06/02/2009 12:00AM

Dunkirk the Belmont's forgotten horse

Barbara D. Livingston
Dunkirk (left) comes into the Belmont off a five-week break since his 11th-place finish in Louisville.

By David Grening

ELMONT, N.Y. - Only nine weeks ago, the burning question in Thoroughbred racing was whether Dunkirk would make it into the Kentucky Derby field.

Following a second-place finish in the Florida Derby on March 29, it was debatable whether Dunkirk would have enough graded stakes earnings to qualify for the usually oversubscribed Kentucky Derby field. But as the remaining prep races unfolded and as other 3-year-olds fell by the wayside due to injury, Dunkirk's spot in the Derby field was secured.

At 5-1, Dunkirk was sent off the second choice in the Kentucky Derby, but he had a tough trip early, never seemed comfortable running over the wet Churchill Downs main track, and eventually finished 11th, 19 lengths behind 50-1 shot Mine That Bird.

Since then, the attention of the racing world has focused on Mine That Bird and then Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra. Thus, entering Saturday's 141st Belmont Stakes, Dunkirk comes in under the radar.

"That's the nature of it, you know," Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Dunkirk, said recently. "One bad race, you turn people off; June 6 he could be right back on top."

Dunkirk will attempt to follow a pattern that has proven successful in four of the previous nine runnings of the Belmont. That is, participate in the Derby, pass the Preakness, and prevail in the Belmont. Commendable (2000), Empire Maker (2003), Birdstone (2004), and Jazil (2006) all won the Belmont after running in the Derby and skipping the Preakness. The filly Rags to Riches, trained by Pletcher, won the 2007 Belmont after winning the Kentucky Oaks but not racing during the 36 days in between. Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith owned Rags to Riches and also own Dunkirk in partnership with Susan Magnier.

More often than not, however, when Pletcher has had a horse run poorly in the Derby, he has removed that horse from the Triple Crown series altogether and gotten him ready for the second half of the year. Horses like Graeme Hall, Flower Alley, Pollard's Vision, and Any Given Saturday all went on to have successful 3-year-old seasons after flopping in the Derby.

Pletcher believed that Dunkirk, a $3.7 million auction purchase, was his "best chance" of the 24 horses horse he has run without success in the Kentucky Derby. That is one of several reasons why Pletcher is ready to give Dunkirk a second chance to win a classic race. A pedigree that suggests Dunkirk should be able to get 1 1/2 miles is another.

"He's already won two mile-and-an-eighth races, he's got a very efficient stride, he's got what seems to be the capabilities in the mornings and in his mile-and-an-eighth races to click off those 24-second quarters," Pletcher said. "I think that will suit him well in this race if we can get a cleaner trip than we got in the Derby."

With the exception of the Florida Derby, Dunkirk, a son of Unbridled's Song out of the Grade 1-winning mare Secret Status, hasn't had a clean trip. In his debut at Gulfstream Park, on Jan. 24, Dunkirk bobbled at the start and had to rally six wide in the stretch en route to a 5 3/4-length win. In his first start against winners, and first at 1 1/8 miles, Dunkirk was eight wide entering the first turn, remained three to four wide down the backstretch, and sustained his run through the stretch to win by 4 3/4 lengths.

In the Florida Derby, Dunkirk settled into sixth position early before making a bold move that put him on even terms with Quality Road at the quarter pole. However, Quality Road ran away from Dunkirk in the stretch to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Pletcher felt that the speed-favoring nature of Gulfstream's main track that afternoon worked against his horse.

"We were never able to allow him to settle and find the stride he was comfortable with and the position he was comfortable with," Pletcher said. "We were always asking him to be closer than he really wanted to be, and he made a huge move from the three-eighths pole to the eighth pole. Hopefully, in the Belmont we'll be able to just allow him to find a spot he's comfortable with."

In the Kentucky Derby, Dunkirk stumbled for a couple of strides after leaving the gate. An eighth of a mile into the race, he was pinched back by Pioneerof the Nile and Papa Clem. He raced between horses around the turn and into the backstretch and was basically done by the quarter pole. Pletcher doesn't believe Dunkirk felt comfortable with the surface.

"We were hoping for fast or sloppy," Pletcher said. "Unfortunately, it ended up in the middle, and I thought it was clear from the beginning that he did not like it."

John Velazquez, who rode Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont, will ride Dunkirk for the first time on Saturday. Last Sunday, Velazquez climbed aboard Dunkirk for the first time - working him four furlongs - and believes he could be sitting on the right horse come Saturday.

"He's probably the right horse, for the right distance, at the right time," Velazquez said. "The distance will help him more than anything else."

In the last three years, Pletcher-trained horses have run well in the Belmont. In addition to winning it in 2007, Pletcher finished second and third with Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver in 2006 and finished in a dead heat for third with Ready's Echo last year.

Since getting here the day after the Derby, Dunkirk has shown Pletcher signs he's ready to fire big, too.

"I think he's settled in well here, his attitude's been good, his appetite's been good, his breezes have been good," Pletcher said. "We're optimistic that he's going to show up and run to his capabilities."

For those who remember, Dunkirk can be quite capable.

:: BELMONT 141: