If you want to see the best 3-year-old colts test each other, you’re going to have wait for the Haskell Invitational July 30 at Monmouth Park.
It’s not going to happen in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown and the so-called Test of Champions. There are no champions in this race.
The best 3-year-olds are passing on the race, probably because of the 1½-mile distance — the only time horses are asked to run that far — or because of the contemporary training tendency to give horses more rest (sort of like pitch counts in baseball).
So most will wait for the 1⅛-mile Haskell, or the 1⅛-mile Jim Dandy or the 1¼-mile Travers, the last two run at Saratoga.
The Haskell has the potential to be the best 3-year-old race of the season if the field includes Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Preakness winner Cloud Computing, 2-year-old champion Classic Empire (who would have been favored in the Belmont if he hadn’t suffered a foot injury), Irish War Cry (the default favorite in the Belmont), and others.
No doubt California-based trainer Bob Baffert will have a horse ready for it, too. Looking back, Mastery, trained by Baffert, was probably the best 3-year-old until he was injured in March.
The historic Belmont is left with a bunch of ordinary 3-year-olds that remained healthy and have connections interested in trying the distance.
It also has a lukewarm favorite in Irish War Cry and maybe some opportunity to cash on a horse with long odds.
Irish War Cry looked like a winner in the Kentucky Derby as the horses turned for home, but then he faded. He will run with the early pace in the Belmont, and he has a trainer, Graham Motion, who knows how to prepare a horse to run 1½ miles. Irish War Cry has a tendency to alternately run well and then run poorly. In that case, he’s ready for a good performance.
Another contender for the early lead will be Meantime, who has won only one race but did finish second in the Peter Pan at Belmont. He is also ridden by big-money jockey Mike Smith, who will take the lead out of the gate, attempt to slow the pace to a crawl, and see if his horse can get the distance.
Irish War Cry should be tracking him, with Epicharis, Twisted Tom, and Tapwrit not far behind.
Epicharis is a Japanese horse who has been preparing for the Belmont all spring. He won four straight races in Japan by a total of 25¾ lengths. He then went to Dubai, where he finished second in the UAE Derby at 1 3/16 miles.
Unfortunately for the connections, Epicharis had a bout of lameness Wednesday. That can’t be good, but trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara said he will run.
The rest of the field is made up of horses that do their best running late and need a fast early pace to set up a furious finish. I am curious about Hollywood Handsome because his trainer, Dallas Stewart, has had a few long shots finish in the money in Triple Crown races.
Despite the length of the Belmont, the big rally from far behind rarely happens (although it did last year with Creator). The winner is usually a front-runner or a horse that can stay close to the lead.
The two most likely winners are Irish War Cry and Tapwrit. I’m not sure if it was the distance (1¼ miles) or the sloppy track conditions that affected Irish War Cry in the Derby.
I trust Motion and expect Irish War Cry to run a good race, and I think he’ll be leading at some point.
Tapwrit had a load of traffic problems while finishing sixth in the Derby. That finish was actually laudable considering his trouble. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, has proven he can prepare a horse to win the Belmont after skipping the Preakness, most recently with Palace Malice in 2013.
I still love how Tapwrit looked in two races at Tampa Bay Downs while preparing for the Derby. He had an excuse in the Blue Grass Stakes because he was unprepared for the start, and then had the traffic problems in the Derby.
Jockey Jose Ortiz needs to keep Tapwrit close to the early pace, wait patiently, and then pounce on the early leaders in the stretch.
Prediction: 1. Tapwrit; 2. Irish War Cry; 3. Twisted Tom.Joe Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeSullivan