The tone of the past five months and, more specifically, the last five weeks has reverberated loud and clear.
From the time classic prep races got underway, attrition has been the staunchest obstacle this year's 3-year-old males have had to overcome. It took out the most promising contender on the West Coast in Mastery . It has been an albatross reigning juvenile champion Classic Empire has been unable to shake.
And it has hung like a cloud over the final leg of the Triple Crown, a fitting scenario for a race that could serve as a microcosm for season where no sophomore has succeeded in holding the mantle of divisional leader for any length of time.
The ever-shifting landscape for this year's 3-year-old runners is set to conclude its first-half act June 10, with a wide-open edition of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G1). And while the 1 1/2-mile classic brings the curtain down on the five-week odyssey that is the Triple Crown, the notion that much divisional clarity will come along with the race result is relatively slim.
With both Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winner Always Dreaming and upstart Preakness Stakes (G1) victor Cloud Computing bypassing the Belmont, it marks the first time since 2010 that the first two legs were won by different horses and neither returned for the third. In the absence of that pair, 2-year-old champion Classic Empire was expected to be the heavy favorite to soothe his issue-filled season with a classic triumph, but that plan went out the window when the son of Pioneerof the Nile was not entered in the race June 7 due to an abscess in his right front hoof.
Of the 12 sophomores who did pass the entry box Wednesday, only Gormley and Irish War Cry have multiple graded stakes victories this season, with the former being the only grade 1 winner in the field. As much as those two stand out on back class, they are each coming off disappointing Kentucky Derby runs, where they finished ninth and 10th, respectively.
"It's pretty extraordinary. It's very odd, to be honest," Irish War Cry's trainer, Graham Motion, said of the parity heading into the Belmont. "Everyone says to you leading up to these races, 'Are you excited?' It's hard to get excited when you know things like that can happen. (What happened to Classic Empire) is a perfect example of what can happen.
"I think whoever is going to be the best 3-year-old this year is going to have to show up in the fall. And maybe it won't be one of these horses, or it will be one of these horses who steps up and shows his stuff."
Just as the complexion of the division has vacillated wildly, so too has the Belmont field itself, even less than 24 hours out from the day's card. Japanese-bred Epicharis, runner-up in the March 25 UAE Derby Sponsored By The Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (G2) at Meydan Racecourse, has been battling reported lameness in his right front, but his connections remain confident the son of Gold Allure can still run in the 12-furlong test.
That 7-2 morning-line favorite Irish War Cry wasn't even considered a Belmont contender just three weeks ago is its own testament to the fluctuations that have been the hallmark of this sophomore class. Disheartened by the way Isabelle de Tomaso's homebred colt flattened out after he seemed to have Always Dreaming measured with three furlongs to run in the Kentucky Derby, Motion initially wrote off any thought of wheeling the son of Curlin back in any of the remaining classics.
The affable trainer gave in to second thoughts after watching Cloud Computing—who was well-beaten by Irish War Cry in the April 8 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2)—best Classic Empire by a head in the Preakness. A consistently steady work horse, Irish War Cry enforced the decision to alter course and go to New York with his good physical presence and energy in the mornings. What remains to be seen is if he runs like the horse who wired the field in the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) or the one who had his connections dismayed after the first Saturday in May.
"He's a very maneuverable horse—very easy to handle. He can do whatever I want him to do, I think, so it just depends on what's happening in the race," said Rajiv Maragh, the jockey for Irish War Cry. "I just want Irish War Cry to be able to show what he's really made of ... and if it's good enough, he'll win."
Gormley shares the same win one, lose one pattern Irish War Cry brings into the Belmont. Jerry and Ann Moss' son of Malibu Moon opened his sophomore year with a head victory in the Sham Stakes (G3) but faded to fourth in the March 11 San Felipe Stakes (G2) after chasing brillaint race winner Mastery, who suffered a condylar fracture during his gallop out after the race.
Having raced just off the lead in those outings, the John Shirreffs trainee proved he could come from farther off the pace when he captured the April 8 Santa Anita Derby (G1), when he rated in the second tier. How he handles the added distance after he weakened in the lane of the Kentucky Derby is a concern. However, he was making his bid that day down the middle of the track, which many considered to be playing less favorable that the inside portion.
"I think most people look at the race as, if their horse runs his race, they're going to be happy," Shirreffs said. "For as talented a horse like Gormley, the 3-year-old year is significant because it's the classics. They only get one chance at it. As we well know, horses step up and win classics unexpectedly. There's that one chance for stardom, so you like to give horses that opportunity."
Both Irish War Cry and Gormely are capable of setting the early fractions should no one else step up to the task, but Brian Lynch-trained Meantime has done all his best running on the front end and most recently finished second in the Peter Pan Stakes (G3).
If there has been a thread of consistency this season, it has been the dependable efforts of Steve Asmussen-trained Lookin At Lee, who will become the only horse to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown this year. The son of Lookin At Lucky became the first horse since Risen Star in 1988 to hit the board in the Kentucky Derby after drawing the rail when he put in a yeoman's rally to get runner-up honors. He then followed that up with a fourth-place run in the Preakness.
The bay colt will need pace to close into, something hard to come by in the marathon Belmont. Though he hasn't won since August, Lookin At Lee has only finished worse than fourth once in eight subsequent starts since that time.
Trainer Todd Pletcher sends out a pair of entrants in Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner Tapwrit and one-eyed fan favorite Patch. The duo finished sixth and 14th, respectively, in the Kentucky Derby, with Tapwrit's run better than it looked after he incurred trouble at the start.
Regardless which youngster gets their talents to hold up over Big Sandy Saturday, the general consensus is that the 3-year-old crop still has some work to do before it can be deemed better that its current erratic label.
"Anyone can win it," said trainer Dale Romans, who will saddle grade 3 winner J Boys Echo in the Belmont. "I think you will see a good horse emerge from this race. It has been wide open all year. It's an odd race when you don't have the Derby or Preakness winner in it. Automatically you are going to figure, if you don't have the two best 3-year-olds, you are going to knock the race. But let's wait six months and then look back and see if that is completely correct."