by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

And then there were 18…voters that is. The Paulick Preakness Index has closed but we will be offering the Paulick Belmont Index between now and June 5 when the third leg of the 2010 Triple Crown runs at Belmont Park.

Rather predictably, Ice Box leads the poll after his strong finish in the Kentucky Derby and First Dude holds second place after placing in the Preakness. Fly Down's Dwyer win over Drosselmeyer has earned him third place and voters still remember Setsuko's second place finish in the Santa Anita Derby, ahead of Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky. He also carries the second most first place votes.

We would like those voters who have made it through the entire Triple Crown season and Joel Cunningham of Triple Crown Insider for joining us for the final three weeks.

By Ray Paulick

The Belmont Stakes is one of those events with a split personality:  in years when a 3-year-old colt is going for the Triple Crown, it takes on great significance outside of the racing world; when the Kentucky Derby and Preakness are won by difference, it can be a mid-season rubber match; and in those rare years when neither the Derby or Preakness winner are in the starting line-up, the Belmont Stakes is a proving ground for horses that may have aspirations of greatness.

This is one of those proving ground years. Todd Pletcher, trainer of Derby winner Super Saver, and Bob Baffert, who conditions beaten Derby favorite and Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky, have both opted to skip the Triple Crown's final leg with those two colts.  And their decision confirms what many breeders have believed for some years now: that the mile and one-half Belmont Stakes is not nearly as valuable a prize for stallion prospects as the mile and a quarter Travers at Saratoga in August. Some have even argued that Monmouth's nine-furlong Haskell Invitational is more important to a new stallion's resume.

That's not to say that a horse that wins the first two legs of the Triple Crown is going to skip the Belmont and rest up for the Travers. But without any incentive (such as the $1-million bonus that used to go to the top point getter from all the three races), there is no compelling reason for a horse that's run in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to also go in the Belmont, unless he's trying to make history as a Triple Crown winner.

The absence of Super Saver and Lookin At Lucky will be felt at the admission gates and wagering pools, too, though perhaps not as much as one might expect. The 2000 and 2006 Belmont was run without the Derby or Preakness winners, and attendance was down both years. In 2000, the Belmont attendance of 67,810 was well below 1999, when 85,818 showed up to see if Charismatic could win the Triple Crown but only 6,000 lower than the 2001 attendance when the Derby and Preakness were won by different horses. In 2006, the 61,168 who turned out to see Jazil win the Belmont was only 1,000 lower than the previous year and 15,000 higher than the 2007 attendance.

The Belmont Stakes has become a major event on Long Island, where the New York Racing Association has targeted much of its marketing in recent years. It gets a big boost when a horse is running for the Triple Crown, but I doubt we'll see a return to a year like 1995 when only 37,171 showed up for the Belmont.

On to the competition.

Anyone who saw Ice Box's determined stretch run in the Kentucky Derby, when he finished a fast-closing second to Super Saver, had to be impressed, and the Nick Zito-trained Pulpit colt acts like the longer he goes, the better he'll be. But the Belmont can be one of the races where a galloper who can relax while racing close to the lead through soft fractions can get the money. That's what happened in 2000, when Commendable lodged an 18-1 upset of Aptitude.

Ice Box figures to be the favorite, and that doesn't appear to be a bonus in the Belmont. In the last 20 runnings, there have been only four winning favorites. Nine non-favorites won at odds of up to 10-1, and seven winners went off at odds higher than 10-1, including three at 30-1 or more (and another at 29-1).

For a variety of reasons—the distance, poor riding strategies, and fatigue from the grueling Triple Crown series for those participants that competed in all three races—the Belmont has become a crapshoot.

If you like gallopers, First Dude could be tough, based on his never-give-up, front-running performance in the Preakness, when he finished second. The Stephen Got Even colt is an imposing and impressive individual. The horse that defeated First Dude in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Stately Victor, also looks to be the kind of horse that will like the distance of the Belmont.

But two horses that caught my eye are Fly Down, winner of the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont, and Santa Anita Derby runner-up Setsuko, who at this time is in California and listed only as “possible” for the Belmont.

Despite the lack of interest in the Belmont that might come from the news media or sporting public, it remains a fascinating race, if only because of its uniqueness.

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