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.
The heat has cleared out, the barbs continue to fly, and the 143rd Belmont is just hours away. According to the questions on my Live Chat it will be a glorious day, as virtually everyone asked me who I liked in the sloppy/muddy Belmont, thus ensuring a fast track. Let’s get down to business and try to figure out who’s going to win the Belmont Stakes. Hopefully I can salvage a thread of dignity after failing miserably in the first two legs of the TC. I’ve been so bad that even Mucho Macho Man was herd calling for my job recently. Who can blame him?
The problems I have had in the first two legs of the Triple Crown continue to dog me. There have simply been few horses that have run perceptively better on the track than they appear to have run on paper. In looking at any race, especially one where your overall grasp on the contenders is relatively elusive, a good place to start is to separate the possible contenders into groups by running style. I see four groups in this Belmont Stakes…..Shackleford and Prime Cut ( who is overmatched ) heading to the lead along with Mucho Macho Man. Santiva and Nehro will be the second group, stalking close behind, with Animal Kingdom and Brilliant Speed making up the third tier, and Master of Hounds is the final mover, so to speak. Group B likely moves in the vicinity of the ½ mile pole, Group C around the ¼ pole, and Mr. D ( Master of Hounds ) makes the final run. Thus the question, which if any, of the runners from each tier will be able to sustain their runs and hold off the following wave or waves? I guess the key to this will be how fast a pace we have. Personally, I think Shackleford can maintain a reasonable pace ( lets say 24 and change and 48 and change ) and still have enough in reserve to be there at the finish. Can Mucho Macho Man continue grinding at that clip? I am dubious, but his very best races are when he is stalking the pace, and these tactics will give him his best chance. However, he needs to improve off even his best races, and despite his impossible trip in the Preakness ( watch the race again, focusing on him, if you don’t believe me ), I don’t have confidence in him pulling off the minor upset. From Group B, the more popular Nehro, who is still eligible for a NW1X, appears to be the biggest player. He has shown the rare ability to be completely tractable, in that he can sit close to a moderate pace and finish, and make one run from well back in a fast pace. However, even given this versatility, he is a horse that has had perfect trips in all his recent races, and still continues to come up short. Yes, he appears to be improving, and perhaps skipping the Preakness will help him ( though where is the evidence that it will ), but I expect him to be a short priced second choice, in the 3:1 range, and nothing about him appears to justify those kinds of odds, especially at the daunting mile and a half distance. As for Santiva, I ask only one question…..where is his fast race? Right….nowhere. He is a neat horse, who can run well on all surfaces, but ( at least so far ) not quickly enough to compete effectively here, and it’s not as though he had a compromising trip in the KY Derby. He simply wasn’t good enough that day and doesn’t rate to be good enough in the Belmont. Now group C….obviously Animal Kingdom needs no real introduction, and is simply the horse to beat. His KY Derby, albeit with a perfect trip and great ride, definitely showed himself to be, at that time, the best horse in that group. His Preakness was an equally good effort, and only an improved, and superior, effort by Shackleford denied him a chance to become the 12th Triple Crown winner. With the German breeding on his dam side, despite his sire being a miler, he should be able to handle the distance. No sane person, and even this unstable person, would leave him off a multi-race ticket. However, at 8:5ish, I can find better horses to pick on top, and still believe Shackleford ( who I’ll get to more in depth ) will offer better value. As for Brilliant Speed, he did run better than expected in the Derby, while racing very wide, but if the rail was the wrong place to be, being wide may not have been a major handicap. Plus, he clunked along late with a whole bunch of possibly overmatched horses, and still feels like a major question mark on the dirt, at least at this level. But, I would rather take 15:1 on him than somewhere around 3:1 on Nehro, and he is a better horse than Santiva, so he remains on my superfecta ticket. That leaves us with the last mover, the final wave, Master of Hounds. His Derby was a surprisingly good effort, especially given he had last raced in Dubai six weeks earlier, and logged many thousands of miles in back-and-forth travel over the previous few months. He seemed to handle the dirt just fine and was moving along the supposed deeper rail late in the race. Of all the turf-type performers, save Animal Kingdom, his effort was the best, and as the final mover in this Belmont, I consider him a major contender…..but not THE major contender.
Shackleford is the one horse in this field that did something that I consider relatively extraordinary. He won a race, the Preakness, under less than ideal circumstances. He stalked a rapid early pace that was set by a solid sprinter who eventually finished dead last. To hold on under those circumstances is more impressive than making the strongest final move in a collapsing race, as Animal Kingdom did in the KY Derby. Plus, Animal Kingdom had every chance to run him down in Baltimore, and simply wasn’t good enough. Now, the mile and a half might be the great equalizer, and certainly Shackleford has to answer that question as much as anyone, but given that I expect him to be at least 6:1 in this race, he will offer value, and value is what we seek…..whether a $10K Claiming race or the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. My picks are Shackleford-Master of Hounds-Animal Kingdom-Brilliant Speed.
There are five other Stakes races that need some mention. In the TVG Acorn, Turbulent Descent is an overwhelming favorite, and far and away the likeliest winner on the entire card. I have no interest in trying to beat her, and as much as I would like to see It’s Tricky run well, and do consider her the second best horse, I will not bet her against Turbulent Descent. In The True North Handicap ( sponsored by Emirates Airlines ) I prefer horses coming out of the Waldoboro, our prep run four weeks ago. Trappe Shot is absolutely the horse to beat, but Rule by Night may benefit greatly from his start there, as Steve Asmussen runners rarely run their best off layoffs, and is my choice to score the mild upset. Winter hero Calibrachoa does not look good enough to me, and I don’t like horses that miss multiple races, as he did ( the Carter and Churchill Downs Handicaps ), especially following strong improvement. As for the ( Visit Nassaucounty.com ) Woody Stephens, other than Derivative, I could make a case for any horse. Travelin Man’s best race beats these, and he very well may lead them on the proverbial merry chase, but his last race ( the Derby Trial ) was too bad to just dismiss, especially given the horse he dueled with him lost by only a neck. Justin Phillip may well have won the Jerome had it been 7F, and being second to the very promising Adios Charlie, especially at too long a distance for him, is no disgrace. Hopefully he can step up and run his best race here at a square price. I will let Arch Traveler beat me, which he may well do, but even given his last race was a good one, I am still not convinced he is good enough to justify his likely short price. I picked Justin Phillip-Travelin Man- Little Drama in the Woody.
Moving on to the turf portion of our stakes, Aviate is very much the horse to beat in the Foxwoods Just a Game. She looks very likely to add her name to the many Juddmonte runners that have won this race in the past, as her Distaff Turf Mile on Derby Day was a definitive performance. Fantasia ran OK to be third behind her, and perhaps would have been closer if able to rally outside of horses, but she falls short too often for my taste, and seems at best to be a fringe player. Gypsy’s Warning, for Animal Kingdom’s connections, is the other horse I will use. She was likely to close to the early pace in the very tough Jenny Wiley at Keeneland, and got herself shuffled out of the race a bit on the turn. Her prior effort, winning Hollywood Park’s Matriarch last November makes her the second best horse in this race in my opinion. As for the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap, Gio Ponti is clearly the horse to beat after winning this race two years ago and just falling short to his stablemate Winchester in 2010. However, this is his first race back after going to Dubai just over two months ago, and at six years old may well have lost a step. But, he ran a winning race when 5th that day, after being forced to move wide, and prematurely, behind a very slow race. But, I won’t pick him on top at a short price, while using him strongly in any multi-race bets. Both Prince Will I Am and Al Khali were adversely affected by the slow pace in the Turf Classic on KY Derby Day, but Al Khali may also have faced some stretch traffic, and will be a much bigger price, which makes him my top selection. Not the likeliest winner….but good value overcomes that problem. Clearly if the Viscount Nelson that lost by just one length to Twice Over in last year’s Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park shows up, he will be more than a handful, but given that he raced just eight days ago, and his trainer Aidan O”Brien has had very limited success in North America ( 3 for 47 with an $0.80 ROI ) over the last five years, I will relegate him to the third slot. Even Straight Story, who will likely stalk Mission Approved, is not without a chance. Hopefully we can fund all these bets with the money we win on Mineswept in the 4th race.
Plenty of action on what shapes up as an extremely exciting Belmont Stakes and Belmont Stakes Day. Will one horse stamp himself as the top 3YO in America…or will we have a third winner of a 2011 Triple Crown race? In less than 30 hours we’ll have that answer. I know I can hardly wait.