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Belmont a Two-Horse Race, Unless it's Not

Belmont Analysis: I'll Have Another's Triple Crown chances depend on the pace, luck and defying recent history.

Breaking News, Friday 11:45 a.m.: ESPN reports Triple Crown contender I'll Have Another has been scratched from Saturday’s race, according to trainer Doug O'Neill. 

Earlier Story:

On paper, Saturday's 144th running of the should shape up as a two-horse race somewhere mid-stretch between the odds-on Triple Crown contender I'll Have Another and the solid 5-1 challenger Dullahan.

But as they say: "that's why they run the race." In this case, it will be run the famed mile-and-one half oval at nearby Belmont Park where even great horses have been beaten by 12-furlong distance and poor racing luck.

I'll Have Another has to contend with even more than that Saturday as the 3-year-old chestnut colt attempts racing immortality. A victory Saturday would make him the 12th Triple Crown winner, a club that includes Secretariat, War Admiral, and Citation.

But in the more than three decades since Affirmed snared the Triple Crown from Alydar in their epic 1978 battle to the wire, The Belmont Stakes has proved an overwhelming obstacle for 11 other quality horses, all winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, who have fallen short in the third leg of the thoroughbred Triple Crown.

The Belmont is a mile-and-a-half, a full quarter mile longer than the Derby, and these 3-year-olds have never gone that far before.

From a sentimental side, I'll join thousands of others and hope he wins convincingly. 

But I don't gamble with my sentiments.

Here's how I see this race shaping up:

Breaking from the 11th post position, I'll Have Another should have a clear path to stalk the early speed (the likely candidates for that are Paynter, who led wire to wire in an allowance event on the Preakness under card three weeks ago, and the Ken McPeek- trained Unstoppable U.) 

Dullahan, breaking from the 5 hole, should be shuffled back to save ground along the inside, a racing style that has served this big closer in the past.

Quick early fractions, say the first half-mile in .46, could force I'll Have Another's hand earlier than jockey Mario Gutierrez might like. (He wouldn't be the first; see Ronnie Franklin's ride on Spectacular Bid in '79.)

Meanwhile, a plodding early pace, close to say, .49, might force Gutierrez to let his horse stride to the front and try to stay there for another mile.

Either way, the race sets up to find I'll Have Another leading at or near the top of the stretch, with Dullahan coming up strong along the outside to challenge with more than two or three furlongs to go.

At that point, I expect the rested Dullahan to run down I'll Have Another and ruin a lot of people's day. Then I suspect Dullahan to be beaten at the wire by an overlooked long shot, making some people very happy:

Here are my top three selections, in order of finish, and why:

1. Union Rags (Rider: J R Velazquez; Trainer: Michael Matz; M.L. odds: 6-1) Well-bred bay colt (grand sire is Dixie Land Band; Dam's sire is Gone West) is fresh and shows two bullet workouts for this race. Was brilliant as 2-year-old. May have the training and breeding to get this done late. Not to be ignored; Call in wide open finish.

2. Dullahan (Rider: Javier Castellano; Trainer: Dale Romans; M.L. odds: 5-1) Fighter should be in the hunt late. Hasn't run since charging 3rd-place finish in Derby where he suffered from nightmare early route. Should be in mix.

3. I'll Have Another (Rider: Mario Gutierrez ; Trainer Doug O'Neill M.L. odds: 4-5): Won Derby and Preakness with courageous all-out stretch runs. Fine colt with great heart will break hearts Saturday.

Live Long Shot:

Paynter: Bob Baffert-trained colt (Mike Smith in the irons) may take lead, stay there and wire a tiring field. May also be the horse one of the top three run down in deep stretch and figure in the exotics.

Plays:

$10 Win, Union Rags (No. 3)

$5 Exacta box, Union Rags, I'll Have Another (3-11, 11-3; $10 total. Several $1 box combinations off top four choices.)

$1 box Trifecta, Union Rags, I'll Have Another, Dullahan (Trifecta Box: 3-11-5, $12 total)

Also:

Several $2 souvenir win tickets on I'll Have Another, including one each for my two daughters, just in case 34 years of history gets wiped out in about 2 1/2 minutes, sometime around 6:40 p.m. Saturday. If he wins, I'll let the track keep my winnings. I'll mount the ticket.

For the post positions and connections of the entire field, click here, and scroll to race No. 11.

For the NYRA's Belmont Park site, click here. It contains all sorts of information about Saturday's event.

For the complete Past Performances of the contestants click here.

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