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Donovan, a native of White Plains, N.Y., has been NYRA’s oddsmaker since 2005 and also serves as a producer on MSG+’s racing broadcasts.

Setting the Morning Line

Friday, June 06, 2014
Posted by: Eric Donovan comment Comment (4)

Tuesday night before the Belmont Stakes is one of my favorite times to work all year.  It is then that I finalize the morning line for The Test of the Champion.  While there is undoubtedly more pressure for this race because of the national spotlight—none more so than this year—the job is more fun when it involves the best horses running in the best races.

The first question I have to ask myself is, “How short will the favorite be?”  California Chrome dominated his rivals earlier this year and was clearly best in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, leaving him a no-doubt odds-on favorite for the 146th Belmont Stakes.

Triple Crown candidates in the Belmont have been extremely short odds over the last 10 years.  Smarty Jones (.35-1) and Big Brown (.30-1) clearly stood out as superior to their rivals.

This year’s Belmont seems more competitive than the 2004 and 2008 versions, so I don’t think California Chrome will end up as short as Smarty Jones or Big Brown.  My gut feeling is that if he wins, ‘Chrome’ will pay around $3, making 3-5 seem like the right place to start.

Next, I have to consider the likely second through fourth choices and how far away they will be from the favorite in the betting.  Wicked Strong—with his solid Wood Memorial victory, a better-than-it-looks fourth in the Kentucky Derby, and good foundation races as a two-year-old—has solid credentials for an upset. The same can be said for Peter Pan winner Tonalist, who seems to be coming into peak form at the right time.

In a tough call for second-choice, I decided to go with Wicked Strong, thinking his overall body of work is better than Tonalist’s and he is a more familiar name to the public since he ran in the Derby.  The connection of his name to the 2013 Boston Marathon tragedy will also bring some casual or sentimental money his way.

To come up with the prices on Wicked Strong and Tonalist, I had to work backwards a little bit.  Figuring out what prices the longshots will be is key.  In this day and age, it seems that longshots and the favorite are overbet in Triple Crown races, while the value lies with the legitimate contenders.

When Sarava prevailed over Medaglia d’Oro in the 2002 Belmont at 70-1, that signaled the end of true longshots in the Belmont.  Since then, no horse has gone off at over 50-1 despite several that should have.  As such, I try to cap the Belmont runners at 30-1 maximum.

Attempting to end up with a final line that adds up to 127 points—each horse’s point value is calculated by this formula: 100/(odds+1). The 127 goal comes from adding 100% to the takeout (16%) plus another 1% per horse for human error and breakage. By figuring out the favorites and longshots first, I can now go back and see that with the points I had left the second choice should end up between 6-1 and 10-1.  Their credentials were similarly solid, so I placed Wicked Strong and Tonalist next to each other at 6-1 and 8-1.

With Ride On Curlin coming off a second to California Chrome in the Preakness, and Commanding Curve fresh off his runner-up effort in the Derby, these two seemed liked the next two logical spots at 12-1 and 15-1.

The remainder of the field I have at either 20-1 or 30-1.  Two horses who have the potential to get bet underneath those odds are Commissioner, who people are latching onto because of his strong 1 ½-mile pedigree, and Medal Count, who encountered trouble in the Derby and has been working strongly since.

I often say making the morning line is like being an umpire or referee; nobody notices when you’re right, but everyone notices when you get it wrong.

Hopefully we can look back on this Belmont Stakes and say, “Can you believe California Chrome paid $3.20 when he won the Triple Crown?”



California Chrome



Comanding Curve






Gernal A Rod









Medal Count



Ride On Curlin









Wicked Strong







Comments :

  • Roxy Roxborough | June 09 2014 03:56 AM

    By far the best morning line in the TC races. Thoughtful piece. Well done.

  • Seth | June 07 2014 10:15 PM

    I agree with Steve coulburn it is not fair its BS that they allow horses to enter the triple crown that haven't ran all the races like Chrome did. They need to change the rules it is very disappointing. California Chrome is still the best horse in my opinion.

  • Tom | June 07 2014 09:03 PM

    As a casual fan I am disappointed and agree with the owner of California Chrome that it is not fair to the fans, owners and horses to have to run against fresh legs. I agree that only the horses in the Kentucky Derby should be the only ones eligible to race in the Preakness and the Belmont. That way those horses in todays race would have been on more equal footing, pun intended.

    report this comment
  • Roxy Roxborough | June 06 2014 03:49 PM

    By far the best morning line in the TC races. Thoughtful piece. Well done.

    report this comment
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