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Early Look at Belmont Stakes Reveals No Clear Favorite

One horse won the Kentucky Derby and now faces disqualification (maybe) and banishment (definitely). That would make a second horse the new winner. A third horse won the Preakness.

Then there is last year’s 2-year-old champion, who lost as the Derby favorite this month, and a filly who has been beating every challenger among her gender and now may be ready to take on all comers.

It has already been a wild Triple Crown year, and now many of the top horses will meet again in the Belmont Stakes on June 5. Who’s going to be there? And more important, who’s likely to win?

To start, the most newsworthy 3-year-old this year, Medina Spirit, will not run in the Belmont after he and his trainer, Bob Baffert, were barred from entering the race on Monday amid a doping investigation.

The ban, announced by New York racing officials, means that neither Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer, nor any of his horses will be allowed on the grounds of New York racetracks, a blow not only to Baffert but also to the wealthy horse owners who employ him because important and lucrative races — like the summer’s Travers Stakes at Saratoga and other events — are run on New York tracks. The ban extends to Baffert’s assistants as well.

Medina Spirit’s half-length victory in the Derby was cast into shadow within a week when a positive test for betamethsone, a banned corticosteroid that is injected into joints to reduce pain and swelling, was revealed. The results of testing on a second sample — which could lead to Medina Spirit’s losing his win — are still weeks away, and appeals could follow, so we will probably know the Preakness and Belmont champions long before we know the (official) winner of the Kentucky Derby.

When Medina Spirit finished third in the Preakness on Saturday, many in the racing world, at least those who didn’t have a bet on him, breathed a sigh of relief. The Derby’s outcome may be tied up in appeals for months, or even years, as happened in 1968 when Dancer’s Image tested positive. But the Triple Crown will not be, since now no one can win it this year.

The horse that would inherit the Derby win, Mandaloun, skipped the Preakness and won’t run in the Belmont, either. But the field for that race is still expected to be large, strong and balanced.

It starts with Rombauer, who won the Preakness. One might expect him to be the favorite in the Belmont, since he will be the only horse in the field with a Triple Crown win, but that may not be the case.

Rombauer was an 11-1 shot in the Preakness, coming off a third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes, and bettors are not likely to be convinced that he has suddenly become the best 3-year-old in the country. Rombauer won’t be 11-1 again in New York, but lingering doubts and the depth of the field are likely to keep his odds higher than expected, perhaps 5-1 or so.

Quite a few others are also looking as if they will land in the range of 5-1, making the Belmont, the longest of the Triple Crown races, a true handicapper’s challenge.

Essential Quality was the 2-year-old champion last year after winning at the Breeders’ Cup, and he arrived at the Derby undefeated and the favorite. His fourth-place finish in Kentucky was disappointing, but the Derby often humbles great horses. Essential Quality skipped the Preakness for some rest and will be formidable in the Belmont: It’s worth noting that in his last race before the Derby he won the Blue Grass, beating Rombauer.

Malathaat is the best filly in the country, a perfect five-for-five after winning the Kentucky Oaks a day before the Derby. Fillies seldom contest the Triple Crown races, whether because of ingrained sexism or because there are plenty of lucrative races for their own gender. But when they do, they have shown they can win it. Swiss Skydiver won the Preakness last year, and the most recent filly to win the Belmont was Rags to Riches in 2007.

Also likely to contend in the Belmont are Hot Rod Charlie, the third-place finisher in the Derby, and Rebel’s Romance, who won the U.A.E. Derby in March.

But as this month has shown, a lot can happen in three weeks.

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