ELMONT, N.Y. -- The faint, then dashed, hope of a Belmont Stakes rematch between Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra has been replaced by the reality of a compelling matchup between the late-running Mine That Bird and the speedy Charitable Man, making Saturday's Belmont Stakes, like the Preakness three weeks ago, a classic clash of opposing race styles. Both camps, though, are equally confident their horse will prevail in the final leg of the Triple Crown on Saturday at Belmont Park, and they sounded off Monday.
Mine That Bird, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the runner-up in the Preakness Stakes, assumed the favorite's role for the 141st Belmont after Rachel Alexandra was officially withdrawn from consideration Friday. On Monday, Mine That Bird worked a half-mile in 50 seconds at Churchill Downs, after which his jockey, Calvin Borel, said, "We're going to win it, no questions asked."
Kiaran McLaughlin begs to differ. McLaughlin, the trainer of Charitable Man, has been uncharacteristically boastful about his chances -- "I wouldn't trade places with anybody," he said the other day -- so much so that a longtime friend sent McLaughlin a text asking why he was so cocky.
"I'm not usually," McLaughlin acknowledged at Belmont Park on Monday morning. "But this week, I'm a little cocky."
"He's doing equally as good going into the Belmont as he was going into the Peter Pan," McLaughlin said of his charge.
Charitable Man, who won the Peter Pan by 3¾ lengths four weeks ago, has emerged as the strong second choice in the Belmont. A field of 10 is expected to be entered Wednesday morning and then post positions will be determined in a traditional, double-blind draw.
In addition to Mine That Bird (Borel) and Charitable Man (Alan Garcia), the others expected to be entered in the 1½-mile race are Brave Victory (Rajiv Maragh), Chocolate Candy (Garrett Gomez), Dunkirk (John Velazquez), Flying Private (Julien Leparoux), Luv Gov (Miguel Mena), Miner's Escape (Jose Lezcano), Mr. Hot Stuff (Edgar Prado) and Summer Bird (Kent Desormeaux).
Nowhere to Hide, who could have given trainer Nick Zito a potential third Belmont starter, was officially ruled out of the race Monday, despite working a half-mile in 49.92 seconds on Saratoga's training track.
"After talking to Mr. Riggio," Zito said, referring to owner Leonard Riggio, the Barnes & Noble chief executive, "we've decided to pass the Belmont to go in another stakes race. The Belmont is just not the right place to run him."
Zito, who won last year's Belmont with Da' Tara, will be represented by Brave Victory and Miner's Escape.
Mine That Bird had what his trainer and jockey called a "perfect" final workout Monday morning at Churchill Downs. Borel and trainer Chip Woolley both said Mine That Bird is as ready as can be for the Belmont. Only Mine That Bird and Flying Private will compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown this year.
"I loved the way he went today," Borel said after the work. "He really came bouncing off the track once we were done. That's what I love about him. He's just so happy."
Working at about 8:40 a.m., shortly after the track reopened after the harrow break, Mine That Bird went in splits of 13.80 seconds, 26.60, and 38.40 before speeding from the eighth pole to the wire in 11.60. His five-furlong gallop-out time was a strong 1:02.20.
Woolley, who watched from the six-furlong gap on the backstretch, said he was extremely pleased with what he saw.
"I was just thinking last week that he's been training even better than he was going into the Derby," Woolley said.
Mine That Bird is scheduled to be flown from Kentucky to New York on Wednesday. Joining him on that flight will be Mr. Hot Stuff, who worked five furlongs in 1:00 on Monday morning at Keeneland under exercise rider Brian O'Leary. Mr. Hot Stuff has not raced since finishing 15th in the Derby five weeks ago.
"I'm very happy with the way he's training," said Eoin Harty, Mr. Hot Stuff's trainer, from Kentucky. "He's very fit, very happy. It's just a matter of if he's good enough."
Here at Belmont Park on Monday, Chocolate Candy completed his Belmont preparations with an easy half-mile breeze in 50.25 seconds. It was his fourth and final breeze since arriving here May 6, four days after he finished fifth in the Derby.
Exercise rider Lindsey Molina didn't ask much of Chocolate Candy in the work, which was conducted shortly after 7 a.m., after the track had been open for 90 minutes.
Chocolate Candy galloped alongside a pony from the wire to the 4½-furlong pole. Chocolate Candy eased away from the pony and went to the half-mile pole rather slowly, and got an opening eighth in 13.19 seconds. Molina had a firm hold of the reins while Chocolate Candy got the quarter in 25.84. In the stretch, Molina reached up and took another hold so as not to let Chocolate Candy do too much, and yet he still came home in a solid 24.41. He galloped out five furlongs in 1:03.59.
"He definitely wanted to do a lot more, I'll tell you that much," Molina said.
Molina, who has been with Chocolate Candy since he left California for Kentucky in mid-April, has been extremely pleased with how Chocolate Candy has adjusted to the Belmont surface.
"All I can say is he just skips over this track," Molina said. "I love him. Today, that was nothing. That was galloping for him and then he galloped out real strong."
It was a gorgeous morning at Belmont Park, with clear skies, a fast track, and temperatures in the mid-50s. The high temperature for the day was 68.
A spate of wet weather is forecast to hit the area in the middle of the week, according to Weather.com, but the long-range forecast for Belmont Day is ideal, 75 degrees and no rain.
- additional reporting by David Grening and Marty McGee