The Belmont Stakes tends to find itself at the kids' table when there is no Triple Crown on the line. The buzz is muted, the mystique is softened and the race doesn't have the widespread appeal to those outside of New York or hardcore horse players.
But at 1 1/2 miles, the longest race in the Triple Crown series, the Belmont is generally a competitive race with storylines that make things interesting. Among those, no horse in Saturday's race has ever run that far.
But maybe the distance is overrated as a factor. Veteran race trackers would tell you to just look at the race as if it were only 1 1/8 miles.
"The misconception is that deep closers do better because the horses in front tire," Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey told The Los Angeles Times in 2018 before Justify won the Triple Crown. "But in the Belmont, they don't go that fast early, so they don't slow down. The early pace is more deliberate, and the lead horse can hold on and win because they don't slow down."
It won't be known until the race begins Saturday at 3:49 p.m. PDT whether that will hold true this year. This eight-horse field certainly has its share of horses that can win the race.
— There is Rich Strike, the 80-1 winner of the Kentucky Derby who defied tradition and skipped the Preakness. Now he's out to prove he's not a fluke.
— There is a filly, Nest, who hopes to become the fourth female winner. The last one was Rags to Riches in 2007 for trainer Todd Pletcher, Nest's trainer.
— The favorite is We the People, who didn't run in either previous Triple Crown race but won the Peter Pan by 10 1/4 lengths over this same Belmont track four weeks ago. If he wins, he will likely lead the entire race. He's partially owned by celebrity chef Bobby Flay.
— And there is Mo Donegal, who has won his last three races in New York, including the Wood Memorial. He was fifth in the Kentucky Derby.
The morning-line maker has established We the People as the 2-1 favorite, followed by Mo Donegal (5-2), Rich Strike (7-2), Creative Minister (6-1), Nest (8-1), Barber Road (10-1), Skippylongstocking (20-1) and Golden Golder (20-1).
Even though We the People is the early favorite, it wouldn't surprise anyone if Mo Donegal goes off as the post-time favorite. If he wins, he will be the first horse in almost two decades to win both the Wood and Belmont. It was last done in 2003 by Empire Maker.
"He's a horse that from the very beginning showed us that he wanted to go longer," trainer Pletcher said. "We sprinted him his first start and he closed to finish third. And he came back and won going 1 1/16th of a mile. He stretched out in the Remsen and ran a very credible race in the Derby [where he finished fifth].
"He was still closing at the end. … What I liked is he kept running to the wire, kept finding a little more. He just couldn't get there in time."
Pletcher had the Belmont in mind for stablemate Nest since the beginning of the year. Her last race was a second in the Kentucky Oaks after winning her previous three races.
"The nominations close for the Triple Crown in January, and we didn't necessarily nominate her with the Derby in mind," Pletcher said. "We did nominate her with the Belmont as possibility. She's a filly that's really well bred for this race."
We the People will be the ninth horse to do the Peter Pan-Belmont double if he wins Saturday. It will be the first Belmont Stakes start for trainer Rodolphe Brisset.
"The way he has been acting is what you want to see," Brisset told New York Racing Association's communications staff. "The way he has really changed is really good. When you let him breeze and he breezes that good, it's all a good sign."
Asked how he would feel if he won the Belmont, Brisset said: "Personally, I wouldn't be able to talk for the next 20 minutes afterward."
Despite all the 3-year-old talent in the Belmont, it will be Rich Strike who will gain most of the attention from those who only follow racing a couple days a year.
A win in two of the three legs of the Triple Crown will keep him in the national spotlight. An average performance would quickly make him yesterday's news.
It's certainly not for a lack of trying that trainer Eric Reed is pointing more to the former than the latter. In fact, most mornings since the horse arrived at Belmont, they play Frank Sinatra's version of "New York, New York" in the barn so he'll be familiar with it when he hears the song before the post parade.
Reed has been very careful of keeping the same routine for his Derby winner right down to the daily 11 a.m. nap.
"He laid down the other day and had his head on a pillow [made of straw and shavings] against the wall," Reed said. "You can't make this stuff up."