Well, it’s that time of year again, and thus time for me to discuss the Belmont Stakes, and the supporting Stakes, using every possible medium. In case you can’t see the National Racing Report, taped Friday morning, where Jason Blewitt and I will discuss the races, or visit the Live Chat this Thursday evening ( or read the transcript sometime later ), or watch Talking Horses on Saturday morning, fortunately this blog will exist, perhaps into the next millennium, where my ( hopefully not too mediocre opinions ) will live in perpetuity.
Andy Serling has been playing the horses for almost his entire life, and is currently the co-host of NYRA Live. To follow Andy on Twitter, click here.
Here we go…..the Belmont Stakes. I like Orb. I believe he has a running style that suits the Belmont Stakes perfectly. He can grind along at a reasonable pace, and to me looks like the most talented stayer, plus he comes out of a race that from a dynamics standpoint did not allow him to do his best running. Also, being inside, or towards the inside, in Baltimore didn’t help. Despite his race in the Preakness, I still believe he is the most talented horse in the race. My second choice is the filly Unlimited Budget. I thought her Kentucky Oaks was a solid effort, where she was right on the heels of a very strong pace, and far from disgraced herself. Given how well the speed of the race, Midnight Lucky, did in her subsequent start ( our Acorn Stakes on Memorial Day ), I think it is more than fair to upgrade the performance of any horse that was close to the pace in the Oaks. Now, her rider Rosie Napravnik will have to keep her from getting too caught up in what will be, at least, a fair pace, but if so I think she could be a major factor at a reasonable price. My longshot play is Will Take Charge. Given I thought he was live in the Derby, and he was moving well when he basically ran into Verrazano, and I can excuse his poor Preakness effort for reasons similar to Orb ( though Orb clearly ran much better ), he feels worth giving another chance. As for the other contenders, beginning with the Preakness winner Oxbow. I am not taking a big stand against Oxbow, as I think he can stalk and be effective, but he is such a “last time was the time” horse, that I don’t want to take a third the price on him in the Belmont Stakes as was offered in the Preakness. It’s a value bet against more than a horse bet against. As for Freedom Child, I am against him. His Peter Pan win was under the unusually favorable circumstances of a wet racetrack that was extraordinarily kind to inside speed. These kind of wet track blow out efforts frequently earn exceptionally high speed figures that are virtually impossible to reproduce under relatively normal circumstances. Given that his Beyer figure was “only” a 99, I find it hard to believe under reasonably normal circumstances that he can run the likely faster figure needed to win this race. Yes, I know there is the possibility of rain, and a similar wet track COULD exist, but that seems highly unlikely. I will take my chances that this is not the case. Finally, let’s discuss Revolutionary. Given he got the same dramatically fast pace to close into in the Kentucky Derby that vaulted Orb to his victory, but unlike Orb saved basically every inch of ground, why should I expect him to be able to reverse that result in this Belmont? At only a slightly higher price, I will gamble that this reversal of fortune does not take place. I like Revolutionary, and believe he has a good chance to do well going forward, but I prefer others in here, and believe at his 9:2 morning line he will not offer fair value.
Let’s take a brief look at the other Stakes making up the $1,000,000 Guaranteed Pick-4….
The Longines Just a Game, the first leg, is about as good as it gets. A seven horse field consisting of 5 Grade 1 winners, a Grade 2 winner, and a Group 2 winner from Europe. One of these Grade 1 winners is last year’s BC Turf Sprint victor Mizdirection, who makes the cross country trip looking to win her third mile race in four attempts, thus demonstrating that distance should not be a problem. However, given the speedy presence of Dayatthespa, as well as more talented rivals than she has ever faced at this distance, I will look to play against her. I will start the Pick-4 with three horses, Hungry Island, Centre Court, and Stephanie’s Kitten. Centre Court is a gem of consistency, whose tactical speed always puts her in good position. Hungry Island is looking to reverse her narrow defeat to Stephanie’s Kitten at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day, and I think she may well be able to do that, but I will use both regardless. Hungry Island is, however, my top selection.
The Woody Stephens takes a back seat to no race being run on Saturday. It is quite simply as good as it gets. The presence of the very exciting, and VERY speedy, West Coast invader Let Em Shine brings not only a formidable presence, but also a certain fast pace, as along with Zee Bros, the very impressive winner of the Chick Lang on the Preakness undercard, they have to be going fast early. Perhaps either, or both, of these horses can survive a rapid pace, but I will play the race hoping that is not the case. Let Em Shine has never faced horses of this caliber, and Zee Bros was in an unusual race last time, where despite the fast early pace, it was a literal merry-go-round race, with the 1-2-3 finishers pretty much running that way the entire race. Clearly Now ran extremely well, stalking the quick pace three wide on a track kind to horses inside, when a head loser to Declan’s Warrior in the Bay Shore. Normally, I would expect him to be a little farther back, and a repeat of his Bay Shore effort would make him very tough here. He is my selection. I will also use Declan’s Warrior and Forty Tales, and maybe a little Salutos Amigos, in hopes that the pace will prove taxing. Regardless, this is a race not to be missed.
Finally, the pre-Belmont Stakes Pick-4 races will conclude with the Woodford Reserve Manhattan. Like many people, I will not be trying to beat Point of Entry, who may be as good a race horse as there is in training. Even if we get some rain, given that we will be racing down on the inside of the turf courses, which have not been used for some time, the condition is highly unlikely to be an issue. He is too good for these horses. While Optimizer is the most accomplished of his rivals, Twilight Eclipse may be his most intriguing one. After a so-so year in 2012, he has really blossomed since being stretched out in distance, with his last being a record setting win, albeit on a very firm course. It will be interesting to see how this improving gelding stacks up against Point of Entry. It will also be interesting to see if he needs even more ground than one mile and a quarter of the Woodford Reserve Manhattan. If you want my longshot for you tris or supers, perhaps Finnegans Wake can sneak in there, as the added ground will likely help him improve off his 2013 debut.
Well, there it is, my $1,000,000 Guaranteed Pick-4, Belmont Day Stakes, selections. As always, Saturday will be a great and exciting day of racing. Let’s do it again next year.
This year’s Triple Crown races, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, were virtual polar opposites of each other, which unsurprisingly offered two very different results. Ultimately, they were great examples of how race dynamics, i.e. the manner in which the races were run, not just affected, but actually dictated the results. To me, this is the single most fascinating thing about horse racing, and one of the biggest keys to unlocking potential future paydays, as these kinds of occurrences can produce results that are far from obvious based on the past performances. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this was explained well to the public, and by missing this opportunity, we failed to take advantage of a great opportunity to educate potential, and current, fans.
The Kentucky Derby was a classic meltdown. In other words, it was a race where the farther back you were early, the better your ultimate chances were to succeed, and conversely, the closer you were to the pace, the worse you could be expected to finish. It was not unlike the 2010 BC Classic, only perhaps even more exaggerated. This is not to say that Orb was not one of the best, if not the best, horses in the race, but it does help explain why he looked as good as he did, and subsequently, why he was not nearly as effective in the Preakness….but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Golden Soul and Revolutionary both benefited from ground saving rides, and more importantly their early positions, 15th and 18th respectively. The reason for this collapse was the unreasonably fast early pace set by Palace Malice. Because of this, horses either close to the early pace, or early movers, were negatively impacted. The most obvious example of this was Normandy Invasion, whose early move, and subsequent close finish, drew the most attention. The second best example of this was Oxbow, from where he was placed early, to when he moved, and finally to where he finished. While I am not suggesting that Oxbow ran as well as Orb, I am saying that if you reversed the dynamics from one that favored closers to one that favored speed horses, a reversal of finish becomes hardly surprising.
It did not necessarily seem, as we headed to Baltimore, that this reversal of dynamics was likely. One of the main reasons for this was the entry of Titletown Five, a horse with significant early speed, and one also trained by Oxbow’s trainer D Wayne Lukas. However, Mr. Lukas said before the race that he intended to rate Titletown Five, and certainly employing Julian Leparoux, a rider renowned for his patient handling of horses, made it even more possible that this was more than just trainerspeak. Still, given the presence of Goldencents and Itsmyluckyday, along with Oxbow, a fair pace seemed all but assured….and a fair pace is exactly what we got. However, there is a substantial difference between a fair pace and a supersonic ( see the Kentucky Derby ) pace. With the fair pace, the speeds were not compromised, and the talents of the closers, notably Orb, were not exaggerated.
Now, I am not trying to suggest that the Preakness result was easy to predict beforehand. Orb had already demonstrated, with his definitive Florida Derby victory ( over Itsmyluckyday ), that he did not need a fast pace in order to be successful, as that day he sat much closer to a moderate pace, and still had a powerful late kick. What I am saying is that the very different results are far from inexplicable. To me, this is an important concept that needs to be conveyed to the many people that view the Triple Crown races annually. The worst thing we can do is anoint a horse a superhorse, and very possible Triple Crown winner, after just the first leg, especially when that victory is achieved under very favorable circumstances. This can have two very negative results with novices. First, it can lead to disappointment and disillusionment towards the supposed Superstar, and secondly it lends more credence to the concept that horse racing is random. We, as an industry, have an obligation to explain why the latter is not true. This is also something that is not really that hard to do.
The NFL, arguably beginning with John Madden, has done a sensational job explaining a very complicated game to the masses. This was done by appealing to people’s intellect, most notably through the use of an on-screen Telestrator. The same can also be said for the NBA, which has the powerful duo of Charles Barkley and the more Telestrator oriented Kenny Smith, to explain basketball to the masses on a regular basis. Fans interest can only be encouraged by increasing their understanding of any sport, and thus unlocking its various mysteries. We, as a sport, will only benefit from doing the same. Imagine the fan that was exposed to the prior discussion of the Kentucky Derby, and then the pre-Preakness suggestions that horses close to the Kentucky Derby’s early pace were the likeliest possible upsetters. This would have had two very positive results. First, it would have led to a more reasonable understanding of why Orb did not perform as well in Baltimore as he had in Louisville, and thus less overall dissatisfaction and disappointment. Secondly, while the fan may well not have bet Oxbow, he/she may well have said to themselves after the race “ I didn’t have him today….but I’ll have him next year “ and that is exactly how we can create fans….and in my opinion, it is how we MUST create fans.
I know, there’s a Triple Crown on the line, and it’s all very exciting ( honestly ), but there’s other business at hand…and we have at least two million reasons why it’s time to focus on more than just the Belmont Stakes. NYRA will be offering two one million dollar guarantees culminating with the Belmont Stakes, the Pick-6 beginning with the 6th race, the Easy Goer ( hey, he spoiled a Triple Crown bid! ), as well as the Pick-4, beginning with the 8th race, the Longines Just a Game. Let’s stop wasting time and get started taking these races apart.
The Easy Goer is one of those races where I am committed to playing a horse, though one that may not be quite good enough, but also one that I feel is better than he looks at first glance. That horse is Romancing the Gold. I will freely admit that I am somewhat biased, as I was a fan of his after his maiden win, and made a score betting him when he won his second to last start. However, that win may be a little bit better than it looks on paper. Romancing the Gold attended a relatively taxing pace and easily defeated favored Inflation Target, who will be a far shorter price than him in the Easy Goer. The horse to beat is Teeth of the Dog by virtue of his third place finish in the Wood Memorial. Surely the Easy Goer is a far more realistic spot for that one than his last, the Preakness, where he barely lifted a hoof. Given the expected pace in this race, Teeth of the Dog should work out a favorable trip as well. Skyring and the aforementioned Inflation Target appear to be the other major players.
The True North Handicap came up an interesting puzzle where the pieces don’t necessarily fit together very easily given the diverging paths the contestants have taken towards Saturday’s destination. Can Giant Ryan, the NY Bred hero of last Fall’s Grade 1 Vosburgh, refind his form after a failed trip to Dubai? Can California’s Smiling Tiger regain his 2011 form, when he once a leading contender for the Best Sprinter Eclipse Award, after one poor effort at Churchill Downs on Derby Day? How about the lightly raced Pacific Ocean, unsighted since an easy win in Hollywood Park’s Vernon Underwood on Thanksgiving weekend? Pacific Ocean has since been sold to new owners and switched to the dangerous Rick Dutrow barn. While drawing the rail could place him in a precarious position, especially with the speedy Crossbow breaking on his flank, I will take my chances that he will overcome those obstacles and win this wide open race. For back up, I am interested in Caixa Eletronica, who returns just 12 days after finishing fourth in the brilliant Met Mile, and turns back in distance from one mile to Saturday’s six furlongs.
The $1 Million guaranteed Pick-4 begins in the next race, the Longines Just a Game Stakes. This appears to be the simplest leg to get through in the sequence, as realistically only Winter Memories, Hungry Island, and Tapitsfly can win this race. Tapitsfly’s chances are enhanced due to the relative lack of speed in the race, while Winter Memories ( who is very good but also always very overbet ) and Hungry island are the two most talented members of the field. It will be VERY hard to beat all three of these. I prefer Hungry Island, but will still use all three.
Things get extremely interesting in the Woody Stephens, presented by Visitnassaucounty.com, Saturday’s 9th race. Trinniberg, returning to a more appropriate distance after an ill-advised run in the Kentucky Derby, is the horse to beat, but how tough the pace scenario plays out will go a long ways towards deciding both his fate and that of the more speed challenged contestants. Il Villano’s speed should keep things more honest up front and I am looking towards two likely closers to upset the Stephens applecart. Hardened Wildcat has been compromised by two straight tepid paces, one that helped Trinniberg annex the Bay Shore, as well as being interfered with at the start of his last. He showed his potential with a fast win in the Fred Capposela three back, his last fairly run race. A return to that form can win this race at a price. My other main use is Isn’t He Clever. Isn’t He Clever showed his quality with an excellent second two back in the Sunland Derby, where despite moving too soon into a very fast pace, he almost held on to victory going a more demanding 1 1/8 miles. Like many, he was left in the wake of Bodemeister’s Arkansas Derby devastation in his subsequent start, and has since been moved to the potent Steve Asmussen barn. A trainer change and a turn back in distance make this horse too irresistible for me to pass up on. There are other major players in this deep group including, as mentioned, Trinniberg, Hierro, Bourbon Courage, and Power World, and surely these can be used on wider Pick-4 or Pick-6 tickets, but that depends on your budget.
The Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap is the penultimate challenge of this sequence, and at least from my perspective, it presents a difficult wagering situation. The possible favorite is Hudson Steele, who three weeks ago easily won the precursor to the Preakness, the Dixie Stakes. The positives for this horse are that his tactical speed should move him up in what appears to be a relatively paceless race. The negatives are the added distance is an unknown, the competition is much stronger than the Dixie, and he benefitted from an absolutely perfect trip in that win at Pimlico. All these make me want to play against him at a relatively short price. But, where to go after that? I can use four horses in an attempt to beat Hudson Steele. Boisterous and Desert Blanc, the first two finishers in the Fort Marcy, a local prep for this race, should both move forward at the 1 ¼ mile distance of this Manhattan. Plus, both have the speed so as not to be compromised by any relative lack of pace. Brilliant Speed, who was badly compromised by the lack of pace in his last race, the Turf Classic on Derby Day at Churchill Downs, will also appreciate the extra distance, as will Al Khali, whose better efforts make him usable at a price. My top choice is Boisterous….by a whisker.
But no matter how compelling the earlier stakes races may be, they all pale in comparison to the drama of the 144th Belmont Stakes. There is no doubt, based on his performances in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, that I’ll Have Another is dramatically the horse to beat. While he was able to take advantage of the suicidal pace set by runner-up Bodemeister to win the Kentucky Derby, he was faced with the exact opposite set of circumstances in the Preakness, when the lack of early speed enabled Bodemeister to set a more comfortable pace in Baltimore, and it was there that I’ll Have Another stamped himself as not just another fortunate recipient of circumstance in the biggest race of the year, but a genuine budding superstar that was capable of running exceptionally well under less than ideal conditions. THAT is what separates greatness from the rest of the pack. But even after all that, the question of whether or not he can do it for a third time in five weeks, at the demanding 1 ½ mile distance, cannot be answered until the gate springs for this Belmont. Aside from I’ll Have Another’s natural ability as a racehorse, his tactical speed is another major asset, especially in this Belmont. While Paynter may set the pace, with main challenger Union Rags likely not far behind, I’ll Have Another cannot be tactically compromised, as if the pace is slow, he will be right on it, and if it is fast, he can comfortably rate farther behind. Thus, based on all that, you can’t help but ask “ is this Triple Crown a fait accompli? “ My answer…..” is it ever? “ I think Dullahan is the only serious impediment standing in the way of history. Dullahan, like I’ll Have Another, benefitted from the supersonic Kentucky Derby pace. Unlike I’ll Have Another, he still was not good enough to win, finishing a very respectable third. So why, you ask, do I think things will be different this time? I’m banking on Dullahan, like I’ll Have Another did in the Preakness, taking a major step forward in the Belmont. I think his lightning fast workout, just under 46 seconds for a half mile, the other day at Belmont signifies a horse that has taken a major step forward. Remember, this will only be his fourth start of the year, so a significant improvement is hardly impossible. It is very possible, also, that Dullahan will improve with the added distance, and I expect a competitive pace to also work in his favor in this Belmont Stakes. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll Have Another is a big mountain to climb, and he will be on all my multi-race tickets, but when the dust settles, Saturday may well belong to Dullahan.
Well, there you have it. For better or worse, you now have my selections for the Pick-6 and Pick-4 races on Saturday’s terrific Belmont Stakes card. Putting them together into a winning play is another story altogether. However, there are good opportunities for at least decent priced horses throughout the card, that even a spread 50 cent Pick-4 play, one that culminates with a very popular victory by heavily favored I’ll Have Another, will very possibly result in a decent payoff. When you play multi-race bets like the Pick-4 and Pick-6, you never worry about one or two short priced horses winning, because as long as you include some higher priced alternatives throughout the sequence, you give yourself at least the opportunity to cash in big. And, let’s be honest, ultimately isn’t THAT what it’s all about?
In the last 33 years, 11 horses have entered the Belmont Stakes looking to capture the Triple Crown, and none have completed the sweep. Five of those faced a valiant rival from the previous two legs of the series. Of those five, three were defeated by that rival, another lost to a Preakness also ran who had encountered an extremely troubled trip, and the other lost to one who had tried the KY Derby and then prepped for the Belmont in the Peter Pan. Of the other six, four lost to a fresher rival that had not competed in the Triple Crown series. The remaining two lost to strong Kentucky Derby entrants that had skipped the Preakness. So, you ask, what does this mean for I'll Have Another? Maybe nothing, but let's take a brief trip back and see if we can find any clues.
Starting from the top, Spectacular Bid lost to Coastal, who had run a huge race in winning the Peter Pan prior to the Belmont, and was a more than worthy foe. While Bid proved the better of the two, beating Coastal twice later that year, Coastal came into that Belmont Stakes in more formidable fashion than any that will face I'll Have Another. Two years later, Pleasant Colony's Triple Crown attempt was thwarted by Summing, recent winner of the Pennsylvania Derby ( at 36:1 ). While Summing was a shade under 8:1 when he defeated Pleasant Colony, he didn't appear a major threat, and we will thus toss him into the " comparable threat to I'll Have Another " box. Worth noting, Summing finished over 27 lengths behind Pleasant Colony when they met next in the Travers ( Pleasant Colony was second ).
It was six years until the next horse attempted the Triple Crown sweep at Belmont, and when Alysheba made that bid, he would be the first of five straight facing those valiant KY Derby and Preakness rivals. Alysheba was never a factor in the 1987 Belmont Stakes, as Bet Twice, runner-up in both prior Triple Crown races, romped to the easiest of victories. However, Alysheba faced more than the formidable Bet Twice in NY that afternoon, as he was forced to also race without Lasix, which was still banned in NY at that time, something that was not the case in either the Derby or Preakness. In fairness to the mighty Alysheba, he raced without that medication during his entire formidable 4YO campaign that ended with a win in the BC Classic. Fair to say, there is no Bet Twice in the 2012 Belmont Stakes....just as there is also no Easy Goer, the horse who easily disposed of Sunday Silence, and his attempt to sweep the Triple Crown two years later in 1989. After running second to Sunday Silence in the prior two events, losing the Preakness by a nose in a stretch battle for the ages, Easy Goer won the Belmont Stakes by eight lengths, and allowing us New Yorkers to regain a shred of the dignity we had lost during that epic series.
In 1997, Silver Charm lined up against not one serious threat, but two, as Free House ( 3rd in the Derby and 2nd in the Preakness ) was joined by Touch Gold, who ran perhaps the best race of anyone in the Preakness, finishing fourth with a nightmare trip. He handled Free House, but not Touch Gold, though I'll Have Another can rest easy knowing there are no threats like those two in 2012. Same for 1998, when twice second Victory Gallop, under one of the all-time great rides by Gary Stevens, ended Real Quiet's try for immortality by a nose in an unforgettable Belmont Stakes. 1999 was a much different story. While Menifee, second in both prior races, ended up being no threat to Charismatic, the very talented Lemon Drop Kid ( 3rd in the Peter Pan after a 9th place finish in the KY Derby ) did annex the Belmont Stakes. But, with all due respect, it was very possibly a career ending injury that cost Charismatic that Triple Crown title.
In 2002, Sarava beat Medaglia D'Oro, and thus ended War Emblem's Triple Crown dream. However, given he stumbled badly at the start, and was never in a fair position to win the race, I have trouble comparing War Emblem's attempt to I'll Have Another's, who appears neither distance challenged nor a need the lead type runner. In 2003, while Funny Cide was favored perhaps on sentimentality, few serious handicappers were surprised when Derby favorite Empire Maker, who had defeated the NY Bred in the Wood Memorial, slammed the door on his rival's chances. Had that same field lined up in an allowance race on a Thurday afternoon, there is little doubt Empire Maker would have been favored. There are also no Empire Makers waiting in the weeds to face I'll Have Another.
Smarty Jones's failed attempt may be a fair comparison to the challenge facing I'll Have Another. Like Union Rags, Birdstone won the Champagne as a 2YO, and many also felt he was compromised by the sloppy track in the KY Derby, whereas some ( not me ) blame Union Rag's trip for his less than stellar effort. Throw Dullahan into the mix, and compare him to the likes of Rock Hard Ten or Eddington, and perhaps this matchup becomes even more comparable. The same cannot be said for 2008, when unheralded Da'Tara spoiled things for Big Brown, but it was Big Brown that compromised himself, as he was never factor in the race, and no opponent can be used as an excuse for his non-effort.
In review, assuming the consistent I'll Have Another shows up with his usual strong effort, only a Summing or a Birdstone may be standing in his way. Over the next 2 1/2 weeks many will be trying to figure out if that will be the case, and who may assume the spoiler's role. There's always value in determining that rival, and it's been 34 years since there hasn't been at least one, but even in racing, all bad things eventually come to an end.