The field for the 2017 Belmont Stakes has thinned considerably, with Classic Empire the latest marquee horse no longer set to be involved at Belmont Park, New York, on Saturday.
Classic Empire joins Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, along with Cloud Computing, victorious at Preakness, among the horses to have pulled out. An abscess in the hoof will keep Classic Empire out of the race, according to trainer Mark Casse, per Alicia Wincze Hughes of BloodHorse.com.
For a look at the full and updated field, along with the post positions for the lineup, visit the race's official website.
The 12-horse field will compete for a share of the projected $1.5 million purse, per the Belmont Stakes website.
Naturally, the odds have shifted to reflect the changes to the field. Irish War Cry is the new favorite, at 3-1, according to Mike Dempsey of OddsShark.
The oddsmakers view Epicharis as Irish War Cry's closest rival, with Lookin at Lee third favorite. Irish War Cry has become the favorite despite not arriving in the best of form.
After all, this is a colt that finished 10th at Churchill Downs before missing the Preakness Stakes. It hardly seems like the best preparation for leaving 11 horses trailing in the 149th edition of The Test of the Champion.
However, trainer H. Graham Motion revealed the horse is reacting well to the calmer surroundings at Belmont, per BloodHorse's Hughes: "He was very relaxed out there, and it's much more relaxing here than it was at Churchill, where it was quite busy. He seems great, and he was very sensible and went well."
One more reason to favor Irish War Cry could be the potential fitness issues surrounding Epicharis. The horse was recently treated for apparent lameness, per an AP report (h/t NBC Sports), with his trainer, Kiyoshi Hagiwara, downplaying the issue: "He looked a little different favoring his right front yesterday afternoon, so we treated his hoof and gave him bute. It looks like it's getting better, and I think there is no problem running him in the race. We still have time, so we will give him the best care we can."
Any problems for Epicharis could open the field even further for a dark-horse candidate to win. The best of those is J Boys Echo, priced at 16-1, per Dempsey. The colt's quality as a finisher was on display when he enjoyed victory in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes back in early May.
David Grening of Daily Racing Form highlighted one intriguing reason why Echo is worth backing from Post 4: "It was announced on Wednesday that Bobby Flay has purchased a quarter interest in J Boys Echo. Flay bought into Creator last year a few days before that horse won the Belmont Stakes."
It's not unreasonable to back a few double-digit long shots such as J Boys Echo given the lineup for Belmont has been disrupted so much. There is no doubt Classic Empire would have been considered the class of the field were he healthy.
As it is, there are a host of possible winners worth backing over Irish War Cry, who rates as an unconvincing favorite.