Amazing what a difference 9 ½-furlong crawl makes in the grand scheme of the Triple Crown.
A standing ovation becomes an uncomfortable silence.
The Grand Canyon becomes a pothole.
Fundamentalists take over Las Vegas.
Niagara Falls becomes a babbling brook.
Anticipation of the first successful Triple Crown bid in 35 years would have made the Belmont Stakes the toughest ticket in the Big Apple and New York Racing Association officials would be girding for a crowd in excess of 100,000 and hoping that the plumbing and air conditioning hold up.
Had Orb followed his dominant Kentucky Derby victory with another in the Preakness, his name would be on the tips of a million tongues and discussion of his Belmont Stakes prospects would dominate the conversation at every racetrack, betting shop and saloon in the land. Anticipation of the first successful Triple Crown bid in 35 years would have made the Belmont Stakes the toughest ticket in the Big Apple and New York Racing Association officials would be girding for a crowd in excess of 100,000 and hoping that the plumbing and air conditioning hold up.
But a an uncharacteristic effort over ground on which he never appeared comfortable and an indecisive ride left him trailing well behind the unlikely Oxbow, who is no more a star after his monumentally slow but unmolested, wire-to-wire tour of Pimlico than he was before the Preakness.
The racing card at Belmont Park on June 8 will be very strong and horseplayers will look forward to a challenging afternoon. There will be a fat guarantee attached to the late pick-four and, ideally, a substantial pick-six carryover. But there will be no need for two races to be run after the Belmont to permit orderly exit. Public transport will not be tested. Attendance may very well not exceed 40,000 or so. Television ratings will suffer for the lack of drama and historical consequence. The boost to local commerce in Eastern Queens and Western Nassau County will be less of a windfall.
Had the Preakness been a more contentious, truly run race in which Orb was meaningfully involved, there would be reason to conjure some anticipation in advance of the Belmont, but, sorry, what's left is a 12-furlong marathon that holds little suspense and no historical importance.
The theme, if indeed there is a theme, involves the redemption of Orb, though his participation is not a foregone conclusion in the aftermath of Baltimore. Oxbow will start but it is almost impossible to envision him being effective in a truly run12-furlong race and he is more than likely to revert to his place in the division's pecking order pre-Pimlico. This time, the main speed (remember Goldencents?) will not be strangled into submission by the overrated Kevin Krigger. The Preakness was an aberration and the more we see of Oxbow, the more evident that will become. It was a nice story -- the 77-year-old trainer, 50-year-old jockey and 15-1 longshot win one for Medicare -- but little more.
More immediately at hand, though, the 145th Belmont, despite a Triple Crown again in ashes, needs Orb to step up and right the ship.
Either Orb's Derby or Preakness was an anomaly and the Belmont would settle that issue. Should Orb's connections elect to defer, the third leg of the Triple Crown becomes little more than a stage upon which a handful of horses who failed to distinguish themselves in the Kentucky Derby scuffle for redemption that is, in the larger sense, essentially meaningless beyond the $600,000 that goes to the winner. This is a group in which trainer Todd Pletcher -- who has five potential Belmont starters -- is well represented.
Pletcher has Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze and Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary at the vanguard of his delegation to the Belmont. Both are horses of quality that could emerge from the morass with new momentum. This is causing no excitement, neither having upheld their reputations in Louisville.
What is evident almost a fortnight before the Belmont is that this crop of 3-year-olds remains undefined, that process left to the season's second half, which revolves around the Haskell Invitational, at Monmouth Park, more significantly, the Travers at Saratoga and opportunities to face older horses in the fall. These races will either see the cream rise or confuse the issue beyond reclamation.
More immediately at hand, though, the 145th Belmont, despite a Triple Crown again in ashes, needs Orb to step up and right the ship. It needs a big horse -- and Orb is still a potential star. There is no other candidate to save The Test of the Champion and lead the division into summer.
The sport will not celebrate the next Triple Crown winner on June 8, but it needs substantiation of the Kentucky Derby winner, not the next Ruler On Ice, Summer Bird or Sarava. It needs buzz, not a long communal yawn.