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Dunkirk finds his rhythm

NEW YORK — Expectations have always been high for Dunkirk.

A $3.7 million yearling purchase in 2007, the gray colt was cautiously brought along by trainer Todd Pletcher.

The Belmont was only his fifth career start. After setting the early pace in the 1½ -mile race, Dunkirk showed heart in the lane to wrest second place from Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.

It was the finest moment in a brief career.

After two initial victories, Dunkirk was thrust into the Florida Derby where he ran second to Quality Road.

From there, it was on to the Kentucky Derby where he stumbled at the start and finished 11th.

Pletcher then took the colt back to New York, bypassing the Preakness.

In an interesting strategic move, Pletcher changed tactics for the Belmont. Normally a strong closer, Dunkirk dictated the early fractions.

"I was surprised that Dunkirk took the lead," Nick Zito, the trainer of Brave Victory and Miner's Escape, said.

Pletcher wanted his horse involved early.

"We wanted him to get into his rhythm," Pletcher said. "He made the lead very easily, and we were happy with that. We thought we might have been lucky."

Just not lucky enough.

"He battled every step of the way," jockey John Velazquez said. "He just got tired late, but he ran a huge race. He put up a good fight and came back to beat Mine That Bird for second."

There were a few anxious moments after the race, on the track and in the stewards' stand.

Dunkirk had muscle cramps and had to be hosed down with cool water before walking back to the barn.

He was also involved in an inquiry as the stewards reviewed the stretch run for possible interference by Dunkirk against fourth-place finisher Charitable Man. They found no reason for a disqualification.

Lukas, Zito miss the board

It wasn't a very enjoyable Belmont for Hall of Famers Nick Zito and D. Wayne Lukas.

Both trainers sent out two runners. None was a factor in the race.

Zito, master of the Belmont upset, couldn't pull off another with Brave Victory (seventh) or Miner's Escape (10th and last).

His only bright spot was the win by Summer Bird, sired by Birdstone, who won the 2004 Belmont for Zito at 36-1.

Zito also won last year with Da' Tara at 38-1.

Zito said Brave Victory sustained a knee gash and that Miner's Escape was compromised by a brief stumble at the start.

"I'm not making excuses," Zito said.

Neither was Lukas, a four-time Belmont winner, after Luv Gov ran fifth, one spot better than Flying Private.

"It's sort of tough to watch it live," Lukas said. "It wasn't all that surprising. I thought Summer Bird had an excellent chance the way he's been closing. We'll salute the winners and rack 'em up next year."

Triple Crown timing

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas would like to see more time between the Triple Crown races.

It's not sour grapes. Lukas has had great success in the series with 13 wins, including four Belmonts, but he believes three races in a five-week span is too demanding for a 3-year-old. He feels better spacing would result in more horses running in all three.

"I think what we need to do is keep the field together to develop a fan base," Lukas said.

Some have suggested tweaking the distances, especially the 1½ -mile Belmont. Lukas would keep the distances intact. His focus is on the calendar.

Tradition dictates the Kentucky Derby is the first Saturday in May. The Preakness follows two weeks later at Pimlico.

Lukas suggests holding the Preakness on Memorial Day weekend while pushing the Belmont back to July 4.

In an even more radical shift, Lukas would add a fourth race: the Travers at Saratoga in August.

"Nothing is going to take away from the Derby, but if you figure that the media capital is New York, you would then have three races in the East," he said.