Each furlong was in about 12 seconds and he went out six furlongs in about 1:12, so I thought it was a very steady, solid work.”
Also among the likely challengers will be Everfast, the Preakness runner-up at longshot odds, Japanese invader Master Fencer, who ran sixth in the Derby, Tax and Spinoff, who both disappointed in Kentucky (14th and 18th, respectively), Bourbon War (eighth in Preakness), and Intrepid Heart and Sir Winston.
The three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, which begins Thursday, features 18 stakes races with $9.4 million in purses. Saturday’s 13-race card gets underway at 11:35 a.m. General admission is $30 — while supplies last — and attendance will be capped at 90,000. Flo Rida headlines the entertainment lineup with trackside pre- and post-race concerts.