Now.  I know what you're thinking.  "The Belmont?  Who cares?"  Well I care! And you should too!  Even though there is no chance of a Triple Crown winner emerging from Saturday's race, the rubber match between Shackleford and Animal Kingdom will certainly be a great watch.  Here are my thoughts on the race:

The Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes have yielded some very interesting story lines ahead of Saturday's Belmont Stakes.  For example, can Shackleford run the same race he has in the previous two and expect to hold off late runs with so much more track to run?  The Belmont is a mile and a half long, the longest of the Triple Crown races.  Shackleford won the mile and three sixteenth Preakness, holding off the late run of Animal Kingdom.  However, he was over taken by the same run in the Derby, which is only half a furlong longer.  Can he run the same type of race and realistically expect to win?

How about whether or not Mucho Macho Man will ever live up to billing.  He's coming off a good, yet disappointing third place showing in the Derby and a really poor effort in the Preakness, in which the horse had no response to his jockey.  Will he show up this time around?

Will Animal Kingdom be able to rebound off a game, yet disappointing run in the Preakness, and how will the entry of new comers into the race effect this effort?  There are three horses entered in the Belmont who have not run a Triple Crown race.  Can one of them come out of no where and surprise the favorite?



Oh.  You want the answers?  Well I aint got 'em, I aint Miss Cleo.  Shoot.  But I guess I can channel my inner psychic and venture an educated guess.  Here's how I see the race shaking out:

Out of the starting gate Shackleford will race for and get the early lead.  It'll be a harsh run down the long front stretch at Belmont for him, though.  His post twelve starting position leaves him on the right flank of the field, which will make his run to the lead a long one.  I think he'll also be challenged by newcomer Prime Cut.  Those two will take the lead into the clubhouse turn with Ruler on Ice, Santiva, Nehro, and Mucho Macho Man just off the lead.  Animal Kingdom will, as always, be sitting deep in the back of the pack.  This will hold all the way down the back stretch.

At the top of the second turn, Shackleford will still be on the lead with Prime Cut still close on his heels.  Nehro and Mucho Macho Man will be  beginning their move to the front, with Animal Kingdom still thunder deep in the field.  Then, at the top of the stretch, the race will take shape.  Shackleford will be coming back to the field, with Nehro and Mucho Macho Man coming fast.  Animal Kingdom and relative long-shot Master of Hounds will be just beginning their late runs.

And the race is on.  To me, Shackleford, game as always, will be near the lead for a while, but the race is too long, and he will have expended too much energy to get the lead in the first place.  I ultimately think he'll succumb to the runs of Mucho Macho Man and Nehro.  I do see his partner at the front of the race, Prime Cut, staying up front however.  This horse has run seven races, including a grade two and a grade three stakes race, and finished out of the money in only his first race. However, this is his first grade one stakes; I can't expect him to hang on with the likes of Nehro and Mucho Macho Man.   He'll be over taken by them, and just as they strike the lead, the freight train will start coming.

That freight train?  Master of Hounds...What?  Not who you expected?  Master of Hounds ran a quiet, yet very impressive Derby.  He closed with a tremendous kick in the final furlong and flew to a fifth place finish.  I was very impressed by his run and I expect him to be charging late.  However, no one in this race has the late kick of Animal Kingdom.  We've seen it in two straight races.  Dude brings it hard down the front stretch.  In the Kentucky Derby, Animal Kingdom waited until the middle of the final turn to angle out, run into open space and take the Roses by two lengths.  In the Preakness, he ran the exact same race but ran out of real estate.  With an extra sixteenth of a mile (which would make the Preakness the same distance as the Derby) I think Animal Kingdom would have won.

This is a fact that I can't ignore.  Animal Kingdom used his late surge to win the Derby going away.  What could he do with an extra quarter mile?  To me?  It's win the race even bigger.  I see Animal Kingdom making his customary run seven or eight lengths off the rail to get the win.  He'll have to run down Nehro and Mucho Macho Man and hold off an impressive charge from Master of Hounds.  Ultimately though, I think Animal Kingdom runs away from all of them. Mucho Macho Man's impressive size and strength will finally make a difference in this test of stamina, he'll place.  Nehro, with three places and a win in his last four races, will show, and Master of Hounds will use the race's length and his late kick to rally up to fourth.

If you're looking for a good long-shot bet, I'd bet Master of Hounds and Prime Cut.  Prime Cut will be a double digit dog.  It's a good bet for a horse who's never finished worse than fourth.  My bets for the race (approach with caution - I'm not Miss Cleo)?  I'd bet Master of Hounds and Prime Cut across the board and box Mucho Macho Man, Animal Kingdom and Nehro.  I don't see a lot of other bets to make.  This race doesn't suit the Preakness winner, but is perfect for the impressive Animal Kingdom, who, with Nehro and Mucho Macho Man make up a three horse group that I really think is head and shoulders above the rest (eliminating Shackleford because of the race's length).

It'll be a very interesting race and should be a fun watch.  I know most won't be interested because there's no chance a horse wins the Triple Crown, but I urge you to tune in on Saturday.  If you can't watch the 18 hours of pre-game, then drop in for the three minutes of actual racing (I'm counting the loading of the horses into the gate).  This is one of the really good sporting events of the year and I hope it draws your attention.  It'll be a fun day at Belmont.