The 149th running of the Belmont Stakes will begin tonight at 6:47 p.m. ET without the surrounding buzz of recent years. With the absence of the winners of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown will have less appeal to the casual horse racing fan, and the withdrawal of the presumptive favorites Classic Empire and Epicharis will likely leave even the most seasoned bettors unsure of the right pick.
Classic Empire, who topped this week’s National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Top Three-Year-Old Poll, pulled out of today’s race because of a foot abscess. Early odds at OddShark listed Classic Empire as the 2-to-1 favorite in an original field of 13, and many horseplayers were expecting Classic Empire to expand upon his strong finish at the Kentucky Derby and place at the Preakness.
After Classic Empire was scratched last Wednesday, Japanese colt Epicharis became the favorite. Epicharis, who had been dubbed the “Japanese Invader,” arrived in New York on June 1 after race organizers offered his owners a win bonus of $1 million in addition to the usual prize of $800,000, but Epicharis’ withdrawal earlier this morning due to lameness in his front right hoof ends their chances at a cool $1.8 million payday.
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association Top Three-Year-Old Poll lists Lookin At Lee as the best horse in the remaining field of 11, and his 5-to-1 odds, currently second best, seem to reaffirm his favorite status. Yet, many experts are wary of Lookin At Lee, who is the only horse at Belmont to have run at both the Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Lookin at Lee finished second and fourth at Churchill Downs and Pimlico respectively, but running in all three Triple Crown events can take its toll.
To the immediate outside of Lookin at Lee in the seventh post position is Irish War Cry, the current favorite at 4-to-1 odds. Despite his current favorite status, Irish War Cry has only three wins in 11 races, and he had a poor showing at the Kentucky Derby, finishing 10th after leading the pack with 9-to-2 odds. Eight top three finishes are enough for him to head the field, though, and horseplayers betting on Irish War Cry will bank on him replicating his win at the Wood Memorial in April. Trainer Graham Motion told USA Today his colt is ready.
“[Lookin at Lee’s] had a good couple of weeks,” Motion said.
“I can honestly say this was not my original plan. After the Derby, when he ran so disappointingly, I wanted to go home and just forget about the Triple Crown, which is what the Derby does to you when you don’t run well. He breezed well last weekend, and I felt he needed to be here.”
Rounding out the top three favorites is Tapwrit, who has 6-to-1 odds. Tapwrit finished sixth at Churchill Downs, a feat that Boston Globe writer Joe Sullivan considers “laudable” considering the traffic problems Tapwrit faced in the Derby. Tapwrit’s sire, Tapit, produced two of the last three Belmont Stakes winners, which suggests that he might have the stamina needed to compete in the Test of Champions. Tapwrit also benefits from the training of Todd Pletcher, who found success at Belmont with Palace Malice’s win in 2013.
Also look out for Patch, a stablemate to Tapwrit and a trainee of Pletcher. Patch will enter the field a 14-to-1 underdog as the No. 12 horse on the far, outer edge of the field. That post position traditionally has not bode well for a horse’s chances at Belmont, but Pletcher’s ability to train horses at distance carries weight, making Patch an outside choice to place.
Jody Demling of CBS Sports and SportsLine has picked the last nine Kentucky Derby winners, and he plans to hold a ticket for Tapwrit by the time the race starts tonight.
[Featured Image by Al Bello/Getty Images]