NEW YORK – The final leg in the Triple Crown can hardly be called the "Test of the Champion" this year, though a new 3-year-old star may emerge after Saturday's $1 million Belmont Stakes.
"It's the test of the leftovers," trainer Bob Baffert joked Friday morning. "I mean champions."
With Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro recovering from a life-threatening injury at a hospital in Pennsylvania, and Preakness winner Bernardini not running, there's little to get excited about.
No Triple Crown try like there was six of the past nine years. No rematches, like Giacomo vs. Afleet Alex a year ago. No pizazz, and probably not many people showing up at Belmont Park.
"Clearly, it's not as exciting when there isn't a Triple Crown prospect, but that doesn't mean I want to win the Belmont any less," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "For us, that would be exciting."
Pletcher has the two favorites in a bid to win his first Triple Crown race and end an 0-for-19 record. The nation's top trainer sends out Bluegrass Cat, the 3-1 morning line choice, and Sunriver, the 4-1 second choice.
The field of 12 3-year-olds has five horses who ran in the Derby, including 2-3-4 finishers Bluegrass Cat, Steppenwolfer and Jazil (dead heat with Brother Derek). Two Preakness starters are entered, too, including third-place finisher Hemingway's Key.
"I think it's a competitive field, an interesting field," was the best Hemingway Key's trainer Nick Zito could muster about a race he's won once _ with Birdstone in 2004 _ and finished second six times. Of his chances, Zito said of his horse, "he's got a lot of energy."
This Triple Crown season fell apart at the start of the Preakness with Barbaro's career-ending breakdown. It has racing fans caring less about the Belmont and more about the brilliant colt's chances of survival.
To that end, ABC Sports planned several reports on Barbaro's recovery during its telecast of the race.
"A lot of people will be following and tuning in to see the update on Barbaro," Baffert predicted. "It's a good story for racing because it shows how modern medicine has updated everything."
The race itself offers intriguing betting possibilities, from sticking with horses who have been on the Triple Crown trail to looking at new runners such as Peter Pan Stakes winner Sunriver of recent allowance winner High Finance.
Dan Peitz, who trains Steppenwolfer, offers his take: "I think the Derby horses are the ones to beat. They've been tested all spring, are seasoned, and now have had some time to catch their breath."
Baffert has one of those Derby horses in Bob and John, who finished 17th after a rough trip in the Derby. The Belmont, though, may be a better fit for Baffert's colt, who was sent to New York in April and won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Bob and John also is the only Grade 1 winner in the field.
"He's still like a young kid. He's got to have things go his way," Baffert said "He's not a real, big tough kind of horse. He won't take a lot of jostling. He can't stop and go."
Baffert has been part of some of the most electrifying moments in recent Belmont history. He nearly won the Triple Crown three times, with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. But each time, his Derby and Preakness winner fell short in the Belmont.
When he showed up at Belmont on Thursday, he looked around and wondered: "Where is everybody? Where's the love?"
However, Baffert still believes New Yorkers will come out for the race, even though this will be just the third time in 36 years the Derby and Preakness winners won't be running.
"What else are they going to do on a Saturday? They've got to come out to yell at somebody," Baffert said. "Racing comes to life here, on big event days like this. We're not going to have a 100,000 people, but there'll be some excitement because everybody is looking for that new star."
The weather may be a factor, too. After a week of rain, the track could end up wet, perhaps a help to a front-runner like High Finance. Deputy Glitters, who was eighth in the Derby, will be scratched if the track is too wet, trainer Tom Albertrani said.