NEW YORK — The road to the winner’s circle in the Belmont Stakes ran through the Kentucky Derby, even if the Derby and Preakness winners skipped the final leg of the Triple Crown.
Tapwrit overtook favored Irish War Cry in the stretch to win by two lengths Saturday, giving trainer Todd Pletcher his third career victory in the Belmont. He won in 2007 with filly Rags to Riches and in 2013 with Palace Malice.
The first four finishers all followed a well-worn path: run in the Derby, skip the Preakness and come back fresh for the Belmont. Five of the last nine Belmont winners did just that.
Tapwrit finished sixth in the 20-horse Derby after encountering traffic in what Pletcher described as “a sneaky good” race.
“We felt like with the five weeks in between, and with the way this horse had trained, that he had a legitimate chance,” said Pletcher, who is based at Belmont Park. “I think that’s always an advantage.”
Irish War Cry was 10th after pressing the early pace in the May 6 race.
Patch took third in the Belmont after being 14th in the Derby. Gormley, ninth in the Derby, finished fourth Saturday.
Ridden by Jose Ortiz, Tapwrit ran 1½ miles in 2:30.02 on his home track. Ortiz’s brother Irad Jr. won the race last year with Creator.
“The distance, I was sure he could handle it,” Ortiz said.
Tapwrit paid $12.60, $6.50 and $5 at 5-1 odds.
Irish War Cry returned $4.70 and $3.90 as the 5-2 favorite in front of 57,729 on an 82-degree day. Patch, the one-eyed horse trained by Pletcher, was another 5¾ lengths back in third and paid $6.50 to show.
Pletcher took two of the year’s three Triple Crown races, having saddled Always Dreaming to victory in the Derby.
“The Derby win was awesome,” he said. “The last five weeks have been the ultimate roller coaster. We felt really good coming in that both horses were doing very well. We felt like both horses suited the mile and a half distance. They had the right running styles and the right dispositions and the right pedigrees. Fortunately, it all fell into place.”
Tapwrit, a 3-year-old gray colt, was purchased for $1.2 million, making him the most expensive horse in the field.
He’s co-owned by John and Leslie Malone, who race as Bridlewood Farm, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Robert LaPenta, who won the 2008 Belmont when 70-1 shot Da’Tara spoiled Big Brown’s Triple Crown bid.
John Malone is chairman of Liberty Media Corp., whose holdings include Sirius XM radio and the Atlanta Braves.
The $1.5 million race took several hits before the starting gate opened.
It lacked Always Dreaming and Preakness winner Cloud Computing. Classic Empire, the expected favorite, dropped out Wednesday with a foot abscess.
Epicharis, the early 4-1 second choice, was scratched Saturday morning after failing a pre-race veterinary exam. The Japan-based colt had been treated for lameness in his right front hoof earlier in the week.
All that left it a wide-open race, and in the end it was Tapwrit that proved he was up to the grueling 1 1/2-mile challenge.
“Tapwrit was getting a beautiful trip,” Pletcher said. “It was everything we talked about in the paddock before the race. We were hoping he had enough when it came to crunch time. It looked like Irish War Cry still had a little something left, but the last sixteenth, he dug down deep.”
Irish War Cry, who finished 10th in the Kentucky Derby, went for the lead and was immediately pressured by 13-1 shot Meantime, ridden by Mike Smith, who won five stakes on the undercard.
“It actually wasn’t our plan to be on the lead,” said Graham Motion, who trains Irish War Cry. “We kind of hoped that somebody else would go for it, but he had to go to Plan B.”
Tapwrit, meanwhile, settled in third, right behind the dueling leaders. They maintained that positioning onto the final turn when Ortiz first asked Tapwrit for his run.
It took a while for Tapwrit to find his best gear. Up front, Irish War Cry put away Meantime and appeared a likely winner at the top of Belmont’s long stretch.
“At the eighth pole, I thought was might be home free,” Motion said, “but it’s the Belmont. It’s a tough race.”
That’s when Tapwrit took up the chase in earnest. It was a two-horse race to the finish line, with Tapwrit gaining the lead in the final furlong.
Gormley finished fourth, followed by Senior Investment, Twisted Tom, Lookin At Lee, Meantime, J Boys Echo and Multiplier.
Hollywood Handsome was pulled up after clipping heels with the horse in front of him, causing jockey Florent Geroux to lose his stirrups in the first turn. He guided the colt to the outside until he could be stopped. The on-call vet said Hollywood Handsome sustained a cut behind his left knee, and it would be closed with staples.
“I got squeezed pretty hard coming into the first turn,” Geroux said. “I almost went down.”