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Classic Empire's defection a double disappointment

ELMONT, N.Y. -- For horseplayers, the unfortunate news Wednesday morning that Classic Empire will miss Saturday's Belmont Stakes due to a foot abscess cut two ways.

There was one segment of horseplayers who most certainly would have considered Classic Empire the clear horse to beat in the Belmont and would have made him a centerpiece in all their plays. This group would have noted that Classic Empire's fourth in the Kentucky Derby was a terrific effort, considering how he was mugged at the start, and that he had only one truly representative outing in six months (the Arkansas Derby) after you discount his forgettable Holy Bull, where he was compromised by the same type of foot issue that took him out of the Belmont.

These horseplayers surely would have felt, with considerable justification, that a duplicate of Classic Empire's near miss in the Preakness would be plenty good enough to win the Belmont. After all, Classic Empire did all the dirty work in the Preakness, racing Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming into defeat as early as the midpoint of the far turn, beating him all the way back to eighth, and being "rewarded" by getting nailed in the final stages by Cloud Computing in a nasty, nasty loss.

There was another segment of horseplayers who was eager to bet against Classic Empire on Saturday. It had nothing to do with the quality of his performances in the Derby or Preakness, nor his determined win in the Arkansas Derby in April. Instead, the concerns were that the Belmont would have been Classic Empire's fourth start in eight weeks and the belief that the Preakness had to be a demanding effort for this colt in light of how hard he ran every step of the way.

These horseplayers would have concluded that Classic Empire would need to be an iron horse to produce yet another top performance Saturday. Classic Empire was certain to be a solid favorite in the Belmont. But he was vulnerable for the reasons noted, and any race where the clear favorite is vulnerable becomes a great betting opportunity, even the Belmont Stakes.

For the record, I was in the latter camp. I feel very bad for Classic Empire and his connections for the rotten luck they encountered during this Triple Crown season, and I'm encouraged that he might actually be back as soon as the Haskell. At the same time, I'm quietly cursing double because not only did I see this Belmont as a spot in which I could bet against and beat a strong favorite, but the horse I was going to beat Classic Empire with now likely will be the favorite instead of the juicier price he otherwise would have been.

Yes, I like Irish War Cry.

I liked Irish War Cry in the Kentucky Derby and was disappointed when he gave way to finish 10th after pulling a perfect stalking trip. It was a mysterious non-effort, much like his dismal showing three starts back in the Fountain of Youth that still confounds his connections. I have a hard time believing Irish War Cry is really as bad as he showed in the Derby, especially since his romps in the Wood Memorial and Holy Bull (in which he beat an admittedly below-par Classic Empire but did so by almost nine lengths) were among the best performances by any 3-year-old this year.

Irish War Cry bounced back from a poor effort once before. His Wood Memorial came on the heels of the Fountain of Youth, and "all" he did on Wood Memorial Day was beat subsequent Preakness winner Cloud Computing by seven lengths. Irish War Cry has the positional speed to work out another sweet stalking trip just off a pace that should be honest, and I feel he deserves the chance to make amends.

Gormley is an intriguing horse in this Belmont. He finished a tired ninth in the Derby but at least was involved in the early running. Gormley's win in the slowly run Santa Anita Derby two starts back took on an improved look when runner-up Battle of Midway came back to finish a creditable third in the Derby, and he should get a good trip similar to Irish War Cry's.

Senior Investment was lucky to win the Lexington two back (No Dozing was best in that one) and essentially clunked up when third in the Preakness. Still, his Beyer Speed Figures are improving, and he will have the chance here to again clunk up and snare a minor share.