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.
Every year around KY Derby time, you invariably see mention of " who is this year's Wise Guy horse? " Wise guy seems to be one of a plethora of phrases you hear around the racetrack that has, to be kind, multiple interpretations. I often wonder if those seemingly deciding who becomes the annual " wise guy " horse have ever even encountered an honest to goodness Wise Guy. This, of course, begs the question " What is a Wise Guy? "
Well, to me at least, a Wise Guy is, first and foremost, genuinely " smart, " which in racetrack parlance means he ( or she ) possesses a valuable handicapping opinion. Thus, the Wise Guy horse is a sound selection. The Wise Guy also generally goes against the flow. However, he does not possess the unfortunate disease of simply picking against a favorite, especially a heavy one, " just because...." The Wise Guy knows, within reason, when NOT to play against heavy favorites, and when he does, he picks longshots with at least a reasonable level of accuracy. The true Wise Guy isn't still resting on the laurels of picking Charismatic or Giacomo in their respective KY Derbies, as ( theoretically ) there have been many other memorable predictions in the interim.
Then how, you ask, can the general public accurately determine who really is this year's KY Derby Wise Guy horse? Given the elusive nature of most honest to goodness Wise Guys, the most effective method might be to somehow try to get into the head of a Wise Guy. Since conventional wisdom in this year's KY Derby seems to already be heading into Wise Guy territory, in that many see this year's field as widely evenly matched, maybe the actual Wise Guy play isn't some version of " box the four best longshots. " In fact, maybe it's just the opposite. Is it possible that, ultimately, Dialed In, the likely favorite, is really this year's " Wise Guy Horse? "
As we ease into this year’s Belmont it strikes me how different it is than last year. While last year there were vulnerable favorites, this Belmont contains three horses, Ice Box and Fly Down for trainer Nick Zito, and First Dude for Dale Romans, that appear to tower over their competition, and while 1½ mile races often invite unanswerable questions prior to their running, it feels unlikely this grouping won’t provide the winner if not the exacta ( or even tri ). The first question has to be whether or not there will early pressure on First Dude, and if so can he successfully rate, and thus will there ultimately be enough early pace for Ice Box. In my opinion, while Interactif and Game On Dude could show some early speed, First Dude will dispose of them before the 5/8ths pole, and very possibly gallop himself into the Belmont winner’s circle. His Preakness was an exceptional performance, setting a very strong pace, and battling back through the stretch after appearing beaten before the quarter pole. The problem for me is that having bet him at almost 24:1 in the Preakness, it’s hard to get overly excited at his expected much shorter price this Saturday. However, I am not sure I love the alternatives. Ice Box was very probably the best horse almost five weeks ago in the KY Derby, getting repeatedly stopped in the final 5/16ths of the race, and eventually rerallying for a hard closing second. When you couple this with the picture perfect trip the winner, Super Saver, received, it becomes even more evident that Ice Box was the best horse that day. But, Ice Box is a deep closer that has benefited greatly from two straight strong paces, and this situation may well not present itself in this year’s Belmont Stakes. However, I am not sure he is the plodding one run closer that some believe, and think a strong argument could be made that he is a somewhat slow developing horse that is simply getting better with each race. His dam Spice Island won the Long Island Handicap at 1½ miles on the grass, thus stamina should not be an issue, and if First Dude is not able to “ gallop away “ from the field, that means the pace will collapse, and Ice Box may very well be the best horse running in the last quarter of a mile. Or maybe he won’t be, and that title will belong to the other Nick Zito runner, Fly Down. Fly Down is part accomplishment and part potential. With just five starts to his credit, and a powerful win in the Dwyer here at Belmont ( at 1 1/8 miles ), he ultimately may prove the best of these three as we head towards the Summer and Fall. Fly Down holds two decisions over First Dude, one at Churchill Downs and one at Gulfstream, but it is arguable that First Dude did more work in both races than Fly Down. But, Fly Down has gotten it done, so to speak, and First Dude still only win to his credit, and as good as he is, he is close to getting a bridesmaid reputation, though a very good one. Fly Down, while a closer, isn’t quite the plodder that Ice Box is, which may put him more in the game. How much this will help him is debatable however, as will it be easier to beat First Dude by trying to grind him out, or by hoping he gets leg weary and thus, essentially, collapses the race…in which case Ice Box will win. If nothing else these are a lot of scenarios to consider, and finally I have decided the likeliest is that First Dude gallops the field into submission, with the second likeliest being he fails to get the trip, the race collapses, and Ice Box wins. However, I’m still not convinced it’s not a three-sided coin flip.
But there’s plenty more action at Belmont Saturday, with five Graded stakes besides the Belmont, three of which are Grade 1s. Let’s go in order and take a quick look at what they have to offer….
Race 6 – The Woody Stephens
Eightyfiveinafifty may be the most talented 3YO running in this country as long as he stays within his comfort zone as he is in this race. He is faster early than the other horses and if he behaves himself, always a big if in his case, he will prove very hard to beat. D’Funnybone draws well outside, but I cannot excuse his last race, and will look to beat him. Discreetly Mine finished well behind D’Funnybone in the Futurity last Fall at Belmont, but he was mired with traffic troubles after breaking a beat slow from the rail that day, while D’Funnybone had a perfect trip. I love the turnback from route races to this sprint for Discreetly Mine and believe he has moved forward since that race and I am not convinced D’Funnybone has not done the opposite. So while I recognize that Eightyfiveinafifty is the horse to beat, I will try to beat him with Discreetly Mine.
Race 7 – The Just a Game
While the race is basically devoid of speed, and thus Speak Easy Gal looks to have a tactical edge on paper, I simply believe she isn’t nearly good enough to win, and will dismiss the race dynamics here. Proviso, on the other hand, is the best horse in the race, and after overcoming a slow pace to beat a solid male, Fluke, last time in the Frank Kilroe at Santa Anita I will be surprised if she doesn’t overcome the similar dynamics to annex this race. Pholo is the wildcard, but I believe her impressive looking effort at Churchill Downs on Derby Day may have had a lot to do with the yielding course, which is the opposite of the sun baked course she will encounter here at Belmont. On the other hand, Fantasia may have been hampered by that same course condition when fourth to Pholo, and she very well turn the tables on the firmer turf here. Again, Proviso will be very tough and my only back up horse in the Pick-6 will be Fantasia.
Race 8 – The True North Handicap
Custom for Carlos is very much the horse to beat here. He has simply run faster, against tougher horses, in his recent races. However, I do not discount the chances of Bribon, who breaks just outside of him. While Bribon is more accomplished going seven furlongs to one mile, he had no chance in the Westchester, his last start. The Westchester was his second start for new trainer Todd Pletcher, and after shipping to Barbados for his prior effort, he encountered a very slow pace that day, and was much closer than he wants to be while making a somewhat premature four wide run. I like the turnback in distance, and with a likely much faster pace scenario, he should be able to make his preferred late run. I do worry that at seven years old he isn’t the horse he was last year but if anyone is going to beat Custom for Carlos, Bribon has far and away the best chance. A longshot perhaps worth a second look is Snapshot. Snapshot was made the favorite in a much weaker sprint stake on the Preakness undercard, and while he never did much running to finish fifth, he was always caught behind and between horses after breaking a bit sluggishly. The pace was tepid, with the winner going wire to wire, and perhaps with a cleaner trip in the True North, he can run closer to his previous expectations at a much bigger price. Bribon – Custom for Carlos – Snapshot for me.
Race 9 – The Acorn
While the Belmont Stakes is clearly the most anticipated and prestigious race on the card, no race looks more interesting on paper than this 13 horse Acorn. This race has everything, accomplished horses from both coasts, some trying real dirt for the first time, and promising up and comers. Amen Hallelujah is the likely favorite, and after trying two turns and 1 1/8 miles in back to back races, with decent but mixed results, she return to her preferred one turn mile distance in the Acorn. If she runs as well as she did at Gulfstream, when winning the Davona Dale, or at Santa Anita, when she defeated the very tough Franny Freud on the Pro-Ride surface, she will take a ton of beating here. Tanda is one of two California horses shipping in for this race, and she comes off two impressive efforts in Grade 3 Stakes out there. She faces, however, two major obstacles. One, she must carry her synthetic track form to dirt. I am not as concerned about this as the other obstacle, as due to her near inside post, and reasonable early speed, she may be forced to run harder early than perhaps will be to her advantage, and as opposed to dictating the race, she will be have the race dictated to her. The other California horse, Crisp, has run on dirt before. She tried the KY Oaks, and while she finished seventh, after a bit of early trouble, and a wide trip, her race may not be as bad as it appears on paper. The problem with Crisp is that she has never run particularly fast speed figures and may simply not be good enough. However, I will throw her in at a price. Much Rejoicing is one of the “ up and comers “ and interests me a great deal in here. Despite appearing perhaps better bred for turf, at least on her dam side of turf champion Soaring Softly, she handled the dirt quite well in her debut. She improved even further in her second race, at Keeneland, easily beating Buckleupbuttercup, who also ships in for this Acorn after winning the Eight Belles impressively in the slop of Derby Day. It does concern me that Much Rejoicing may have run much better at Keeneland because her turf pedigree is more suited for the Polytrack than dirt, but considering her debut, I don’t think it is a stretch to expect bigger and better things from her. The other up and comer is Streaker from the habitually overbet Phipps/McGaughey team, and while she too needs to step up her game here, she has won both of her last starts quite easily, and two back she handled the upset winner of the Black-Eyed Susan Acting Happy. I will use all of Amen Hallelujah – Much Rejoicing – Crisp – Tanda – Streaker in my Pick-4 play that culminates with the Belmont Stakes.
Race 10 – The Manhattan
Simply put, if Gio Ponti regains his form of last year, he will win this race. However, he has not run in over two months, with his last race a solid fourth in the Dubai World Cup. While I don’t worry as much about horses shipping back from Dubai as some, it isn’t unfair to winder if at five years old Gio Ponti may either not be as good as last year or take some more time to regain that impressive form. While I am rooting for him to be the Gio Ponti of old, as he is one of my all-time favorite horses, it may be fair to take a shot against him here ( while certainly using him in any Pick-4 or Pick-6 play ). Just as Well at his best looks the second best horse at the distance ( he was second to Gio Poni in the 2009 Arlington Million ). While he had a decent trip around the racetrack when second to Strike a Deal ( who is also in this Manhattan ) in the Dixie on the Preakness undercard, it is fair to say he was compromised by the slow pace set by that wire to wire winner, and was always forced to be closer to the pace than he comfortably wants to be. Given the presence of Jet Propulsion in this race, Strike a Deal won’t get the same easy lead, and Just as Well should get the faster pace he craves. For those reasons I will take him to upset Gio Ponti. The other major contender appears to be Take the Points, who also returns from Dubai, where he ran an excellent 5th in the Dubai Duty Free on World Cup Day. He had an excellent 3YO season, winning both the Grade 1 Secretariat at Arlington and the Grade 1 Jamaica at Belmont, but never ran seemingly fast enough to beat the horses he faces in this Manhattan. However, he seemed to step up his game in his 4YO debut, the Gulfstream Turf Handicap, where he finished first only to be disqualified ( in my opinion a poor call ). With continued improvement he is definitely a threat in this race. Somewhere on my tickets I will also include longshot Pinckney Hill, as he has always shown promise in his limited campaigns, and perhaps he can finally put it together this year. He does, obviously, need to run better than he ever has in the past.
There you have it, six big Stakes on what promises to be a very exciting day culminating with the 142nd Belmont Stakes, a race that I believe will produce this year’s 3YO champion as we open the door to what will be a very exciting second half of the 2010 racing season.
I sit here trying to figure out what I did wrong. Who at NYRA did I anger? How could they ask me to write a blog and then put me in a grouping that includes Ernie Munick? It's not fair. I once read Phil Lesh, the bass player for the Grateful Dead, expressing embarrassment after Miles Davis warmed the Dead up ( even an avowed Dead Head such as myself knows how absurd that is ) at the Fillmore East. Well, compared to this, that was nothing. Here I am trying to string together drivel about the TC races, and this clown Ernie Munick is making graphic illustrations of his 38 Belmonts that are funnier than anything I could even dream of writing. Screw this.
I could, perhaps, compose a list of my bitterest memories of my roughly 30 Belmonts.....missing Colonial Affair ( and Krone ) winning in 1993 ( not to mention a Dead show as well ) due to a wedding commitment ( they're divorced ). Who could forget the famous LIRR breakdown of 1979 ( or was it 1978....who can remember ) BEFORE Penn Station had air conditioning? How about Summing winning in 1981 when I made doubles with Pleasant Colony and second finisher Highland Blade into Maudlin ( who of course won the last race )? What about the rain in 2003 that clearly cost the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle, Dynever, his deserved place in history as a Belmont winner? I'm still waiting for my friend Lance to show up for the 1980 Belmont. Has anybody seen him? Anyone care to explain how Sarava beat the 18:1 ( are you kidding me??? ) Medaglia D'Oro in 2002? I'm still waiting for my High School Math teacher to give me the proper credit for picking Coastal in 1979 ( he scoffed at me...then bet him...claiming it was because " Russ Harris picked him " ). What am I, Rodney friggin Dangerfield?
But I'm over that stuff. Or, at least I was, and then NYRA brought Munick aboard. What's worse is that I actually like the guy. When I first moved to NY, Ernie was writing a daily handicapping column for the NY Daily News called, I believe, Runners and Bummers. Now, I don't know if many of you remember this, but it was brilliant. I idolized him. I actually bought the paper every day just to see his picks and what he wrote. It was great stuff....funny, informative, and the picks were golden. Then he left....dropped me like a bad habit. And it got worse, not only was Ernie gone, but I was left with Kurt Paseka. This was like going to see Olivier play Hamlet, and finding out the understudy is filling in....and the understudy is Jackie Mason. My life has, understandably, never been the same. And now it just got worse.
But there is a silver lining. Ernie still has to make his Belmont Pick. I'm fully confident that no matter how much I embarrass myself with my selection, Ernie will outdo me there as well. I could be wrong, but I heard Ernie got pretty excited when Spangled Star joined the field.
By the way, poetic license, as Kurt Paseka is actually one of my favorite people.
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.