Horse racing: First Dude looks to set the Belmont pace
By MIKE FARRELL
NEW YORK — Pace makes the race, handicappers have long advised.
Nowhere is that more true than in the 1› mile Belmont Stakes on Saturday afternoon.
Horses that go too fast in the early stages have little left for the long run down the Belmont Park stretch. Wait too long, and the race can be over before a 3-year-old finds his best gear.
First Dude figures to again be the key to the pace, just as he was in the Preakness. Jockey Ramon Dominguez did an outstanding job that afternoon at Pimlico, sending First Dude to the front through fairly quick fractions. The colt had enough reserve energy left to get second, beaten only three quarters of a length by Lookin At Lucky.
Against 11 rivals in the Belmont, First Dude and Dominguez will look to again set the pace after breaking from post No. 11 as the 7-2 second choice.
"All the press keeps telling us we'll be on a solo lead," said trainer Dale Romans. "I hope you're all right, and with a slow pace.
"But things never work out really like they should on paper and if somebody else decided to change their game plan and send from the inside, we are in a good spot from the outside to sit right off them. If there isn't enough pace, we will be willing to go on like we did in the Preakness."
The ultimate judge of the Belmont pace will be Dominguez.
"I think he'll know how his horse feels under him, and as long as he's nice and relaxed like he was in the Preakness, that is the key," Romans said. "He was going fast but he was relaxed and comfortable and not fighting him and that's why I think he had some horse to kick home. If he's on the lead, as long as he's relaxed and comfortable, I'll be happy with it."
LOOKING AT HISTORY: Alexis Barba has been enjoying the sights and sounds of New York, a pleasant diversion from the serious business of trying to win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday and becoming the first female trainer to capture a Triple Crown race.
Shelly Riley came closest when Casual Lies ran second in the 1992 Kentucky Derby.
Barba gets a second chance this year with Make Music for Me, 10-1 in the Belmont.
On Tuesday afternoon, the 57-year-old Barba visited the Empire State Building for a promotional photo opportunity.
"It was fun to see the view," Barba said. "I'd been up there before, but it was at night. That's a lot different."
Back at Belmont, Barba has been focused on getting her colt ready for the challenge ahead. This time, Make Music for Me will command more respect than in the Derby
The horse was an afterthought at Churchill Downs, a runner who slipped in at the last moment when a more accomplished horse withdrew only hours before entries closed.
The winner of only one of nine races showed he belonged. The early trailer in the 20-horse field at 30-1 odds, Make Music for Me swung eight wide under jockey Joel Rosario and closed determinedly to finish fourth.
Barba opted to skip the Preakness and point the colt toward the Belmont.
Eight women have saddled Belmont runners. Linda Rice was the most recent, getting fifth with Supervisor in 2003.
Barba doesn't tire of people asking about her quest to break the Triple Crown gender barrier.
"I suppose it's a legitimate question, but anybody who wins any Triple Crown race — who's going to be happier? It's unexplainable. So it's fun, it would definitely be historical," Barba said.
ZITO OMENS: Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito is a big believer in lucky omens and the power of dreams. Zito is on the hunt for positives as he prepares Ice Box, the 3-1 favorite, and Fly Down, 9-2, for the Belmont.
Finding a four-leaf clover or a heads-up penny is always welcome. So are dreams with good outcomes. So far, the signals are mixed.
"I've had some weird dreams," Zito said. "I don't know what they mean. Maybe it will all work out. God controls all that works out but I've had a few nice dreams and a few whatever dreams. I just hope it works out good."
MISSING THE BUZZ: The Belmont lost much of its buzz when Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver finished eighth in the Preakness, ending a possible run at the Triple Crown.
After the loss at Pimlico, trainer Todd Pletcher opted to give Super Saver a vacation, taking him out of consideration for the Belmont. While that makes the job easier for the 12 horses in the race, Nick Zito was pulling for another chance to upset a horse going for the sweep.
Zito has already done it twice. His Birdstone denied Smarty Jones a Triple Crown in the 2004 Belmont. In 2008, Da' Tara took the Belmont as Triple Crown hopeful Big Brown was eased under the wire.
"It would have been great," Zito said. "Todd (Pletcher) is from Dallas and I don't think he knows much about pizza. But it would have been an unbelievable story because I knew I was going to have a horse in the race. It would be great for racing but it didn't happen."
FINISH LINES: The Empire State Building will be bathed in green and white lights Friday night, the traditional colors of Belmont Park and the Belmont Stakes. ... David Grening of the Daily Racing Form and Bob Fortus of the New Orleans Times-Picayune were winners of the inaugural Joe Hirsch Memorial Writing Contest for the best stories on the 2009 Belmont.