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.
Well, the waiting is pretty much finally over, and the website clock ( which seemed to be leading to a time that confused me and my computer ) is ticking down to zero, whereupon I can only assume it will reset to 364 days plus ( a reminder I’m not quite sure how I will feel about during the winter months at the Big A ), and the big day is upon us. And, quite a big day it is. Before we give our final Belmont Stakes thoughts, let’s turn our attention to the five other Stakes races on the Belmont card.
The True North
begins the Stakes sequence and the $1 Million guaranteed Pick-6. It’s also the first meeting ( albeit a somewhat belated one ) between two of the country’s best recent sprinters in Fabulous Strike and Benny the Bull. Fabulous Strike draws well on the outside, with perhaps his only early challengers directly inside of him, and he appears to be in the driver’s seat in his first start since his exceptional performance, and moral victory, in the Carter Handicap. He should prove very hard to beat. I am against Benny the Bull from a betting perspective. While it’s great to see him back on the racetrack, betting on a horse that has been brought back from retirement is a very dicey proposition, and adding Fabulous Strike into the mix makes him a throwout for my betting purposes. I will, however, also use Desert Key, as he showed flashes, especially in his exceptional Amsterdam performance, of being a very good horse in 2008. Obviously I was disappointed in his 2009 debut, but I’ll give him somewhat of a pass off the layoff, and if he can settle behind Sixthirteen and Fabulous Strike in the early stages he could prove the only threat to the latter.
The second leg of the Pick-6 is the Just a Game
and it features the New York return of last year’s champion grass filly ( now a mare ) Forever Together. In last year’s Just a Game she signaled her future excellence with a very good closing third at 44:1, she followed that up with a win in the Diana at Saratoga, and she pretty much never looked back. She overcame a slow pace, and rain soaked turf course ( which she will face in the Just a Game ), to win her seasonal debut in the Jenny Wily at Keeneland. Aside from her obvious talent, she has shown remarkable versatility, winning Grade 1s at one mile, 1 1/8 miles, and of course 1 ¼ miles in the BC Filly and Mare Turf. She is quite obviously the horse to beat. However, she faces some talented rivals, and My Princess Jess, who annexed the Beaugay at Belmont just five weeks ago, may well prove her chief competition. While My Princess Jess is surely not as accomplished as the favorite, she ran some terrific races last year, and may be very well suited to the mile distance after finding 1 1/8 miles a little beyond her scope late last year. She has also effectively handled soft going at Saratoga……and no discussion of this race should preclude at least a mention of the likely course condition. After a full day of rain on Friday, the courses will have plenty of give, but because we rarely race on our turf courses in this country after absorbing significant rain, it is often a guessing game as to who will handle the surface. However, we do have three horses with European experience in the Just a Game, and all three have run effectively on less than firm turf courses. One, Modern Look, ran very well on soft and heavy ground in France, however her US debut, at Santa Anita in March, was a disappointing second at 3:5. She figures to stalk the pace of Raw Silk, but will have to run dramatically better in this race than she did nearly three months ago. Captain’s Lover, originally from South Africa, easily handled soft courses in her native country, and ran a decent fourth in what was a strong running of the Prix de la Foret, a Group One race last October at Longchamp. Now trained by Todd Pletcher, she was forced to miss her US debut, and prep for this race, early in the Belmont meet when race forced a week of races of the grass. There is little doubt from her past performances that she has significant ability, but this is a stern test off an eight month layoff, and from a betting perspective I will let her beat me. The other with European experience is Carribean Sunset, who finished a decent second behind My Princess Jess after getting a very good trip in the aforementioned Beaugay. She handled heavy ground over in Ireland, and in my opinion is the biggest threat of the three from overseas, but I simply don’t think she is as good as My Princess Jess. Only the turf conditions may reverse that, and I don’t discount that possibility at all, but I will still relegate her to third status behind Forever Together and My Princess Jess.
The Woody Stephens
( who in case you’re unaware, won five consecutive runnings of the Belmont Stakes from 1982 to 1986 ) begins our $1 Million guaranteed Pick-4. There is no doubt in my mind that This Ones for Phil is the horse to beat. After running two big speed figures at Gulfstream, where he won the Sunshine Millions Dash and Swale ( on DQ ), he finished second to Mr. Fantasy in the Withers at one mile at Aqueduct. In the Withers, he got hemmed in behind horses down the backstretch, and while entangled, Mr. Fantasy was able to build a significant advantage which was too much for This Ones for Phil to overcome. Whether or not he would ( or should ) have won is open to debate but he still ran a better race than it appears on paper. His rail post is always a concern, but given the speed in the field, he should be able to sit back and work out a decent trip. I will also use Munnings, who showed early promise, but ultimately may be best suited to races up to seven furlongs. He was compromised severely at the start of the Hopeful last summer before finishing a distant second in the Champagne ( at one mile ) to Vinyard Haven ( who also won the Hopeful ). I liked his return at Churchill Downs on KY Oaks day, when he finished second in a quickly run race, and was the only horse close to the pace of that race that was anywhere close at the finish. Both halves of the Darley entry, Regal Ransom and Everyday Heroes, are dangerous, but as an entry they will offer odds that I don’t feel are commensurate to their chances of winning. Everyday Heroes exploded with a very impressive and fast victory on the Preakness undercard, but it was dramatically better than any race he has ever run and he needs to prove it to me again, in NY, before I bet on him. Hull, who brought his undefeated streak to three with an impressive front running score in the Derby Trial, draws well on the outside, but he may simply not be fast enough to beat the field in this year’s strong renewal of the Woody Stephens.
begins a sequence of three Grade 1 races ( the Just a Game is also a Grade 1 ) and to me was the hardest race to handicap. The deserving favorite is Justwhistledixie, who really put it together last Fall, and Winter, in NY with three consecutive victories. Perhaps the most important part of her development was learning to rate successfully, and that served her well when she went to Florida and won Gulfstream’s two biggest races for 3YO fillies, the Davona Dale and Bonnie Miss, at one mile and 1 1/8 miles respectively. However, she was forced to miss the KY Oaks ( and a likely second place finish ), and I always worry about backing favorites that were late scratches out of their expected prior race. Also, she improved her speed figures substantially at Gulfstream, and I am interested to see if that improvement transfers to NY. With all that in mind, she is still the horse to beat, and I will use her in the Pick-6 and Pick-4, but I will try to beat her for the win with Funny Moon. Unlike every other horse in the Acorn, Funny Moon is making her Stakes debut Saturday. However, she has looked very good in her last two starts, breaking her maiden in the slop at Gulfstream and running fairly quickly to win an allowance race at Belmont. This is an ambitious, and somewhat rare, move for trainer Christophe Clement, and I share his seeming confidence that Funny Moon may be up to the task. She rates comfortably, but has the speed to stay relatively close, and this may well be the last time we can get a square price on her against this kind of group ( without Rachel Alexandra showing up ). The horse whose chances I don’t like at all is Dream Play. She was able to set a very slow pace, against lesser, why she won the Comely at Aqueduct. She also took advantage of a strong inside bias when she was on the Dearly Precious ( who won the Acorn in the mid 70s ) on the inner dirt course. I don’t believe she is good enough to win this race and I have to believe there will be enough pace pressure to prevent her from effectively “ stealing “ a win on Saturday. Livin Lovin and Doremifasollatido were both very good 2YOs, with the latter having one decent prep race in 2009, that could easily win this race with routine improvement in their 3YO seasons. However, I’m not sure how good Doremifasollatido really is, as she got a very good trip in winning the Matron, and ultimately may find this field too tough. Livin Lovin could be more dangerous, after he easy win in last Fall’s Tempted Stakes at Aqueduct, but this is a tough spot for her seasonal debut. She will be my third choice behind Funny Moon and Justwhistledixie.
The Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Manhattan
( and I need one after I finish this blog entry ) is a terrific race and one that I am looking forward to as much as any on this card. I have decided to stick to the 4YOs and let the old pros beat me. I have been a Gio Ponti fan since early in his career and I’m not stopping now. Yes, he had a very good trip to win his last start, the Grade 1 Kilroe at Santa Anita going one mile, but he sure deserved one after encountering significant trouble in the Hollywood Derby, where he was blocked the length of the stretch, and also was a victim of traffic in the Jamaica at Belmont in early October where he also lost to Court Vision. Today is the rematch and I believe Gio Ponti will be up to the task. I do not discount Court Vision, who should get the pace he needs to aid his strong closing kick, but I have been somewhat disappointed in his races so far this year. He should have finished better in his last race on the KY Derby undercard, but it is also possible that he found the going towards the inside a little too deep to negotiate on a course that ( like Saturday’s Belmont turf courses ) had absorbed a lot of rain. I am also a little interested in another 4YO, Wesley, who seems to have improved this year, but he has to, as he was well behind both Gio Ponti and Court Vision in 2008. Like Court Vision, he is likely to get the kind of pace he will need to run well in this race. I expect Champs Elysees to be the half of the Juddmonte entry that runs in the Woodford Reserve Manhattan, but he has been very disappointing in his extensive US campaign, and comes off a poor effort at Keeneland. No racing fan doesn’t have a place in his ( or her ) heart for the now 10YO Better Talk Now, but it appears that age may have finally caught up to him, and while I wish him well, I will not back him with my hard earned dollars. It is worth mentioning, however, that he was an unlucky loser of last year’s Woodford Reserve Manhattan, when he was badly blocked while closing powerfully in the very late stages of that renewal. Of the speeds, the only one that will be on my tickets anywhere is yet another 4YO, Cowboy Cal. He was a stubborn second to America’s neatest horse, Einstein, at Churchill last time, and is a model of consistency. However, given the expected demanding pace of this race, I think he may find 1 ¼ miles an insurmountable task ( at least for the win ). I plan to bet Gio Ponti to win, and use Gio Ponti, Court Vision, and Wesley in my Pick-6 and Pick-4 plays.
Finally, and thankfully, we come to the main event…..The Belmont Stakes
. It’s no secret, I am betting Dunkirk, I am using Mine That Bird defensively in my Pick-6 and Pick-4 plays, am throwing in Summer Bird somewhat lightly, and I am completely dismissing Charitable Man. I detailed why I am against Mine That Bird in my last blog entry ( and I don’t feel like retyping those reasons now ). He can win, and I will shed nary a tear if he does, but I am not backing a short priced deep closer who is coming off two perfect trip efforts. I still believe Dunkirk may well be the most talented member of this field. I will forgive his sloppy track Derby effort, where he stumbled at the start, and simply ran too poorly to believe. Unlike Mine That Bird, he is a closer who seems comfortable with a grinding running style, and should not be a victim if the pace becomes too dawdling. I am going back to that old handicapping standby of betting who I believe is the best horse in the race. Summer Bird is an unknown quantity, who ran well to finish third, in just his third career start, in the Arkansas Derby. He had an impossible trip in the Derby, racing three or more wide around the track ( on a track that favored the inside path ), before fanning out at least seven wide into the stretch. He needs to improve, and like Dunkirk is very lightly raced, but considering how I feel about the other contenders, I have enough reason to throw him in at his expected odds. As for Charitable Man, while he may be the main speed, I believe Miner’s Escape will engage him early, and I think he may be somewhat dressed up after his easy win in the Peter Pan. He sat the easiest of trips that day behind a fast pace that collapsed and was not flattered when the horse he turned back, Imperial Council, finished eighth in the Shadwell Met Mile. I am dubious about his ability to handle the distance, and even though he can certainly win this race, I believe he will be a betting underlay at anything close to his morning line odds of 3:1.
Well, there you have it. It will certainly be a fun and exciting day at Beautiful Belmont. Best of luck to all and may some of us have at least some good opinions ( and an even better day ).