For a barn that presents the slogan "Why not us?" the assumption was logical.
When Blended Citizen, an also-eligible entrant for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), didn't get into the field for the first leg of the Triple Crown, a start in the Preakness Stakes (G1) seemed like a cinch.
"I was thinking the Preakness, too," said trainer Doug O'Neill, whose operation never shies away from sending out horses on the biggest stages in the sport. "But going to Belmont, that was Steve Young—all him."
Young, whose Sayjay Racing is the majority owner of the Proud Citizen colt, felt the second leg of the Triple Crown lends itself to speed horses, and Blended Citizen needs to come from behind. That meant if the connections wanted to run in a classic, the June 9 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) would have to be it.
"He was adamant, and he thought the Belmont was our best chance to win a Triple Crown race," O'Neill said.
They could have waited to run in the Belmont without a race prep, but the horse gave his own advice through his actions.
"We thought we could have saved him for the Belmont, but he was so ready to run, we couldn't wait that long," said assistant trainer Leandro Mora, who has overseen the colt's training during Belmont week.
He was indeed ready to run.
Although he entered the Peter Pan Stakes (G3) at Belmont Park winless in four starts on dirt, Blended Citizen handled the surface just fine May 12, when he kicked away from favored Core Beliefs to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Young feels Blended Citizen's upswing in performance has more to do with the addition of blinkers than the surface on which he runs. After seven starts without the equipment, O'Neill added blinkers for the March 17 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) over the all-weather track at Turfway Park, and the bay colt responded with a closing neck victory to earn his first stakes win.
O'Neill goes a little deeper than that. Blended Citizen began his career on dirt, and in three starts as a 2-year-old he was never really involved, which was confounding considering the way he was training.
"I was baffled by how poorly he was running early on," O'Neill said. "But the dirt races were too fast for him."
"It took him a while, but trying the turf, everything slows down," O'Neill said. "He's unique, though, because most (horses) who don't fire on dirt, who go to turf and have an 'ah-ha' moment—they're a turf horse. This guy always worked like a champ on dirt, and we weren't getting everything out of him.
"I wasn't sure what the hell was going on with him back then, but the move to turf and synthetic really helped his maturity."
Blended Citizen is unique in another respect. Despite being based in Southern California for most of his career, he is the only Belmont Stakes entrant with race experience over the Belmont main track.
"Win, lose, or draw Saturday, what a great prep (in the Peter Pan) and idea by Steve Young," O'Neill said of the bid to upset Justify's quest for the Triple Crown. "And to be able to take a shot at a Triple Crown race is special."