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.
Not to continue to belabor the obvious, but when Eskendereya was withdrawn from the KY Derby, and subsequently retired, it left a major hole in this 3YO division. At that point it became clear that there was no standout racehorse, and even should a horse emerge from the first two legs of the Triple Crown with a chance to complete the sweep in the Belmont Stakes, that horse was unlikely to compare favorably to the likes of the last three winners, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. And thus we saw Super Saver, a talented but hardly exceptional racehorse, get a dream set of circumstances that led to a relatively decisive victory in the KY Derby. Faced with a less ideal setup, he faded badly two weeks later in Baltimore, while Lookin at Lucky got ( here's this year's statement of the obvious ) a better trip at Pimlico, and earned a deserved victory in the Preakness. However, neither of these horses will be running June 5th in the Belmont Stakes, which might lead some to suggest that this year's Belmont Stakes becomes relatively inconsequential. I could not disagree more, and see this year's Belmont as not only featuring perhaps the three best 3YOs still racing in America, but also acting as a doorway to the rest of this year's major races.
Many people, myself included, felt that Ice Box ran the best race in the KY Derby. Considering the extreme traffic woes he faced both into the stretch, and continuing to the eighth pole, it was surprising that he was even able to get second. And, given that both the winner and third place finisher Paddy O'Prado got extremely good trips, his performance becomes even more impressive. Being that he appears an improving horse, considering the improvement he showed in his prior effort while winning the Florida Derby, who's to say he hadn't already stamped himself the best horse of this ex-Eskendereya group? To be fair, the downside would be that he got the same wicked pace to close into in the KY Derby that he got in the Florida Derby, and one-run deep closers are frequently at a disadvantage behind race dynamics. Plus, while one might correctly assume a closer of his type, with unlikely distance limitations, will relish the Belmont distance, these horses frequently disappoint in the 1 1/2 mile Belmont Stakes where speed can be more of an advantage than stamina. However, if nothing else, this leads to a great debate as to whether his in, in fact, the best 3YO racing, or merely a talented horse who needs circumstance to fall in his lap to appear as such. The Belmont Stakes will go a long way towards answering this question.
Then there is First Dude, who some may feel is Ice Box's counterpart from the Preakness Stakes, arguably running the best race in Baltimore after setting fast fractions, and determinedly holding off all but one of his challengers, and even fighting back against Lookin at Lucky throughout the stretch despite appearing spent as the field turned for home. Unlike Ice Box, who had won the Florida Derby, First Dude entered the Preakness with little to no accomplishments to speak of. Still eligible for a NW1X allowance race, his 2010 record was spotty with, at best, " what could have been " types of performances. However, those that wondered just that, were hardly surprised that he gave a good account of himself at Pimlico, and all things considered, who is to say he too can't emerge from the Belmont Stakes at the top of this class? Unlike Ice Box, he has the kind of running style that could work out well in the Belmont, given that he can gallop along on the lead if the race should set up that way, or at the very least not necessarily become a victim of pace should the early fractions not be swift enough to help the perhaps more talented Ice Box. It is hard not to be optimistic about First Dude going forward.
And, while having an Ice Box in one's barn may well seem good enough, Nick Zito will be entering this Belmont loaded for bear. While the aforementioned duo were contesting at least part of this year's Triple Crown, Fly Down more quietly buried the field in the Belmont Park prep for the Belmont Stakes, the Dwyer, run at 1 1/8 miles this year. Aside from a poor effort in the Louisiana Derby, Fly Down has done little wrong in his career, with three victories in his other four races, with each performance eclipsing his preceding effort. He also holds two relatively narrow victories over First Dude, one at Churchill Downs and another at Gulfstream. However, it would not be unfair to say that First Dude ran at least as well, if not better, in both of those matchups, doing more hard work early, while Fly Down was able to capitalize on these circumstances late in both races. But, either way, both of these horses have now proven separately to be genuinely talented, and this third matchup could well prove compelling.
These are but three of the dozen or so horses expected to compete in the 142nd running of Belmont Stakes. While Bob Baffert may be leaving Lookin at Lucky in the barn on June 5th, he is expected to be represented by Lone Star Derby winner Game on Dude. Tim Ice, who trained Summer Bird to win last year's Belmont, will also be represented by New Madrid. And, Setsuko, who, despite my protestations, friends of mine in California continue to insist will be a major factor going forward, is also expected in the starting gate. Thus, while races are often remembered, especially these days, by who is not in the starting gate, I do not believe this will be the case this year. My money says this year's 3Y0 champion will run at Belmont Park in less than three weeks. Come on, after filling out the exacta in the first two legs, I'm due.