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In a close call, Belmont field looks like pick 'em

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Pick a horse.

Any horse.

And take your chances.

Welcome to the Belmont Park Fair, with the main event Saturday at 6:35 p.m. as the 138th running of the Belmont Stakes concludes this year's Triple Crown season with a sense of . . . uncertainty.

Yesterday's draw, with a 12-horse field, was more noteworthy for who was not here than who was present.

Start at the top and work through the hopefuls who began the Triple Crown season five weeks ago.

Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro: Absent. Down with a career-ending injury suffered in the Preakness.

Preakness winner Bernardini: Absent. Too tired. We'll see him at Saratoga.

Santa Anita Derby winner Brother Derek: Absent. Back in California preparing for a summer at Del Mar.

Illinois Derby winner Sweetnorthernsaint: Absent. Used all his energy finishing second in the Preakness.

Arkansas Derby winner Lawyer Ron: Absent. Pondering his future with new owners.

Which leaves what for the Belmont?

The only horse in the field with a Grade 1 race is Bob and John, who won the Wood at Aqueduct April 8. For only the third time in 36 years, the Belmont has neither a Kentucky Derby nor a Preakness winner running. The last time it happened was in 2000, when Commendable, an 18-1 shot, emerged as the winner.

Similar results could happen Saturday if Bluegrass Cat, established as the morning-line favorite at 3-1, comes up short, as he did in the Kentucky Derby when he finished second to Barbaro by 6 1/2 lengths.

From an oddsmaker's standpoint, the Belmont could be trainer Todd Pletcher's coming-out party as the Eclipse Award winner goes after his first victory in a Triple Crown race with Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver, a 4-1 pick in the morning line.

After yesterday's draw -- which put Bluegrass Cat in the No. 9 post and Sunriver at No. 2 -- Pletcher was asked if Bluegrass Cat's five-week layoff -- he skipped the Preakness -- would be a factor.

``We've tried to pick up his workload a little bit," Pletcher said. ``Five weeks has worked well for Belmont horses in the past."

Pletcher also picks up a bonus with the return of jockey John Velazquez, who was injured in a spill at Keeneland in April, but returned ahead of schedule last week and will ride Bluegrass Cat.

``He's recovered quicker than we had originally hoped," Pletcher said. ``When he was injured, we weren't sure if he would be back for even Saratoga. So he's really healed quickly."

Sunriver might have been a Kentucky Derby contender, but he failed to earn enough money to get a Derby slot and has bided his time at Belmont, with a win in the Grade 2 Peter Pan May 20. The Peter Pan winner has won the Belmont five times, most recently in 1999, when Lemon Drop Kid pulled off the double.

``In the long-term best interests of the horse, missing the Derby probably set him up better for the Belmont," Pletcher said.

If you get past the Pletcher combination, however, you can choose any path to find a winner.

``It's going to be a great betting race," said Richard Violette Jr., who will run High Finance, a 12-1 morning-line pick, although he has never run a race longer than a mile (the Belmont is 1 1/2 miles). ``I don't know what's better for racing, having smaller fields or a bigger field like this, where anything can happen."

In April, Bob and John won the Wood at Aqueduct in the slop, but then finished 17th in the Kentucky Derby and has not run since.

With no early speed in the field, a quick pace will not be an issue, although it should be interesting to see how the jockeys will handle their mounts coming out of the gate.

Hemingway's Key, third behind Bernardini and Sweetnorthernsaint in the Preakness, could be a factor at the end. ``This horse has a lot of energy," trainer Nick Zito said. ``You've got to do a lot to get him tired."

Then there are the come-from-behind contenders such as Steppenwolfer, who rallied for third in the Derby, and Jazil, who finished in a dead-heat for fourth in the Derby.

With the added distance and a five-week rest, both could be contenders down the stretch.

But in a season that started with uncertainty, the closing arguments as to who is Triple Crown worthy still remains.

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