ELMONT, N.Y. -- This year's Belmont Stakes won't feature a Triple Crown attempt, but it will feature a special guest.
Epicharis has traveled from across the globe -- more specifically, Japan -- to compete in the race, and that has added some sizzle in the buildup to Saturday.
The horse arrived in New York on Thursday, and everything has gone rather smoothly so far -- except for a travel hiccup at the start. Yes, even horses have to deal with airline woes.
"They were about 10 hours delayed leaving Japan due to a problem with the plane," said Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations at the New York Racing Association. "But other than that, he got here just fine."
The journey really began back in February, when Panza traveled to Tokyo to see Epicharis run and to convince his owners to bring him to New York. A $1 million bonus if the Japanese horse wins the Belmont, to go along with the regular $800,000 prize for winning the race, proved to be alluring. The bonus offered by NYRA is an incentive offered primarily in the interests of producing the strongest possible field.
As for the travel itself, it took nearly 24 hours for Epicharis to reach the Big Apple, including layovers in Anchorage and Chicago (horses have to deal with those, too). IRT, an international horse transport company with offices in Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the United Kingdom, plus Chicago and Los Angeles, handled the arrangements.
Upon arrival at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, Epicharis could proceed directly to Belmont Park, thanks to Belmont having its own quarantine facility.
"Any horse that's coming into the United States from a foreign country has to go through a quarantine period," Panza said. "It usually is 42-48 hours. Blood work is done, their temperatures are taken, they're monitored. If they are sick, or if the bloodwork is not right, they do not clear quarantine, until that horse is deemed healthy by a [U.S. Department of Agriculture] veterinarian.
"There are many equine diseases throughout the world, some of which the United States has, and some of which we don't. And if we don't have it already, we don't want it."
Epicharis emerged from his quarantine period without any problems, and was brought onto the main track at Belmont for the first time on Sunday. He's also visited the paddock and the starting gate, as the process of familiarizing him with his new surroundings continues. On Tuesday morning he completed his final workout before the race.
"He's in good form right now," said Epicharis' trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara via a translator after the workout on Tuesday. "Although it was a long trip [from Japan], he handled the trip well. He's good right now."
After would-be favorite Classic Empire was scratched Wednesday morning, Epicharis moved up to the second favorite in the Belmont Stakes at 6/1, after Lookin At Lee (5/1), despite the fact that he would be only the second Japanese horse to run in the Belmont. Lani was the first, a year ago, finishing third behind Creator and Destin.
There's reason to believe Epicharis can pull this off. He's a son of Gold Allure, who was himself a son of 1989 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence. His only defeat was a very close second place behind Thunder Snow at the UAE Derby in March.
"He's never raced with the other horses here in the field, so I can't really compare [him] with the other horses, it's difficult," Hagiwara said. "But he came here to win the race, of course."
While Epicharis will be the only foreign runner in the Belmont Stakes, there are seven other horses from abroad running in other races at Belmont Park this weekend, all from Europe. NYRA plans to continue to recruit horses from Japan, Europe and elsewhere in the years to come.
"Our job is to try to grow the sport of horse racing, and we want to try to bring top horses to New York," Panza said. "If it's just American horses, our fans have seen them run already. When you start to bring in international horses, it makes the races a little bit more sexy, it adds some more intrigue."