In the 136-year history of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), according to New York Racing Association officials, no maiden has won the "Test of the Champion." Challenging that time-tested theory in the 1 ½-mile classic Saturday are breeder-owner Ken Ramsey and trainer Dale Romans with Nolan's Cat.
out of the Easy Goer (winner of the 1989 Belmont) mare Single Goer, Nolan's Cat is winless in five starts, but he is not a no-hoper. He has run second three times and third once. All of the 3-year-old's races have come a mile or more. His first start came late in his 2-year-old year, Dec. 10 at Turfway Park, where he ran third going a mile. His last start came at 1 ¼ miles at Churchill Downs May 14 where he was beaten a half-length by fellow Belmont starter A.P. Arrow.
"He had some little nagging problems," Romans said from the Belmont backstretch Thursday morning regarding the colt's late arrival to the races. "It just slowed down his progress as a 2-year-old. He's a great big horse; he wasn't quite as mature as he needed to be to get him there early.
"We've always been high on him and thought this would be the race we'd end up in, but we never expected to be doing it with him still as a maiden," he said.
Nolan's Cat spent the winter at Palm Meadows training center in South Florida. He made three starts at Gulfstream Park, twice running into buzzsaws. On Feb. 5, Nolan's Cat closed from ninth to finish fourth going 1 1/8 miles. The winner? Noble Causeway, who would go on to run second in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and compete in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (both gr. I). On March 5, also going nine furlongs, Nolan's Cat closed from eighth to run second. The winner? Coin Silver, who would win the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) in his next start and also run in the Derby. The third-place finisher in that March 5 race was Watchmon, a horse Nolan's Cat will face again on Saturday.
Then Romans' barn at Palm Meadows was quarantined after an outbreak of strangles.
"He got tied up in the quarantine, or I don't think we'd be bringing a maiden over here," the 38-year-old Romans said. "I think that really cost us. This horse always showed us a lot of promise. But it's just been a series of unfortunate events is the reason he's coming in here a maiden."
The fact he's sending a maiden out against Afleet Alex and Giacomo doesn't faze the Louisville resident.
"I've run a maiden in a stakes one time and she won," he said. "The only time I did it. It was a 2-year-old, Open Story."
Open Story set a track record for five furlongs while dead-heating with City Street in the Three Chimneys Juvenile Stakes at Churchill Downs on Derby day in 2001.
"But I've done a lot of things that have been considered unconventional, and some of them have worked and some of them haven't," he said.
Nolan's Cat, who will break from post one, is listed at 50-1 on the morning line but Romans is feeling some love.
"I've had a lot more support than what I've expected," he said after his arrival at Belmont Park Wednesday. "He's run with good horses at shorter distances. I think this mile and a half he's going to love. If he can finish the last quarter better than the rest of them, he'll be in the picture."