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.
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?