Evan Hammonds goes to the Belmont - and takes you along for the ride!

Evan Hammonds goes to the Belmont - and takes you along for the ride!

Friday Morning Line at the Belmont

Winning Colors
11:30 a.m.

In front of the statue of Secretariat in the paddock, a podium has been set up. Flanking the podium are two flags: the red, white, and blue and an orange Nassau County flag. They're winning colors, that's for sure.

It's a press conference to tout the economic impact Belmont Park has on Nassau County. Speaking out are Nassau County legislator Dave Mejias, Regina Zara of the Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau and Sports Comission, and Bill Nader, senior vice president of the New York Racing Association.

They discuss all the great things taking place and the money that pours into the area during Belmont week.

Also speaking up are a pair of Belmont Stakes participants: trainer Danny Peitz and jockey Mike Luzzi. Peitz, an Arkansas native who now lives in the area, will send out Steppenwolfer in the Belmont. Luzzi will pilot Double Galore.

"It's always important to have a big crowd," Peitz said. "It's a great card, with all the stakes they're running, and the Belmont's going to be a very competitive race.

"Before you leave out of here, I suggest you run in and get you a little ticket on Steppenwolfer for tomorrow," he says, hoping to boost handle a little bit.

Luzzi, who admitted he's on a longshot tomorrow, compared riding at Belmont Park to playing baseball at Yankee Stadium or performing at Madison Square Garden.

"To be a jockey in New York is the most prestigious thing a professional rider can be," he says.

We're Talking High Finance Here
10:10 a.m.

We run into jockey Richard Migliore on the backside. One of New York's top jocks, he's without a mount in tomorrow's big race. "The Mig" is a pretty smart cookie, and since he doesn't have a dog in this fight, we'll ask his opinion.

"I think you've got to respect (trainer Todd) Pletcher's horses. Jazil. Steppenwolfer. The horses that came out of the Derby," he says. "I think the Derby gives you enough bottom to perform well at a mile and a half here, even with the five weeks. The Derby is such a stressful race but at least they have time to recover and get something out of it at the same time.

"An interesting horse to me, is the speed horse, the West Point horse, Rick Violette's horse, High Finance," he says. "Just looking at the race, it looks like he might be able to gallop off with like a nice, comfortable lead and a soft pace. It looks like he's got some quality. It wouldn't surprise me to see him take them a long way, if not all the way."

Migliore notes the son of Talk Is Money broke through the gate prior to his last start, a five-length win in an allowance race.

"He broke through the gate. They reloaded him, and for him to still be settled enough to make a comfortable pace and to finish the way he did...and then the way he worked out here last week."

High Finance was sent out a mile May 28 and went in 1:38 2/5 breezing.

"They shipped him over from Aqueduct last week," Migliore says. "Horses don't work that well, normally. I thought that work was sensational. That kind of got me interested in him. I think he's a horse that might get overlooked but might have a lot to say about the outcome."

Third Time's a Charm
9:35 a.m.

Back at Barn 10, home of trainer Tom Albertrani, are Irene and Joseph LaCombe. The LaCombes bred and own Belmont Stakes (gr. I) starter Deputy Glitters.

The son of Deputy Commander ran eighth in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) five weeks ago. Back in March, he beat Belmont morning-line favorite Bluegrass Cat in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. IIII).

The LaCombes, who live in West Palm Beach, Fla., got into town yesterday. Tomorrow, the LaCombes will be at the track early.

"I like to get there before the crowd," Joseph says. "I usually watch the races, but it's hard to concentrate on anything before your race."

"We know the horse can go the distance and this is a nice, logical step for him," Joseph LaCombe says of the mile and a half task that stands before him Saturday. He's excited about a key jockey switch for Deputy Glitters in the Belmont.

"We were very happy with (jockey) Jose Lezcano. He's a bright young jockey; a comer. But we're delighted we have Edgar Prado. He's one of the best in the country."

Prado was the jockey of Barbaro in the Derby and Preakness. With the classic winner's injury, the rider became available. He's also won two Belmonts, breaking up Triple Crown bids both times. He put a stop to War Emblem's bid in 2002 with Sarava and beat Smarty Jones in 2004 with Birdstone.

"Third time's a charm," says Irene.

Tough Handicapping
9:25 a.m.

On the apron outside the clubhouse is Eddie Mussleman, aka Indian Charlie. He's rounding up some info for his backstretch "sheet."

He's pondering his Belmont pick for tomorrow's edition. It's likely he'll take Jazil on top. Jazil finished in a dead-heat for fourth in the Derby. To round out his exacta, Injun Chuck is thinking about zigging while everybody else zags in taking a horse no one else is picking. That might wind up being High Finance.

"It's a tough heat," he says. "There are only a couple of horses I can throw out. There are six, seven, even eight horses that can win this thing."

Making His Point
9:15 a.m.

Terry Finley is sitting behind the wheel of his car waiting for some horses to pass before he can proceed. Finley operates West Point Stable, a partnership group based in New Jersey. They had a horse in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) in Flashy Bull. They have a horse for the Belmont, too, in High Finance.

Each horse has different ownership, and High Finance has 14 different owners according to Finley. There were 17 in on Flashy Bull. Five or six are crossovers, or are in on both horses.

"It's pretty cool," Finley says. "They get a shot to be on the big dance floor one more time."

High Finance is trained by Richard Violette who is based at Aqueduct. The colt ran a hole in the wind May 4 at Belmont, winning a mile allowance race by five lengths. A step up to grade I company and another half-mile is asking a lot.

"I don't bet a whole lot," Finley says. "I do try to stay away from the windows, but I love this horse. I really do. But I know there are also eight or nine other guys that are confident, too. It's not a marquee race in terms of 'names' but it's still the Belmont.

"I talked to (jockey Eibar) Coa the other night and he couldn't say enough. It's cool to see how much confidence he has. Violette and I have been together for about six years and I've never seen him so confident. So, it looks like the karma's coming together. We are a streaky stable -- it seems like when we win races, we get on a roll. We've won six or seven races in the last month, so I hope we've got one more in us."

The Belmont Stakes is old hat to Finley.

"We used to come to the Belmont; me and my old man used to get on the train in Trenton,' he says. "It was probably '79. We'd take New Jersey Transit and go right into Penn Station and change trains. It'd be a great day."

Absolutely Fabulous
9:05 a.m.

I get a phone call from Bob Curran from The Jockey Club. He has called to tell me about last night's Belmont Bash, a fundraiser for the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and World Hunger Year.

World Hunger Year was founded by the late singer/songwriter Harry Chapin. His daughter, Jen, was in attendance. Harry Chapin wrote and performed such '70s staples as "Cat's in the Cradle," "Taxi," and "WOLD."

Curran notes there were about 275 at the party. It was held in the city at the Hard Rock Café in Times Square which is housed in the old Paramount Hotel and Theatre.

The Paramount was the scene of the premiere for Elvis Presley's first movie, "Love Me Tender" back in 1959. Last night's entertainment was the Fab Faux.

The Fab Faux is a Beatles tribute band, but there are five members, not four. Also, unlike other tribute groups, they don't dress the part, i.e. no "mop top" wigs or suits, they just play the music. Apparently, they perform their jobs very well.

The Fab Faux' set list that Curran provides covers a lot of ground. The band played everything from "Sgt. Peppers" and "Day Tripper" to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

On the apron at Belmont, a review of the show gets two thumbs up from the American Association of Equine Practitioners' Dr. Larry Bramlage and spokesperson Sally Baker.

Bramlage remembers watching the real Beatles perform on the "Ed Sullivan Show" back in the early '60s, but said he was more a fan of groups like Chicago, Santana, and Three Dog Night while growing up.

The Bash also featured a live auction, featuring local DJ Pete Fornatale and Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron. Six items, including a weekend package to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Hall of Fame induction ceremony and a Jersey Shore package with tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert and Parterre box at Monmouth Park, were auctioned off.

Doubling Your Pleasure
8:30 a.m.

Rafael Martinez bellies up to the counter at the Morning Line, the backstretch kitchen. He's not after food or coffee, but a track program for the races.

Martinez is the assistant trainer for Myung Kwon Cho, the breeder-owner-trainer of Belmont Stakes (gr. I) starter Double Galore. Double Galore just broke his maiden in his last start and is an outsider for tomorrow's race.

Martinez is an outsider, too, in that this is his first trip to New York. He didn't get into the city for sightseeing yesterday, but says he may stay an extra day to take in the Big Apple.

"There's too much to do, and I want to stay close to the horse," he says of getting away from Belmont for an afternoon. "After the race, it'll be more relaxed."

His horse is going out for a relaxing gallop after the break.

Draft Selection
8:30 a.m.

Showing up outside Barn 7 are Janice and Bob McNair of Stonerside Stables. McNair is the managing partner of the Houston Texans NFL team and owns Belmont starter Bob and John.

Bob and John is named for McNair and his racing manager John Adger.

McNair was in the city yesterday for a meeting with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Today, he's here to watch his colt prepare for the Belmont. Stonerside also will send out Too Much Bling in the Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. II).

At last month's NFL draft, the Texans took Mario Williams with the first pick instead of Southern Cal's star running back Reggie Bush.

Any fallout from that selection?

"The draft went exceptionally well for us," he says. "We caught flack, but flack doesn't determine football games, players do. We caught flack because people knew some of the players but they didn't know Mario Williams. Now, they're getting to know Mario and, when they see him play, they'll understand why we picked him."

Drafting football players is like picking yearlings out of a sale.

"You're projecting how much they're going to improve, but one never knows," McNair says.

Track Man
8:15 a.m.

"Come on wind. Come on sun."

That is the mantra at the time from trainer Pat Kelly. The trainer is wondering about the track surface that has been pounded by rain for days. The sun is out now, but there is plenty of standing water on the surface.

"The wind and sun are our allies," he says.

Kelly has 30 horses to train. Tomorrow, Belmont day, the track will only be open from 5:30 to 8 in the morning. Kelly usually doesn't start that early, and he warns that today is payday, so his help may not be in and ready to work on time tomorrow.

The ruling on track hours on big stakes days is called "The Easy Goer Rule" according to Kelly.

"Basically, the track has the option to close the track if the weather's bad and they want to keep it sealed and keep the horses off of it on big days," he says. "The first time they had it, Easy Goer must have been running somewhere along the way in some race. Ever since then, it's been nicknamed the 'Easy Goer rule.' It's not a bad idea to not cut it (the track) up on big days.

"It helped them once with the Travers," he says. "The year Tale of the Cat set a track record (in the King's Bishop Stakes). We had monsoon rains on Friday and the next day, they didn't open it and they finally got some sun about nine o'clock and the wind blew, and they got the track pretty decent for the races. It helps them in what they have to do to get the track ready."

Amazin' Mets Fan
7:30 a.m.

Danny Peitz, the trainer of Kentucky Derby third and Belmont Stakes (gr. I) starter Steppenwolfer is a big fan of the New York Mets baseball team. He's pleased his team is in first place in the National League East this year.

If you are a Mets fan in New York, you are in for some ribbing from Yankees fans. Peitz takes it all in stride.

He can dish it out, too.

"I was dreaming that if I won the Derby, I'd get the call from Yankee Stadium and they'd want me to throw out the first pitch at a ball game," he says. "Then I could tell 'em, 'What are you guys, nuts? No way, I'm waiting on Shea Stadium to call so I can throw out a pitch for the Mets!'"

Peitz has some family in town for the Belmont. The Mets are on the road, but they got tickets to the Yankees game tonight in the Bronx. Danny isn't going with them.

Steppenwolfer galloped a mile a half this morning. Peitz is happy, but is keeping one eye on the weather.

Today, the sun is out and drying out the track, but more rain is in the forecast for later today.

Long May You Run
7:10 a.m.

Trainer Jimmy Jerkens leans up against the wall outside Barn 56. His Belmont runner, Oh So Awesome has just come back from the track, where he galloped a mile and three-eighths.

Oh So Awesome was a European purchase by Barry Irwin's Team Valor Stable. The colt has only been in the U.S. for about a month and-a-half according to Jerkens.

How does he take a horse like this and prepare him for the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes (gr. I)?

"I can take what he's had and build on it," Jerkens says. "He's got a lot of stamina. He's shown that in his racing. Anytime a horse runs a mile and a quarter as a 3-year-old..." he chuckles.

Oh So Awesome ran once at a mile and a quarter -- as a 2-year-old, and has run at 1 5/16 miles twice this year, winning a handicap race over heavy going at Saint-Cloud in March.

In his lone U.S. start, the son of Awesome Again  ran a closing third in the off-the-turf Match the Hatch Stakes at Belmont May 19 at 1 1/16 miles over a sealed track.

"We're trying to do a little bit of both; sharpen him and keep his fitness," Jerkens said of his training style. "We worked him long a week ago (seven furlongs in 1:27 4/5) and sharpened him up a couple of days ago (four furlongs in :48 3/5 on Wednesday).

Even with sprinters, we've always had a lot of luck doing that," he says. "It keeps their heads screwed on a little better.

As for the race, Jerkens says it's a head-scratcher

"You never know. Everybody is going to be trying to save their horses. I don't know who is going to be in front. They might swap leads a 100 times before it's all over."

I'm Telling You, He's Awesome
7:05 a.m.

Wandering toward trainer Jimmy Jerkens barn, we are met by Toba Elliott, one of Jerkens' employees.

"There's your winner of the Belmont Stakes," he says loudly in a thick Jamaican accent. "Oh So Awesome. He'll run all day."

Elliott has worked for Jerkens for some time. "It's a pleasure to work for him," he reports. "He's a good horseman.

Prior to that, Elliott worked with Jerken's Hall of Fame father, Allan.

"It's been a pleasure working for these two gentlemen," Elliott says.

Elliott remembers to the day when he first came to work on the racetrack.

"Nineteen eighty-five; the twenty-third of April," he says. "I'll never forget that day. I worked for one of the greatest human beings on this earth. Billy Hirsch."