Mystik Dan and Seize The Grey primed for Belmont showdown

SARATOGA SPRINGS — It’s 6:15 on Thursday morning, less than 49 hours before the 156th running of the Belmont Stakes, and if Mystik Dan is starting to feel any pressure, he’s certainly not showing it.

The Kentucky Derby winner pokes his head outside of his stall in Barn 86 as trainer Ken McPeek and his 5-year-old lab, Sonny, approach. McPeek unwraps a red and white swirled peppermint hard candy and offers it to the horse, who slurps it down.

If the outcome of Saturday’s third jewel in the Triple Crown is a mystery at this point, here’s a good bet: Mystik Dan will have the best breath of any of the 10 horses in the starting gate.

Mystik Dan won the Kentucky Derby in a three-way photo finish over Sierra Leone and Forever Young.

Ken McPeek and his dog Sonny pose next to 2024 Kentucky Derby Winner Mystik Dan at his barn at Saratoga Race Course. JASON SZENES FOR THE NEW YORK POST

McPeek said his horse and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. enjoyed the perfect trip in that one.

Two weeks later in the Preakness, Mystik Dan had to chase, and though he went from fourth to third to second, he still fell 2¹/₄ lengths short of D. Wayne Lukas’ Seize the Grey.

Interestingly, neither of those horses is the favorite. Mystik Dan is 5-1 and Seize the Grey 8-1, both well overpriced compared to Derby runner-up Sierra Leone (9/5) and Triple Crown interloper Mindframe (7/2).

But the first duel between separate winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness since 2013 is generating most of the interest here at The Spa.

“It’s great for racing and I think it makes for an interesting race to watch,” McPeek told The Post inside his barn office. “I think the pace of this race is going to be the most difficult thing to predict. [You have] speed inside, speed in the middle, a closer on the outside. My horse is pretty versatile. He can lay right off of it if need be. But how a race like this race unfolds is hard to say.”

Lukas is also buying into the mano-a-mano storyline.

“I think that’s the plus to the whole race,” said the 88-year-old trainer, who has a record 15 career Triple Crown wins. “I think that’s what makes it interesting.

“We weren’t in the Derby but we ran on Derby day [winning the Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs]. It’s a scenario where he won one, we won one and now we’re going to find out, at a mile and a quarter, who’s going to be at least the leader going into the fall.”

Belmont stakes contender Mystik Dan trains Thursday morning at the Oklahoma Training Track. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Mystik Dan is the only horse in the field who will have run in all three of the Triple Crown races.

Seize the Grey is matching that busy schedule but many of the other horses are fresher.

None of Todd Pletcher’s three horses — Antiquarian, Mindframe and Protective — started in the Derby or Preakness, and Mindframe will be racing for just the third time.

The bigger consideration for McPeek, though, is the length and venue of the race. Thanks to the multiyear renovation of Belmont Park, the Belmont Stakes is being conducted at Saratoga for the first time, and at a reduced distance.

Belmont stakes contender Seize The Grey trains Thursday morning at Oklahoma Training Track. Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

“[That makes it a] totally different race,” McPeek said. “Belmont is nicknamed the Big Sandy because it can get deep and cuppy and difficult to travel over.

[Mystik Dan is] not an exceptionally large horse. I would have probably been a little bit more worried about Belmont as opposed to here. A mile and a half I think he can handle, but I think he can handle a mile-and-a-quarter better.”

The 61-year-old McPeek’s résumé includes 2020 Preakness winner Swiss Skydiver and 2002 Belmont Stakes winner Sarava, who, at 70-1, beat Triple Crown-seeking War Emblem in the biggest upset in the race’s history.

But Mystik Dan’s shot at two-time history is far from his only concern this weekend.

Mystik Dan poses for the NY Post in his barn at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs. JASON SZENES FOR THE NEW YORK POST

He’s also running Thorpedo Anna in Friday’s mile-and-an-eighth Acorn Stakes.

Five weeks ago, she was the wire-to-wire winner of the Kentucky Oaks in a runaway, helping McPeek become the first trainer since 1952 to win the Oaks-Derby double.

“I [said] going into the Oaks that they better bring a bear because I’ve got a grizzly,” McPeek said. “Honestly, I think the boys are lucky I’m not running her against them [in the Belmont] because I think she’s that good.”

Between Mystik Dan and Thorpedo Anna, McPeek is ready to make another mint.

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