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143rd Kentucky Derby is as wide open as ever

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Bob Baffert is sitting out the Kentucky Derby, and not by choice.

Having the four-time Derby-winning trainer without at least one horse in the race for just the second time in 11 years indicates what an unpredictable winter it’s been leading to the start of the Triple Crown.

Baffert’s best horse, Mastery, got hurt after crossing the finish line first in the San Felipe Stakes. None of his other 3-year-olds developed into Derby material. Instead, he’ll aim for the $1 million Kentucky Oaks for fillies on Derby eve.

This year’s road to the 143rd Derby derailed other contenders because of injuries, including now-retired Not This Time, Klimt and Syndergaard.

“The amazing thing of getting a horse to the Derby is keeping him injury free,” said Doug O’Neill, who trained last year’s winner Nyquist.

For the first time in four years, the winner likely won’t be from California.

“It’s as wide open as we’ve seen in a long time. You’re going to have some big odds on whoever the favorite is,” said Dale Romans, who trains Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo. “It could be any horse this race. I don’t think this really means it’s a bad group of horses, I think it’s an even group of horses.”

There’s Classic Empire, who boasts an impressive resume as last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and champion 2-year-old. He won the Arkansas Derby and finished third in the Holy Bull Stakes, his only two starts this year.

His path to Churchill Downs hasn’t been smooth, however. He had a foot abscess and a back issue that prevented him from working out for a while. Twice in recent months, Classic Empire refused to train.

“I’ve never once counted him out. I know a lot of people have,” trainer Mark Casse said. “I feel that ability wise, he is the most talented horse out there right now.”

Casse also trains State of Honor, the Florida Derby runner-up.

Todd Pletcher has four horses set to run May 6 in the 1 \-mile race, with Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming as his leading contender.

Of course, big numbers are nothing new for the New York-based trainer.

He had five runners in 2013 and 2007. Yet for his 45 career starters, Pletcher has never had a Derby favorite. That could change this year with Always Dreaming, who had the fastest time among 35 horses going 5 furlongs at Churchill Downs on Friday.

“He’s got the right style to be really tough,” O’Neill said.

Pletcher’s lone victory came in 2010 with Super Saver. He is set to surpass mentor D. Wayne Lukas (48) for most career starters.

“Our Derby record is not as good as we’d like it to be,” he said. “We’ve had some horses overachieve on their way to getting there and in some cases, underachieve in the race itself.”

Besides Always Dreaming, Pletcher’s other horses are: Battallion Runner, Patch and Tapwrit. He almost had five again, but Malagacy isn’t expected to run.

There’s Girvin, the Louisiana Derby winner in a race against time to mend a crack in his right front hoof. His 32-year-old trainer Joe Sharp, the husband of retired jockey Rosie Napravnik, is doing everything he can to heal the colt in time to saddle his first Derby starter. Girvin had a similar crack earlier in the year and responded quickly to treatment.

“I’m not saying that I think I’m going to win the Derby, but I definitely wouldn’t trade places with anybody,” Sharp said. “He’s always consistent and he’s got the kind of running style that wins big races.”

As usual, a full field of 20 is expected. The final lineup won’t be known until Wednesday, when entries are drawn and post positions assigned.

Graham Motion, who trained 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom, is back with Irish War Cry, the Wood Memorial winner. His sire is Curlin, a two-time Horse of the Year who finished third in the 2007 Derby.

Still looking for his first Derby win is Steve Asmussen, who will saddle Hence and Untrapped. The trainer has two starters waiting in the wings, too. Lookin At Lee would be the next horse into the race if there are any defections, while Local Hero is No. 24 in the point standings.

Olympic skier Bode Miller recently bought into his first Derby starter, Fast and Accurate, winner of the Spiral Stakes. For years, Miller has been a guest of his pal Baffert during Derby week, but now he’s got some skin in the race.

For the fifth straight year, the field is determined by points from designated prep races. The top 20 earn a spot in the starting gate.

What to know about the 151st Belmont Stakes

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Rogue riderless horse Bodexpress won’t make an appearance at the 2019 Belmont Stakes, but the 151st iteration of the race won’t be without major star power. Mark Casse‘s War of Will looks to claim the third jewel in the Triple Crown just three weeks after his 2019 Preakness Stakes win and a month removed from the 145th Kentucky Derby, where he was one of the horses most impacted by the disqualified first place finisher Maximum Security. The field is set to be a combination of Derby and Preakness horses, some of which have never met before—only fitting for a race known as the “Test of the Champion.”

What is the Belmont Stakes? The Belmont Stakes is the last leg of the American Triple Crown of horse racing. Like the Derby and the Preakness, it’s a Grade I Thoroughbred stakes races. The Belmont Stakes is 1 1/2 miles, or 12 furlongs, which makes it the longest race in the Triple Crown.

The Belmont is run on the dirt track (also known as “Big Sandy”) at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. It was first raced in 1867, making it the oldest jewel in the Triple Crown (and the fourth oldest race in North America). However, the race wasn’t run in 1911 or 1912, which is why the Kentucky Derby is still the longest continuous sporting event in the country. The Belmont always been run in or around New York City, having raced at Jerome Park (now closed), Morris Park (also closed) and Aqueduct in addition to Belmont, which is just east of Queens.

Aside from being the last hurdle for Triple Crown contenders, the Belmont is known for Secretariat’s 31-length victory in 1973, which sealed his Triple Crown title and set the current world record at 2:24 for 1 1/2 miles on dirt.

When is the 2019 Belmont Stakes? The 151st Belmont Stakes is on Saturday, June 8. Post time will be at approximately 6:50 p.m. ET.

What is unique about the Belmont Stakes? The Belmont is the final test for horses seeking a Triple Crown title. Horses have an additional week of rest between races as opposed to the Preakness, but the Belmont is also the longest race of the three.

Belmont Park is only a few miles away from New York City, and city dwellers can just hop on the Long Island Rail Road for a day at the races. The annual Belmont Festival features several days packed with racing and other events. This year, hip-hop artist Flo Rida will perform on June 8.

How can I watch the 2019 Belmont Stakes? NBC is home to the 151st Belmont Stakes, providing comprehensive race coverage and analysis live on TV and NBCSports.com before, during and after the main event. Get started with NBCSN on Friday, June 7 at 5 p.m. for the Belmont Gold Cup. NBCSN coverage continues on Saturday, June 8 at 2:30 p.m. before moving to NBC at 4 p.m. See the broadcast schedule here.

Who are the horses to watch?

  • 2019 Preakness winner War of Will could become just the 12th horse in history to lose in the Derby but come back to win both the Preakness and Belmont. The last horse to do this was Afleet Alex in 2005. “WOW” crossed the wire 8th at Churchill Downs and was elevated to 7th.
  • Trained by 2019 Kentucky Derby winner-trainer Bill Mott, the easy-to-spot gray horse Tacitus finished fourth in the Derby and was elevated to third.
  • Longshot Preakness runner up Everfast and third place finisher Owendale will look for redemption against War of Will.
  • Master Fencer was one of the biggest surprises of the 145th Kentucky Derby. Not only did he become the first Japan-bred horse to race in the Run for the Roses, but he defied expectations and finished 7th (elevated to 6th), crossing the wire ahead of fellow Belmont competitor War of Will.

Who won the 2018 Belmont Stakes? WinStar Farm’s colt Justify, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, won the 150th Preakness Stakes to become the 13th-ever Triple Crown winner.

What comes next? NBC Sports is home to all things Breeders’ Cup and will have comprehensive coverage from Santa Anita on Friday, Nov. 2 and Saturday, Nov. 3. Qualifying races for the 2020 Kentucky Derby will start back up in the late winter and early spring of next year on NBCSN. Racing fans can also hope for a competitor in Gary West‘s $5 million challenge to the horses impeded by Maximum Security that they can’t beat him in a race.

3rd horse in 9 days dies at Santa Anita

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) Santa Anita had its third horse death in nine days when a gelding pulled up during a race and was euthanized.

Twenty-six horses have died in racing or training at the Southern California track since Dec. 26.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Kochees sustained an injury to its left front leg in a 5 1/2-furlong race Saturday.

Kochees was taken off the course with a splint. The newspaper says during surgery Sunday it was determined that the 9-year-old horse had lost blood flow to the leg and the decision was made to euthanize.

Santa Anita is scheduled to host the Breeders’ Cup Nov. 1-2. It’s considered the biggest two-day event in U.S. horse racing.