NEW YORK – The serious work is over for the Belmont Stakes contenders.
Most of the horses in Saturday's 1 1/2-mile conclusion to the Triple Crown had easy gallops in the slop Thursday morning at Belmont Park.
Much of the focus was on Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird stretching his legs over the strip for the first time following his arrival from Kentucky on Wednesday afternoon.
Trainer Chip Woolley is amazed by the gelding's adaptability. He had no problem handling the sloppy surface at Churchill Downs in the Derby. Two weeks later, Mine That Bird was a hard-charging second behind the filly Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness at Pimlico.
"If there's a track he doesn't like, we haven't found it yet," Woolley said of the 2-1 favorite in the Belmont.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin took Charitable Man, the 3-1 second choice, to Belmont's training track for his gallop instead of the main track.
McLaughlin is not a big fan of training in the mud.
"Ideally speaking, we'd like to gallop over a fast track, just to keep him in a routine," McLaughlin said. "We don't mind running on a sloppy track, but there is no money in the morning so we don't train on it."
While more rain is expected Friday, the forecast for Saturday is encouraging: a sunny afternoon with temperatures in the upper 70s.
That sits well with Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Dunkirk, the 4-1 third choice who had a gallop over the main track.
"If it were a drying-out, sticky, gooey track, then I would be concerned," Pletcher said. "I don't anticipate an off track unless it rains Saturday. This track dries out pretty quickly."
LONG-SHOT LUKAS: D. Wayne Lukas has a history of winning the Belmont Stakes with long shots.
The Hall of Fame trainer returns after a three-year gap with two more outsiders: Flying Private, 12-1, and Luv Gov, 20-1.
After finishing last in the Kentucky Derby, Flying Private bounced back with a rallying fourth in the Preakness. Flying Private and Derby winner Mine That Bird are the only two horses to contest all three legs of the Triple Crown.
It took Luv Gov 10 tries to finally win a race. Following that victory, Lukas put the colt in the Preakness, where he ran eighth.
Between them, Flying Private and Luv Gov are a combined 2 for 23, a record that does not inspire confidence.
But this is Lukas, a four-time Belmont winner. He has won the race with well-backed horses like Tabasco Cat (1994, 3-1) and Thunder Gulch (1995, 3-2). Lukas also scored with lightly regarded runners: Editor's Note (1996, 5-1) and Commendable (2000, 18-1).
"We've won this race before with horses no one gave a shot to," Lukas said. "We knew they were developing horses coming into the race at the right time and the right way."
Lukas said the key to winning the 1 1/2-mile Belmont is having a horse with the style and stamina to handle the longest of the Triple Crown races.
"All of them can run a mile-and-a-half," Lukas said. "Some take a little longer. There's a gut check with the pedigree. We think we have a couple of horses that fit that mold to, at least in my opinion, be competitive."
Lukas' four Belmont victories puts him in a tie for fifth with Max Hirsch and R.W. Walden. James Rowe is the career leader with eight Belmont wins followed by Sam Hendreth, seven, "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons, six, and Woody Stephens, five.
GARCIA DOUBLE: Few noticed last year when Alan Garcia won last year's Belmont aboard Da'Tara at 38-1. All eyes were on Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, who was pulled up as the 3-5 favorite.
Garcia goes for a Belmont double aboard Charitable Man, the 3-1 second choice.
Calvin Borel grabbed the headlines this spring with victories aboard Mine That Bird in the Derby and the filly Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness. Garcia also has been in top form, capturing the Met Mile on Memorial Day with Bribon and the Peter Pan Stakes with Charitable Man.
"I am very excited about the way this horse is coming into this race," Garcia said.
Garcia will try to become the eighth jockey to win consecutive Belmonts, and the first since Ron Turcotte rode Riva Ridge and Secretariat in 1972-73.
"He's riding very well," McLaughlin, Charitable Man's trainer, said. "He and Calvin are in a bit of a zone. Calvin's zone is a little bigger because he's won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Alan has been doing very well and we're happy to have him."
ON THE MEND: The one-horse stable of former high school principal Tom McCarthy is now empty while General Quarters recovers from surgery to remove a chip from his right knee.
The 75-year-old McCarthy has been one of the feel-good stories of the Triple Crown series. Unfortunately, General Quarters could not deliver a storybook ending, finishing 10th in the Derby and ninth in the Preakness.
McCarthy hopes to have General Quarters racing again early next year.