- Road to the Kentucky Derby
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Breen hopes for deja vu with Adonis; Lukas, McPeek content to be longshots
The first Belmont Stakes horse on Belmont Park's main track Thursday morning was My Adonis, who galloped just over a mile after the gates opened at 5:30 (EDT). New Jersey-based trainer Kelly Breen was on hand to watch My Adonis, who was a late confirmation for the race, coming on the evening before Wednesday's entries were drawn.
"I needed to get back to Monmouth Park and take care of some things, so I wanted to see him and then beat the traffic to get back," Breen said. "He looked good. We were the first ones on the track going the right way, so it was kind of like his own track.
"He probably looked around a little more than a horse would if there was company or something like that, but that's him. I think most horses have a tendency to look around a little bit when there's not much going on. I was very happy with what I saw."
Most recently third, beaten a half-length, in the Canonero II at Pimlico Race Course on May 5, My Adonis has never raced at Belmont, but is no stranger to New York. He was second to 2011 juvenile male champion Hansen in the Grade 3 Gotham on March 3, and seventh of eight in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial on April 7, both at Aqueduct.
Breen won last year's Belmont Stakes for owners George and Lori Hall with 24-1 long shot Ruler on Ice. Ridden by Elvis Trujillo in each of his 10 career starts, My Adonis will have champion jockey Ramon Dominguez aboard on Saturday.
"I don't know his actual ability, how fast he can run, but I think he's ready to run as best as he possibly can on Saturday," Breen said of My Adonis. "He's pumped up, he looks good, and he's training good. I'd have to say that if he's that caliber, he's going to give them hell."
The forehead slice Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas sustained Tuesday, courtesy of a kick in the head from his sprinter Hamazing Destiny, had been joined Thursday morning by a puffy shiner under his left eye.
Unflappable as always, Lukas, 76, who runs Optimizer on Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, emerged from his brief hospital stay for stitches and appeared talkative and in good spirits at the post position draw on Wednesday morning. On Thursday, when the black eye showed up, he held court at his temporary base in trainer John Hertler's barn, talking about the finer points of his betting strategy.
At the Kentucky Derby, Lukas had a seven-horse superfecta box but said a handicapper talked him out of using Went the Day Well in favor of Take Charge Indy. The bet paid $96,000. At the Breeders' Cup, Lukas said he likes to put in all his superfecta bets before the first race, "and then sit there and watch them like the lottery."
Asked about the Belmont, Lukas said his Optimizer is the only longshot (20-1) in the field of 12 he sees sneaking into the big picture.
"The horses everybody talks about are going to run the table," Lukas said. "The five or six that dropped in, I don't see them doing anything. I think we've got a chance to be in the superfecta. I think we can upset them."
Lukas said his betting strategy is predicated on one rule: "Get ahead early."
As for Bluegrass Hall LLC's Optimizer, he had a routine gallop in the morning.
Ken McPeek was happy with the way both Atigun and Unstoppable U galloped two days before the Belmont Stakes, admitting that he wasn't looking for a lot from either of them.
"Just basic stuff," he said. "Nothing complicated. Just nice, steady gallops. They're both extremely strong.
"Atigun is doing good," he added. "He had a real strong gallop today."
Though McPeek had expressed doubt earlier this week about running Unstoppable U on Saturday, the horse's recent form has him feeling more confident.
"The horse is a monster," he said. "He's never been outworked in the morning or the afternoon."
Unstoppable U's reluctance to change leads had given McPeek pause, but the trainer said the gray son of Exchange Rate is finally learning his lesson.
"Two works ago, he was really unprofessional," he said. "He worked from the five-eighths pole all the way to the wire on the left lead and still went :59. So the talent's there, but he hasn't figured out, 'OK, I need to change to my right lead when we turn for home,' and we work really hard trying to get him to do it."
Changing leads has been the focus of the horse's works since then.
"I wasn't so worried about 'fast,' I was worried about professional," McPeek said. "I actually told Junior Alvarado, 'I'm more worried about your switching to the right lead when you turn the corner than I am with how fast you go.' You've got to get the repetition down because I don't think you can win this race if you don't hit on all cues."
Though McPeek acknowledges that both of his horses are placed ambitiously, he does say Unstoppable U's familiarity with Belmont Park is a big advantage.
"He's trained here his whole career, and that's a big edge," he said. "You have to train over this track to win over this track. It's nicknamed 'Big Sandy' for a reason, and if we don't get any rain between now and Saturday, I think it's going to give an edge to horses who have been here."
He's also comfortable with his horses' roles as longshots.
John Ed Anthony, whose Shortleaf Stable owns Atigun, has already won the Belmont, as has McPeek.
"Mr. Anthony won this race (in the name of Loblolly Stable) with Temperence Hill at 50-1, and I won it with Sarava at 70-1, so we're familiar with being the underdog."