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Trainer Shirreffs readies backup for Belmont Stakes

It is probably of very little consolation to Mark Casse that he is not the first trainer to have the rug pulled out from under a Belmont Stakes favorite at the 11th hour.

It happened to Hirsch Jacobs in 1970, when Personality, the winner of the Preakness and the Jersey Derby, developed a head cold after Belmont entries were taken and was sent to the bench.

It happened to D. Wayne Lukas in 1995, when Timber Country, the champion 2-year-old of his generation and the winner of the Preakness, spiked a 104-degree fever on the eve of the Belmont and had to be medicated.

It happened big time to Doug O'Neill in 2012, when the Triple Crown dreams of I'll Have Another were ended by a strained ligament revealed barely 24 hours before the final jewel was to be run.

Jacobs won the 1970 Belmont anyway with High Echelon, just as Lukas had Thunder Gulch ready to win the race in 1995 in the absence of his stablemate. Casse, unfortunately, does not have a Classic Empire replacement part for Saturday's 149th Belmont Stakes. Instead, he will lick his wounds with starters in four of the other stakes races decorating the card.

The good news is that the hoof abscess troubling Classic Empire should not prevent him from running again. This is something John Shirreffs did not need to point out as he waited at Belmont's Barn 17 on Wednesday for the arrival of his Belmont starter, Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley.

Earlier this spring, Shirreffs figured he would be at Belmont Park with the super-sized Royal Mo, the winner of the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and a close third in the Santa Anita Derby.

Royal Mo was all dressed up and ready to go in the Kentucky Derby, but he did not have enough qualifying points to get in. Shirreffs punted and aimed for the Preakness, then those plans turned to sand when Royal Mo fractured a sesamoid during a work at Pimlico one week shy of the race. Let's just say there was plenty of empathy to go around as the news of Classic Empire spread.

"That's so unfortunate, what happened," Shirreffs said. "I don't even want to go there."

The trainer could not help thinking immediately of his fallen warrior, recovering from ankle surgery at New Bolton in Eastern Pennsylvania. He shot a text to Dr. Dean Richardson requesting a Royal Mo update. The answer read: "He's fine."

"That was it?" said Shirreffs. "Three words? Not even three, really. Then I noticed a video link in the corner of the screen. There was Royal Mo walking, grazing on some grass. A picture like that was worth a thousand words. It was good enough for me."

Royal Mo will never race again, leaving the colors of Ann and Jerry Moss to be carried in the Belmont by Gormley, a son of Malibu Moon who finished ninth in the Derby after breaking from post 18.

"It's too bad it rained because it seemed like the inside had a huge bias, and if you weren't in there somewhere, you weren't running on quite the same track," Shirreffs noted. "He was putting out the same effort as other horses but not covering the same ground."

No one ever needs an excuse in a 20-horse Derby melee, especially when rain has turned the track into creamed corn. Still, it helps if a Derby also-ran like Gormley, who came in with worthy credentials, can shed the memory and produce a good race as soon as possible. Victor Espinoza will ride him again on Saturday.

Shirreffs did the Derby-Belmont two-step once before with Tiago, the winner of the 2007 Santa Anita Derby. The colt was seventh at Churchill Downs, beaten about 10 lengths by Street Sense, then came back to finish third in the Belmont, 5 1/2 lengths behind Rags to Riches and Curlin.

But if Gormley's excuse in the Derby was the surface, who's to say he won't turn up his toes when he gets a load of Big Sandy? Belmont Park is not for everyone.

"You don't know until they get on it," said Shirreffs, who has trained at Belmont in the past. "Tiago loved it the first time he touched it. If they don't stumble or lose their action, you know you're probably okay."

The Belmont backstretch will be a strange place Saturday afternoon. While Classic Empire nurses his foot, Preakness winner Cloud Computing will be happily at rest in the Chad Brown barn, while Derby winner Always Dreaming, full of life, will be over there at Camp Pletcher, figuring he could have at least won the Woody Stephens Stakes.

Their absence has thrown Belmont predictions to the wind, with pundits reluctantly hoping that Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry has one of his good days. Gormley has the same kind of record, replete with giddy highs and baffling lows.

"He's got a good, strong constitution, and he's coming here very energetic," Shirreffs said. "You just hope he gets some breaks and a good trip, and then we'll see."

A Gormley win would be an upset, although not on the 50-1 scale at which Shirreffs won the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Giacomo. Leaving nothing to chance, however, the trainer planned on a meal Wednesday night at Villa d'Este in nearby Floral Park.

"I went to dinner there with Allen Jerkens a few times," Shirreffs said.

No further explanation was necessary.