Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Preakness Stakes champion Oxbow could decide Triple Crown supremacy in Saturday's Belmont Stakes but fresher horses and wet conditions may dictate the action.
Sloppy conditions may be in store for the 14-horse field in the final race of the thoroughbred series as rain was forecast for Friday and Saturday.
Orb, who won on a muddy track at Churchill Downs, was made early favorite at 3-1 with Oxbow a 5-1 pick, while third-place Derby finisher Revolutionary, who skipped the Preakness, was installed as the second choice at 9-2 for the $1 million race.
While Orb and Oxbow were lined up in a natural showdown following victories in the first two Triple Crown races, history weighs against their return to the winner's circle.
Of the past 15 Belmonts, which is the longest test of the series at a mile and a half, all but two were taken by horses who won neither the Derby nor the Preakness.
Orb will be trying to register the first Derby-Belmont double since Thunder Gulch in 1995, while Oxbow is shooting for the first Preakness-Belmont double since Afleet Alex in 2005.
Coming off a frustrating race at Pimlico, where Orb drew the number one starting position and found it hard to find running room on his way to fourth place, trainer Shug McGaughey believes a return to his home track of Belmont and drawing the fifth gate will suit his horse.
"On paper, there is going to be a bit of a pace, so he'll be able to kind of drop out of it and dictate what he wants to do," said McGaughey.
Local knowledge could help his colt and jockey Joel Rosario.
"Any time you have a come-from-behind horse, you'd like to see a solid pace, but it's really going to be up to the rider, the trainer said.
"In a 1 1/2 mile race at Belmont, (the jockey) is really going to have to read the race, and I think that's what separates the top riders ... if you turn down the backside at Belmont, it's not like turning down the backside at Churchill Downs.
"You've got a long way to go and big open space down through there, and you better be patient."
Oxbow has an abundance of Triple Crown success in his corner. He is trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who posted his record 14th Triple Crown victory when the colt won the Preakness under jockey Gary Stevens, who notched his ninth Triple Crown win.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will be a busy man Saturday with a record five horses in the Belmont field including Revolutionary, a strong closer with Javier Castellano aboard.
Pletcher, who won the 2007 Belmont with filly Rags to Riches, is also sending out filly Unlimited Budget, rated 8-1, and owned by local owner Mike Repole, who has two other horses in the field in Overanalyze (12-1) and Midnight Taboo (30-1).
"I've been coming to Belmont for 30 years, and the Belmont is the No. 1 race I want to win," said Queens native Repole.
The 25-year-old Napravnik, who finished fifth in the Derby aboard Mylute and third aboard him in the Preakness, will make history in any event as the first female rider to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown in the same year.
An intriguing new horse joins the Triple Crown fray in Freedom Child, a runaway winner a month ago on a sloppy Belmont track in the Peter Pan Stakes. He was rated an 8-1 pick.
Working against him, however, was his draw into post position 2, although he managed to win the 1 1/8 mile Peter Pan by more than 13 lengths despite starting from post 1.
"I don't know if he's the kind of horse that wants to be behind horses, because he's got a free-running style," said trainer Tom Albertrani.
"He'll probably want to find himself clear into the first turn, whether he has to use himself up a little bit into the turn like he did in the Peter Pan."
For those liking longshots, there is 30-1 Frac Daddy, who is trained by Ken McPeek, who 11 years ago saddled 70-1 Sarava to an upset win in the Belmont. (Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Frank Pingue)