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Sunriver carries locals' hopes.

Byline: Ron Bellamy The Register-Guard

BELMONT STAKES

A horse with an Oregon-inspired name and Eugene owners is among the favorites in today's $1 million Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown, in New York.

Sunriver, owned by Aaron and Marie Jones, will race from the No. 2 post position at Belmont Park, with odds of 4-1 in a 12-horse field.

"We're excited," Marie Jones said Friday. "I think he has a good chance to win. He likes the distance. He's bred for the distance. He's trained very well.

"We drew post No. 2, and I would have preferred between four and eight, but it's a long race and it will spread out, so he has time to position himself well."

This is the third time the Joneses have had a horse in a Triple Crown race and it's their first Belmont Stakes; their top previous finish was by Prime Timber, who ran fourth in the 1999 Kentucky Derby.

Marie Jones said their first victory in a Triple Crown event would be special because they owned Sunriver's sire, the late Saint Ballado, and own the dam, Goulash.

"The dam has produced many stakes winners for us," she said. "We planned the marriage and saw him grow up. When Saint Ballado died of a freak accident after neck surgery, we decided we wanted to keep this horse.

"We do sell some yearlings, but we kept him."

The bay colt, trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by Rafael Bejarano, has three wins in seven starts, most recently a win by a neck in the 1 1/8 -mile Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park on May 20. His career earnings are $281,400.

The Belmont Stakes is the longest of the Triple Crown races, at 1 1/2 miles, and is dubbed the "Test of a Champion."

"He has steadily improved every day we have had him," Pletcher told reporters earlier this week. "In January, February and March, we talked about him being our sleeper."

Pletcher, one of the nation's most prominent trainers, is also seeking his first victory in a Triple Crown race (a career 0-for-19); he also trains the 3-1 favorite in the race for 3-year-olds, Derby runner-up Bluegrass Cat.

Sunriver barely failed to make the cut for the Kentucky Derby because his earnings in graded stakes did not rank him among the 20 horses allowed to run in the classic race.

Though that was a disappointment, Pletcher said, "It might have been a blessing in disguise. We got a perfect prep in the Peter Pan."

Because of the career-ending injury to Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro, which defeated Sunriver twice this year, and the fact that Bernardini isn't the the field, the 138th Belmont Stakes will be run without a Kentucky Derby or Preakness winner for the first time since 2000 and only the third time in the last 36 years.

``Clearly, it's not as exciting when there isn't a Triple Crown prospect, but that doesn't mean I want to win the Belmont any less,'' Pletcher told The Associated Press. ``For us, that would be exciting.''

The field has five horses that ran in the Derby, including 2-3-4 finishers Bluegrass Cat, Steppenwolfer and Jazil (dead heat with Brother Derek). Two Preakness starters are entered, too, including third-place finisher Hemingway's Key.

``I think the Derby horses are the ones to beat," Dan Peitz, who trains Steppenwolfer, told AP. "They've been tested all spring, are seasoned, and now have had some time to catch their breath.''

In a USA Today media poll, four of 12 writers surveyed picked Sunriver to win today.

Wrote Bob Neumeier on the NBC Sports Web site: "Sunriver's siblings have shown brilliance in distance races on dirt and grass and even sprints as well, so versatility is all over his pedigree page. ...

"But Sunriver has several points working in his favor in addition to pedigree. He's relatively fresh (just three races since March 1), he's won over the same track, he's ridden by the swashbuckling Rafael Bejarano (a rising superstar), he's trained by New York specialist Todd Pletcher (is there anybody more consistent?) and, most important, he catches a very weak field."

Post time for the race is 3:35 p.m. PDT, and the winning owner will collect $600,000.

Aaron Jones, owner of Seneca Sawmill, and Marie Jones are well-known in Eugene for their political and philanthropic activism and for their support of the University of Oregon, their alma mater. They're also very well-known in horse racing, having raced thoroughbreds from the East Coast to Santa Anita.

They have won community awards and UO awards, including Presidential Medals. They've also owned horses that won three Eclipse Awards, presented annually for the best performances in different competitive categories.

The Joneses ventured into the horse-racing business in 1970, divested most of their holdings in the early 1990s, when Aaron Jones was diagnosed with a supposedly incurable cancer, and got back in when Jones beat the disease. Together they own Seneca Livestock Co., which breeds and races thoroughbreds; they now own about 100 thoroughbreds, with the stallions and brood mares based in Kentucky and their racing focused on the East Coast.
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Title Annotation:Sports; Eugene residents Aaron and Marie Jones own one of the favorites for today's Belmont Stakes
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 10, 2006
Words:863
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