NEW YORK -- There were 22,905 registered foals in North America among the current crop of 3-year-olds, a small percentage of whom made up the 419 who were nominated to the Triple Crown in January, followed by another six in March. And of those 425, just one will run on Saturday in the Belmont Stakes after also competing in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
Lookin At Lee is the lone horse who will make all three dances, a task whose difficulty was never more evident than on Wednesday, when Classic Empire -- who also had run in both the Derby and Preakness and would have been the favorite in the Belmont -- had to come out of the Belmont owing to an abscess in his right front foot.
Classic Empire flew to New York from Kentucky on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, "he wouldn't put the foot down," trainer Mark Casse said at his Belmont Park barn.
"He'll be better as soon as it busts open -- he'll have instant relief -- but he can't run," Casse said. "He's been too good to us."
The right front is the same foot that had an abscess after Classic Empire finished third in the Holy Bull Stakes in his first start of the year on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream Park. He did not race again until April 15, when he won the Arkansas Derby, and he then was fourth in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Preakness.
Lookin At Lee thus provides the sliver of continuity to the Triple Crown in a year in which different horses won the Derby and Preakness but neither will run in the Belmont, a situation that last occurred in 2010. Lookin At Lee was second in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness. Trainer Steve Asmussen is proud that his colt has the constitution to handle the demands of the Triple Crown, and he's obviously hoping to come away with a victory on Saturday at Belmont Park.
"He's a unique horse in how strong he is, how he takes things, how he comes out of his races, how gritty he is, how durable he is," Asmussen said of Lookin At Lee, who was fourth in the Arkansas Derby in his final Kentucky Derby prep and will be racing for the fourth time in eight weeks. "We realize how fortunate we are."
The defection of Classic Empire left a Belmont field of 12 and resulted in Irish War Cry being installed as the favorite for the 1 1/2-mile race on the lines of both Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, and Eric Donovan, who makes the morning line for Belmont Park. Watchmaker has Irish War Cry at 3-1, Donovan 7-2.
Lookin At Lee is 5-1 on both lines. He is the second choice on Watchmaker's line but the third choice on Donovan's line, behind the Japanese invader Epicharis, who is 4-1. Epicharis is the co-third choice on Watchmaker's line with Senior Investment, with both at 6-1.
Irish War Cry landed post 7 and Lookin At Lee post 6 when posts were drawn on Wednesday at a luncheon at Rockefeller Center here. While posts should not matter in such a long race, it was interesting that Patch drew the outside post, just as he did in the Derby, which had a field of 20. The odds of that happening are 240-1.
Irish War Cry, who was 10th in the Derby, is one of five horses - including Gormley, J Boys Echo, Patch, and Tapwrit - who have awaited the Belmont after running in the Derby, an increasingly popular strategy that has produced eight Belmont winners in the last 17 runnings. J Boys Echo picked up a new co-owner on Wednesday, with celebrity chef Bobby Flay purchasing a minority interest. Flay did the same thing before last year's Belmont with Creator, who won.
Multiplier and Senior Investment did not run in the Derby before finishing sixth and third in the Preakness.
Epicharis, who brings international flavor to this race, is one of four horses -- including Hollywood Handsome, Meantime, and Twisted Tom -- who did not run in either the Derby or Preakness. Epicharis can win a $1 million bonus if he prevails, an incentive offered by the New York Racing Association to attract horses from Japan.
To run in all three legs of the Triple Crown, a horse must compete in three races in five weeks at three different tracks in three different states at three different distances. Only 12 have won all three races, and that's only happened once since 1978, when American Pharoah swept the series in 2015.
Rare, too, are the horses who run in all three without having their own Triple Crown bid on the line. There were two such runners last year, none to join American Pharoah in 2015, one in 2014, three in 2013, one in 2012, three in 2011, and one in 2010. Only twice since 2001 has a horse won the Belmont after racing in the Derby and Preakness, with Afleet Alex -- who won the Preakness after finishing third in the Derby - in 2005 joining American Pharoah.
The recent trend indicates that it is becoming increasingly harder to run in all three races, with fewer horses trying it. From 1994 to 1996, for instance, all years in which there was not a Triple Crown on the line, the Belmont winner had competed in both the Derby and Preakness. The commonality there, though, is that all three were trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who always has embraced the concept of running in all three if you can. Editor's Note, who won that 1996 Belmont, was one of five horses in that race who competed in all three Triple Crown races.
Since 1998, when Derby and Preakness runner-up Victory Gallop denied Real Quiet a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont, just three horses -- American Pharoah, Afleet Alex, and Point Given in 2001 -- won the Belmont after starts in the Derby and Preakness.
The last time a horse won the Belmont after competing in the Derby and Preakness, and in a year where there was no Derby or Preakness winner in the Belmont, was 1936, with Granville. But there's an asterisk to that, as Granville lost his rider at the start of the Derby. He then finished second in the Preakness before winning the Belmont in a year in which Bold Venture, the Derby and Preakness winner, suffered a career-ending injury prior to the Belmont.
That is the history Lookin At Lee will be facing on Saturday, history that Classic Empire on Wednesday morning was denied the chance to make.