- Bill Finley
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Kelly Breen is running a horse in the Belmont Stakes that looks completely overmatched. Which is to say he has them right where he wants them.
Before deciding to run My Adonis in this year's Belmont, Breen spent much of Tuesday watching and studying the past 20 runnings of the race. What he saw would embolden any trainer with a 3-year-old with nothing more than four legs and a pulse.
It's grueling, tiring and none of these horses have ever gone the distance before. No matter how good you might feel about things, you really never know what's going to happen.
”-- Kelly Breen, trainer My Adonis
Since 2000, Belmont Stakes winners have included Commendable ($39.60), Sarava ($14,250), Birdstone ($74), Da' Tara ($79) and, of course, the Breen-trained Ruler On Ice ($51.50) in 2011. Not a one looked as if he had a prayer coming in. But what Breen learned last year is that this is one race in which it pays to take a shot, no matter what your horse might look like on paper.
"It's a very grueling race," the trainer said. "It's grueling, tiring and none of these horses have ever gone the distance before. No matter how good you might feel about things, you really never know what's going to happen."
Not that Ruler On Ice was or is a bum. He had won an allowance in February at Philly Park and then hit the board in the Sunland Derby and the Tesio at Pimlico. But nothing about him suggested he could be competitive with the supposed heavyweights in the field such as Animal Kingdom and Shackelford. That's why he was 24-to-1, and his victory had many handicappers scratching their heads afterward.
In My Adonis, Breen has a colt with almost the same credentials. He hasn't done anything special this year, but did hit the board in the Holy Bull and the Gotham and finished third in the same Belmont prep, the Canonero II at Pimlico, which used to be the Tesio.
"Everything about this is déjà vu," Breen said. "Ruler on Ice did not get into the Kentucky Derby. We entered him and he was No. 22 on the list. This year My Adonis was entered and didn't get in. We ran both of horses in the Canonero II and neither won. Ruler on Ice came back to win the Belmont without a race in between. My Adonis will be coming back without a race in between and is looking to win the Belmont."
As Breen sees it, the race isn't always won by the best horse but by a horse that is flourishing at the right time. By the time they get to the Belmont, a lot of horses have been beaten up by the Triple Crown grind.
"The first time we made it to the Derby was with West Side Bernie and with Atomic Rain  and we did everything we could do just to get them into the race," Breen said.
"After it was over both horses were really tired, just exhausted. When you get them on the Triple Crown trail and then run them in the Derby, they are tired horses by the time it is over. Last year and this year, we've got a horse that hasn't raced in seven weeks, is coming off a dynamite work and all systems are go.
"My training right now is definitely different than Doug O'Neill's. His horse is on top of his game and he's trying to keep him there. I am trying to get our horse to a new plateau. I'll Have Another is a great horse, but if the rigors of the Triple Crown trail have gotten to him I'd like to be the one that beats him."
Kenny McPeek knows all about the seemingly strange things that can happen in the Belmont. In 2002, he took on Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem with Sarava. He had a horse that looked laughably outclassed, yet somehow won it. At the time, all he knew was that he had a fresh horse that hadn't been beaten up by the Derby or Preakness. Now he's taking another crack at it with long shots Unstoppable U and Atigun.
"This can be a weird race," McPeek said. "Sarava proved it. Da' Tara proved it. I have no fear coming in here. You can't in this game. It's a great sport because you never know what might happen. If you have one who is doing well and eating well and you have a client that wants to play the game, you have to go for it. I'll never be a 25 percent trainer because I'm more of a home run hitter than a singles hitter."
Over the past decade, Belmont has become a hitters' park, with short fences and the wind always blowing out. This is the one race in which you can't blame them for swinging for the fences.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.