Dunkirk Will Prevail In Wide Open Belmont Stakes

Duane WinnCorrespondent IJune 5, 2009

KEY BISCAYNE, FL - MARCH 28:  Dunkirk ridden by jockey Garrett Gomes is led to the starters gate before racing in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 28, 2009 in Hallandale Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Saturday is the day for the 141st Belmont Stakes and the one-and-one-half mile race shapes up like this: Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, Peter Pan victor Charitable Man, and the rest of the field.

The rest of the field consists of eight horses: a Grade III winner at Hollywood Park, a pair of horses that have each finished on the board in a Grade I stake race; a listed winner in Maryland; a pair of allowance winners; and two maiden winners.

Can any of these seemingly outclassed horses spring an upset?

Well, the Belmont Stakes is just the place for something weird to happen.

As trainer Nick Zito remarked, funny things happen on the way to the winner's circle in the Belmont.

He should know.

Zito conditioned Birdstone (2004) and Da'Tara (2008) to win the Belmont at generous odds.

Yet, if Mine That Bird and Charitable Man live up to their most recent races, every one else will be running for expense money.

Mine That Bird, following an incomprehensible stretch drive to win the Run For the Roses at odds of 50-1, turned in another moxie-laden effort to nail second in the Preakness behind filly flash Rachel Alexandra. The consensus is that Mine That Bird merely ran out of room or he would be looking to complete the Triple Crown sweep Saturday.

Charitable Man won the Grade Two Futurity as a two-year-old at Belmont. Following a dreadful performance in the Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland's synthetic surface, the son of the Lemon Drop Kid redeemed himself with a scintillating victory in the Peter Pan, recording the fourth-fastest time in the stake's history.

Jockey Calvin Borel guarantees that Mine That Bird will capture the Belmont.

Charitable Man's trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he wouldn't exchange places with anyone.

Both horses have turned in brisk workouts, as if to underscore their fitness and their willingness to back up their connection's contentions that they're horses to beat.

As for the others, the only graded stakes winner among them is Chocolate Candy, winner of the Grade III El Camino Real Derby. But he has competed almost exclusively on synthetic surfaces. His only try on dirt, a fifth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, was inconclusive.

Nobody can predict how Mr. Hot Stuff, another synthetics specialist, will run on the dirt.

Was his abysmal performance in the Preakness a result of bad racing luck, a dislike of the surface, or a combination of both?

Lukas, the winner of four Belmonts, will send Luv Gov and Flying Private, to do battle Saturday. Neither horse has won anything but a maiden race, but both seem to run better as the distance lengthens.

Miner's Escape, the winner of the Federico Tesio Stakes in his last start, is trained by the ubiquitous Zito. He will also send out Brave Victory, a horse who have never won at a distance longer than seven furlongs.

Dunkirk, an upstart who was unraced at two, elbowed his way into the Triple Crown picture with a second-place finish in the Florida Derby, earning the highest speed rating among all the horses in the field.

And then there's Summer Bird, a horse who won his first race in March and who will be donning blinkers for the first time.

Of these, Dunkirk seems to have the best chance of staging an upset. The son of Unbridled's Song has a stamina- and class-laden family tree, and he is trained by Todd Pletcher, a former Lukas assistant who wins prestigious races with nearly the same frequency as his mentor in his heyday.

Another solid upset possibility is Flying Private, who was flying down the stretch at Churchill Downs to finish fourth. If he wins, it would be Lukas' 14th Triple Crown victory, which would allow him to forge ahead of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.

I'm taking the bit for Dunkirk. I like his performance in the Grade I Florida Derby, a runner-up finish in only his third career start. I respect his connections and I like his running style, which will place him in the middle of the pack, poised to pick up the pieces if the front runners falter.

This will be Mine That Bird's third race in 35 days, the primary reason I think he will come up empty Saturday. I also believe his stretch-running style puts him at a distinct disadvantage when one considers Belmont Stakes history. Horses who are close to the lead at the five-sixteenths pole are more likely to win the race than the Silky Sullivan types.

Charitable Man's victory in the Peter Pan was less impressive than it looked. He profited from suicidal fractions set by Hello Broadway (a 44.89 half-mile and a 1:08.93 for six furlongs) and he won against a softer field than he will meet Saturday.