For horse racing fans, the four-day Belmont Stakes Festival at Saratoga is a great fun with oodles of big stakes races and equine stars all competing at Saratoga, which doesn’t usually open until late July. Everyone loves Saratoga – the ambiance, the history, the boutique meeting in the summer, and its habit of producing longshot winners.

But the reason for the festival is that Belmont Park is under construction, so its marquee three-year-old race and the third jewel in the Triple Crown, the Belmont, is at Saratoga and has been shortened to 1 1/4 miles from 12 furlongs.

The distance change is temporary for the next two years before the race is set to return to the remade Belmont Park in 2026, following $455 million in renovations. It is then expected to go back to being the 1½-mile “test of the champion,” its nickname for nearly a century.

This is not the first time the Belmont has been moved around. The race led off the Triple Crown in 2020, the first year of the COVID pandemic.

According to some of the trainers in this year’s Belmont, including KEN MCPEEK who prepared MYSTIK DAN for a Kentucky Derby win and a second-place finish in the Preakness, the shorter distance is appealing. McPeek even said he likely would not have started ‘Dan’ in the Belmont at Saratoga had it been 1 1/2 miles.

With $4 million in earnings from eight races, Mystik Dan has been a top-class colt and he was gritty in the Preakness when chasing the free-running SEIZE THE GREY, trained by D. Wayne Lukas. Seize the Grey is owned by MyRacehorse, the big micro-share syndicate. The colt has thousands of owners, including some Canadians.

“There are a few local owners here in Ontario,” said Lola Nichol. “And my best friend in New Brunswick [is an owner]. We also have shares in Woodbine-based and Prince of Wales winner Duke of Love.”

One of the lead storylines, aside from the change of distance and venue, is that SIERRA LEONE is the 9-to-5 morning line favourite. The big, long-striding colt who cost $2.3 million as a yearling is two noses away from being undefeated in his five races. He came out inches shy of ‘Dan’ in the Derby and his habit of lugging in certainly could have cost him the victory.

Trainer Chad Brown has made a rider change from Tyler Gaffalione to Flavien Prat after offering a detailed analysis of the horse’s trip in the Derby and why he may have lost.

The newcomers to the Triple Crown in the Belmont, THE WINE STEWARD, ANTIQUARIAN, PROTECTIVE (a maiden) and MINDFRAME are longshots. Mindframe is the most interesting of those since he is unbeaten in two starts and holds the highest Beyer Figure in the field of 103.

Simple handicapping methods, with regards to eyeing how a race might set-up, say a closer will win the Belmont. There are plenty of horses in the field who like to race on or near the pace. That leaves SIERRA LEONE or HONOR MARIE as the likely winners.

Honor Marie has not won a race since the 1 1/16 mile Kentucky Jockey Club last November, but he ran well in the Louisiana Derby when second. He was crunched at the start of the Derby and had a rough go of things, so he rates another chance.

Florent Geroux picks up the mount on the Whitworth Beckman-trained colt as Ben Curtis broke his collarbone.

It’s 8 and 9 for this corner in the Belmont.

BELMONT STAKES (G1) – June 8; Saratoga

race 12; post time 6:41 p.m.

1. Seize The Grey, D. Wayne Lukas, Jaime Torres 8-1
2. Resilience, Bill Mott, Junior Alvarado 10-1
3. Mystik Dan, Kenny McPeek, Brian Hernandez, Jr. 5-1
4. The Wine Steward, Mike Maker, Manny Franco 15-1
5. Antiquarian, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez 12-1
6. Dornoch, Danny Gargan, Luis Saez 15-1
7. Protective, Todd Pletcher, Tyler Gaffalione 20-1
8. Honor Marie, Whit Beckman, Florent Geroux 10-1
9. Sierra Leone, Chad Brown, Flavien Prat 9-5
10. Mindframe, Todd Pletcher, Irad Ortiz, Jr. 7-2