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Jun 08, 2007

Belmont Stakes field small but solid

By: By Don Agriss - Horse Racing Editor, SPORTS NETWORK


Elmont, NY (Sports Network) - The 139th Belmont Stakes has a field of seven entered for the 1 1/2 miles. It may be a small group of three-year-olds, but it is a pretty solid contingent.

The only sophomore missing from the race that should be there is Street Sense. Taking his spot is leading filly Rags to Riches.

"We’re going in because we think we have a chance to win," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "We’ve got to hope that the five weeks between races, the pedigree that she has and the five pounds we’re getting maybe swings things our way."

Pletcher, who is the reigning champion trainer, is still seeking his first Triple Crown race victory. He has an excellent chance to win the Belmont with the filly. She has been rested since taking the Kentucky Oaks the day prior to the Run for the Roses.

"I said all along that I would not run her if the first three finishers from the first two legs (of the Triple Crown) ran," Pletcher said. "She’s been prepared for the last five weeks that she would run in the Belmont."

The only negative about Rags to Riches is the change of jockey. Her regular rider, Garrett Gomez, already committed to ride Hard Spun in the race. She gets Eclipse Award winner John Velazquez who has failed to win this race in 10 previous tries.

Despite the fact that this is her first time going against the boys, Rags to Riches is the 3-1 third choice in the morning line.

"She’s sort of accomplished everything a three-year-old filly could accomplish," Pletcher said. "From a historical perspective (winning the Belmont) would place her at the highest level. This is something to get excited about."

Preakness Stakes winner Curlin is the 6-5 favorite with Hard Spun, third in the Preakness and second in the Kentucky Derby, 5-2 in the program. A win by Curlin would put him atop the three-year-old division, while a victory by Hard Spun makes it a three-way race for the Eclipse Award.

"I think the race will be extremely competitive," said Steve Asmussen, trainer of Curlin. "Hard Spun is a very formidable horse who could be awfully hard to beat in the Belmont. Rags to Riches is very intriguing. She’s just another quality horse in the race and Curlin is going to have to run extremely well to win."

The thing to remember about the Belmont Stakes is the distance. These thoroughbreds have never raced 1 1/2 miles and probably never will again. Nobody knows how they will handle the distance.

The horse to look out for is Santa Anita Derby winner Tiago. The half-brother to Giacomo has the running style that may suit the 1 1/2 miles.

"I thought the Derby gave him a lot of great experience," trainer John Shirreffs said. "It was a big field, a big crowd and only Mike’s (Smith) second time on him."

The other horses all have something to hang your hat on.

C P West is coming off a fourth place finish in the Preakness.

"He was fourth in the Preakness, not 14th," said trainer Nick Zito. "He was only beaten a total of five lengths and with his light schedule so far this year, the Belmont shouldn’t take too much out of him. Everyone else has to go a mile and a half for the first time, not just him."

Imawildandcrazyguy was fourth in the Kentucky Derby and has cashed a check in 11 of 12 starts.

"This is the spot," said trainer Bill Kaplan. "We would have come to this race no matter how he did in the Derby. He’s an endurance specialist. In the Derby, he showed his medal as a true closer. If we can carry that momentum into the Belmont, that would be great."

Slew's Tizzy has won his last two starts, both graded stakes. He won the Lexington Stakes and Lone Star Derby under Robby Albarado who also rides Curlin. John Velazquez was going to ride Slew's Tizzy, but now Rafael Bejarano will be in the saddle.

"His improvement has been very steady," trainer Greg Fox said about his colt. "He’s moved forward with every work and every race. With any athlete, the hardest thing is continuing to progress. Removing the blinkers has really helped him to relax, which has made a big difference in his last two starts."

While Larry Jones is not looking for Hard Spun to set the pace in the Belmont Stakes, if the pace is not right the colt may have to move for the lead. All things being equal, the Belmont Stakes will have different winner than the first two Triple Crown races.

"For him to run so credible in both races, it’s a good feeling," Jones said concerning Hard Spun. "Both times he’s put in a whale of a run. Anything that’s tried to run with him early has been stopping like they hit a wall. For him to keep finishing as well as he does running fractions like he’s been running, he’s just awesome."

Hard Spun hangs on for a close victory in a photo finish over Curlin and the rest of the field.



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