Belmont with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners could be the best of these Triple Crown races


Horse racing history of all kinds is being made Saturday in the final Triple Crown race of the year.

The Belmont Stakes is taking place at venerable Saratoga Race Course for the first time in the venue’s vaunted 161-year history. And while there is no chance at a 14th Triple Crown champion, the third leg features the winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes for the first time since 2013.

Five weeks since Mystik Dan finished a nose ahead of Sierra Leone in the Derby and three weeks since he was second to Seize the Grey in the Preakness, all three are in the 10-horse field in the Belmont for a rematch showdown in front of a sellout crowd of 50,000.

“The fans can relate to Mystik Dan, they can take a look at Seize the Grey and we get a chance to see them both and determine probably which is the better of the two,” said D. Wayne Lukas, the 88-year-old Hall of Fame trainer of Seize the Grey. “I think that the Belmont this year could easily be — you could make an argument for it being — the best of the three: the Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont. I think that they have probably put together the best of the three.”

One reason for that is the shape of the Saratoga track necessitating shortening the race to 1 1/4 miles from the traditional 1 1/2-mile “test of the champion” distance, which typically is a significant deterrent because most 3-year-olds tend not to run that long.

Mystik Dan is a rarity as a horse not going for the Triple Crown after running the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the first to do that since War of Will in 2019. And trainer Kenny McPeek almost certainly would not have wheeled him back for this race at 1 1/2 miles.

“That would’ve been difficult for my colt: He’s not a really big horse, he’s a modest-sized horse,” McPeek said. “This race run a mile and a quarter should suit him.”

Suit but not favor because this race is extremely competitive. Sierra Leone, with a jockey change and an equipment adjustment, opened as the 9-5 favorite with undefeated, lightly raced Todd Pletcher-trained Mindframe the second choice at 7-2.

Sierra Leone might have won the Derby had he not veered in and repeatedly bumped another horse down the stretch, and trainer Chad Brown is counting on rider Flavien Prat to guide the colt in a clear lane as much as possible.

“As long as you are prepared for him and he runs straight, he should run big,” Brown said. “Just hoping for a good trip. Obviously, we have half as many horses to run down, so that should hopefully be a little easier on him. I just hope he runs the same race as in the Derby.”

McPeek would also take that from Mystik Dan, especially considering the route he got at Churchill Downs from jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. Also back from that race are sixth-place finisher Resilience (10-1), eighth-place Honor Marie (12-1) and 10th-place Dornoch (15-1), who is owned in part by World Series winner Jayson Werth.

Making the Belmont so attractive for owners and trainers is the setting at Saratoga. It’s being run upstate for the next two years while Belmont Park in New York is undergoing a massive, $455 million reconstruction.

“Everyone’s really anticipating this being really a historic and exciting weekend,” said Brown, who grew up in nearby Mechanicsville and got into racing going to the track in Saratoga Springs with his family. “For me, personally, the idea of possibly winning the first Belmont Stakes ever run at Saratoga would just be an incredible moment.”

Easier said than done given the depth of this field. But McPeek did not shy away from it, knowing all the talent Mystik Dan must face to take two-thirds of the Triple Crown.

“How the race sets up is so unique,” McPeek said. “Mystik Dan is such a unique horse in that he’s got tactical speed, and I think that put him in a position to be able to win the Derby. Of course (there is also) the running style of Sierra Leone’s counter to Mystik Dan and then Seize the Grey. We’ve got a speed horse, a stalker, and we’ve got a closer.

“It’s going to be an interesting race to handicap for players and for jockeys. … It gives us a chance to really prove ourselves again.”

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