Early the morning of June 7, the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) had a clear favorite.
A foot abscess knocked the reigning 2-year-old champion male out of the 1 1/2-mile classic, and left the rest of the entrants' connections to wonder how the race will play out in his absence.
Trainer Graham Motion described his feelings regarding Irish War Cry's position in the race—which shifted from main challenger to morning-line favorite—as "peculiar."
"It's a little peculiar, to be honest," Motion said. "There's not a horse that would have had more of an impact on the race. But it's still a mile and a half and there is plenty of unknown territory. We're all really just hoping."
The synchronicity of the two colts' 3-year-old campaigns also was not lost on Motion. The two first met in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park, where Irish War Cry won and defeated third-place finisher Classic Empire by 8 3/4 lengths. Motion was also targeting the Betfair.com Haskell Invitational (G1) July 30 at Monmouth Park, which Classic Empire's trainer, Mark Casse, said would be under consideration for his colt, assuming his foot issues subside.
"There are some ironies there," Motion said. "The abscess probably played a part in the Holy Bull and now they're going to the Haskell, which is a race we were seriously looking forward to running in, with Irish War Cry being a New Jersey-bred."
The prevailing sentiment from the other trainers in the race, however, was empathy. They've all been in Casse's spot, when a good horse faces a setback and misses a big race.
"Any time you don't have to run against a good horse, I guess you're glad, but you don't wish that on anybody," said Kenny McPeek, trainer of Preakness Stakes (G1) third-place finisher Senior Investment. "We're just worrying about our horse today, but I'm sorry to hear that about such a good horse."
"It's very unfortunate," said John Shirreffs, who trains Belmont entrant Gormley and also experienced Triple Crown disappointment first-hand when Royal Mo missed the Preakness and was retired following an injury during training for the race. "Horses are just so unpredictable. It's a blessing when you get up and they're OK."
The possible frontrunner in the race, Silverton Hill's Meantime—who came in second last time out May 13 in the Peter Pan Stakes (G3)—could benefit most from Classic Empire's absence, if the Preakness runner-up was going to employ the same pressing tactics he used in the second Triple Crown leg.
"I feel bad for (Casse). No one wants to lose a horse who has been in contention for the first two legs (of the Triple Crown) and has a chance of winning the last," said Meantime's trainer, Brian Lynch. "But the race is wide open now, and I think a horse that can lay close is always very effective in the Belmont. I wouldn't think they'd try to go with us, but I definitely thought we'd be the rabbit for him.
"As it is now, I think it's very wide open. A horse that can get to the front and dictate the terms—the big question is, can he get the mile and a half?"