05/28/2010 11:00PM

Belmont Stakes another positive indicator


NEW YORK - The 142nd Belmont Stakes on Saturday is far from a vintage one on paper, with no Derby or Preakness winner in the race, much less a Triple Crown on the line, and a ragtag field that has combined to win only 3 of 22 career starts in graded stakes on the dirt. On the brighter side, it should be a dandy horse race as the centerpiece of what's shaping up as the best card of racing in New York this year.

Perhaps most important, at least for a day it will be possible to use the words "New York racing" in a sentence that does not also include the words "shutdown" or "bankrupt."

Maybe New York racing finally hit bottom a week ago, when the New York Racing Association sent notices to its employees that they would be unemployed the day after the Belmont. State government was 13 months late with delivering a loan it had promised, money that NYRA needed only because the bankrupt New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation has stiffed it out of $17 million (and counting). Even the dysfunctional state legislators who have brought state government to a virtual standstill couldn't object to living up to the contracts they signed two years ago, and a $25 million loan was approved last Monday, allowing the shutdown notices sent out 72 hours earlier to be rescinded.

Things are looking up, at least in the long term. The crux of New York racing's economic woes has been the legislature's nine-year failure to designate an operator for the Aqueduct racino that voters approved in 2001. The selection process was stalled by various investigations and the franchise-renewal process, and the most recent go-round ended in the choice of a politically connected group whose credentials were so flimsy that even the legislators had to void the pick.

Now, though, there appears to be a more viable process in place and a good chance a winner really will be announced by August. Twelve to 18 months later, the theory goes, the slots start spinning and happy days are here again.

More immediately, racing will survive the absence of Super Saver and Lookin At Lucky from this Belmont, and the crowning of a third classic winner on Saturday will make the rest of the season for 3-year-olds a lot more interesting. The three 3-year-olds with a piece of this year's crown will have to knock heads in races such as the Haskell and Travers to sort out divisional leadership.

A case can be made that the two Belmont favorites -- Derby runner-up Ice Box and Preakness runner-up First Dude -- ran as well in defeat as the winners of those races did in victory. Ice Box had a horrific trip in the Derby and was finishing as if he might have proven best with a clear trip. A Belmont victory, to go along with his Florida Derby, would make him the first 3-year-old male to win two Grade 1 races this year. First Dude set the pace in the Preakness and then stayed on admirably when passed, matching strides with the Preakness winner to the wire.

Their match-up is a fascinating one and will come in the last of four Grade 1's on a Saturday card that also includes the Acorn, the Just a Game, and the Manhattan, where Gio Ponti will try to recapture the form that won him two Eclipse Awards before losing his last four starts. After an opening month at Belmont that has been marked by small fields and more low-level racing than usual, the place will come alive with good horses in important races.

That transformation actually begins Monday with the Grade 1 Met Mile and the return of Quality Road, who was freshened up and pointed to this race after turning in the most impressive performance by any racehorse in the country this year winning the Donn Handicap by 12 3/4 lengths Feb. 6. He runs well fresh, a one-turn mile should be in his sweet spot, and he will be trying to prove himself the best horse in training in races such as the Whitney, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders' Cup Classic later this year.

He's still questionable beyond nine furlongs, and he's going to start facing better fields than the ones he trounced in Florida this past winter, but if he keeps running like he did in the Donn, nobody's going to care very much that this year's Belmont Stakes was not exactly a star-studded event.