Sean Morris is a Media Specialist at The New York Racing Association, Inc. and ardent handicapper. Like most horseplayers, his skill is surpassed only by his confidence.
You can find Sean on twitter at: @horseplayer_
Believe it or not, there are other horses in the Belmont besides California Chrome. A strong collection of challengers are waiting in the wings for him, ready and willing to play the role of spoiler.
Here’s a closer look at the prospective field:
Evoking memories of Golden Soul a year earlier, Commanding Curve closed to get second in the Derby for trainer Dallas Stewart, despite some underwhelming prep races.
There’s not much to say about his Derby performance. It was good, not great. He showed a strong closing kick and was forced wide around the far turn, but did not have to face the adversity that a host of others did.
I didn’t feel like I had a good bead on him going into the Derby, and I don’t feel like I know any more about him now. Other than that, given the right circumstances, he can blow up your trifecta.
Also covered a bit in the Tonalist post, Commissioner is a horse who is “all A.P. Indy” according to his trainer Todd Pletcher, and his performance on the racetrack seems to agree with that assessment. He may not have the raw talent of his sire, but he appears to have the stamina.
His runner-up performance in the Peter Pan was a solid effort. He was clearly second best that day, beaten four lengths by the winner, but was still going strongly at the finish. When considering his chances at turning the tables on Tonalist, two things are possible: he may not have cared for the sloppy racetrack as much, and he may appreciate the added ground more.
In the Arkansas Derby, he totally unraveled pre-race, and understandably was a non-factor.
His Sunland Derby was fine for Belmont Stakes purposes. He came from well off the pace (not usually a good idea at Sunland Park) and put in a solid run to finish third.
It feels like he’s a cut below the very best of the division (and maybe even a cut below that), but his superior stamina is enough to make him a fringe contender.
As of writing this, he’s 50/50 for the race. And that’s probably a good thing.
As evidenced by his eighth-place finish in the Preakness, he’s not this caliber of horse. His best races have come over some very taxing surfaces in Maryland, so unless the track is a tar pit for the race, it’s hard to envision him making an impact on the finish. And that’s a shame, because Linda Rice is an underrated trainer who deserves to get some recognition on a big stage.
I can’t provide much insight here that isn’t immediately evident from glancing at his past performances. He has Todd Pletcher in his corner, but not much to recommend otherwise and was a late addition to the field. He is simply not fast enough on paper and his dam was a sprinter, so he doesn’t figure to appreciate the added ground.
Another with not a lot to recommend on paper other than a Hall of Fame trainer. He had significant trouble in the Federico Tesio, which was won by Kid Cruz, but he probably wasn’t beating that one even with a clean trip, so where does that leave him?
By the stamina-rich Dynaformer, Medal Count is an interesting item in this year’s Belmont Stakes.
In the Kentucky Derby, he was shuffled back entering the clubhouse turn and put in an uncomfortable position among a crush of horses. He settled down on the backstretch and took up good position on the outside, but lost all chance in the stretch when Danza swerved right in front of him at the most crucial point of the race. There’s no telling where he would have finished otherwise, but it’s safe to say it wouldn’t have been eighth.
He proved he has a good deal of stamina in a pair of races at Keeneland this year. He won the Grade 3 Transylvania at 1 1/16 miles over a tiring polytrack when the race was moved to the main track, and nearly duplicated the feat eight days later in the 1 1/8-mile, Grade 1 Blue Grass.
The trouble is deciphering how these races translate to the dirt surface at Belmont. If his Derby performance is any indication, it should not be a problem. However, that is the only good dirt race he has in his PP’s. Ability-wise, I think he’s on par with Commanding Curve, Ride On Curlin, and Wicked Strong, but the surface remains a mystery.
Bottom line: he’s a great horse to use underneath at a price, and could even have the potential to upset the field if everything falls into place.
Ride On Curlin
Ride On Curlin proved in the Preakness that he’s for real. He got closer to California Chrome than anyone else has in 2014, losing by 1 ½ lengths, and even appeared poised to go by the Derby-Preakness winner in the stretch, though that scenario failed to materialize.
The talent is obviously there, but it’s fair to wonder if his ambitious campaign will catch up to him in the Belmont, as he has already run six times in 2014 and competed in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Furthermore, it looked like even if they ran another lap in the Preakness, he wasn’t going to get by Chrome. He’s probably best used underneath, as he ostensibly lacks the upside of some others.
I respect Samraat a lot as a racehorse and the job trainer Rick Violette has done with him, but it seems like there too many things working against him in the Belmont to consider him a serious win threat.
He had a pretty easy go of things in the Derby. The pace was on the quick side (assuming the track was slow, which has yet to really be confirmed) and he was right up on it, but was beaten handily by California Chrome and Commanding Curve, and passed late by Wicked Strong.
I just can’t envision a winning trip for him and I don’t think the distance will move him up, so at this point, it’s tough to include him in any capacity.
The Peter Pan winner has been covered in depth here and by all accounts is doing very well in the lead up to the Belmont Stakes.
Wicked Strong profiles like a horse who will flourish at 1 ½ miles. There’s nothing flashy about him; he’s a grinder, and his win in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial is a good illustration of that.
When angled out at the top of the stretch in the Wood, he didn’t look like a runaway winner – maybe not even a winner. But he kept coming and coming and went on to win by 3 ½ lengths while showing no signs of slowing down at the wire. Considering how tiring the track was that day, 1:49.31 was a very solid time for the 1 1/8-mile distance, and the 104 Beyer he earned for the effort certainly corroborates that.
Sent off at 6-1 in a field of 19, his fourth-place finish in the Derby left something to be desired. Breaking from the far outside, the Hard Spun colt had to go five wide around the clubhouse turn. From there, he was able to take up good position down the backstretch, and actually got to the inside by the time they rounded the far turn. He was in and among horses in the stretch – never really finding clear sailing but also not totally obstructed – and was beaten 5 ¾ lengths by California Chrome in the end. It feels like he could have been a little closer with a clean trip, but then again, he didn’t have such a bad trip.
At this point, it feels like he’s a cut below the very best of the division. However, the mile and a half could really help bridge that gap.
Well, there’s no doubting him now… right?
After winning the Derby in historically slow time, California Chrome found himself on the opposite end of the spectrum in the Preakness, logging one of the fastest times ever for the 1 3/16-mile race and looking every bit as dominant as he did two weeks prior. He’s now swept the first two legs of the Triple Crown with dazzling performances and even the numbers have tilted in his favor – factors that will make him an overwhelming favorite to win the June 7 Belmont Stakes. However, in order to win, he will have to surmount some pretty serious obstacles.
There’s a reason the Triple Crown has gone unclaimed for 35 years. The modern thoroughbred just isn’t as rugged and durable as his forebears. Winning a series of races at 1 ¼ miles, 1 3/16 miles, and 1 ½ miles in a period of a little over a month is an achievement that requires incredible resilience, especially considering most horses are given at least a month to recover between races far less rigorous. Couple that with the fact that these horses are still in the first half of their 3-year-old season and you have a recipe for a near impossible feat. Even being on the doorstep of accomplishing it is impressive.
The problem is compounded by the fact that California Chrome will have to line up against a swath of fresh horses in the Belmont, the majority of which have only contested one leg of the Triple Crown, or none at all. These horses have been conditioned with the Belmont specifically in mind and have not had to slog through the series, with the two exceptions being Chrome and the Preakness runner-up, Ride On Curlin.
The 1 ½-mile distance is really the icing on the cake. To circle back to an earlier mention, horses simply aren’t bred to go 12 furlongs anymore. It’s something of a gimmick distance in the modern game (on the dirt, at least), as the breed is geared more toward speed and precocity. The Belmont, in all likelihood, will be the farthest these horses are ever asked to run.
So, in the face of these potential pitfalls, how can a bettor accept 2-5 or shorter (my approximation of his odds) on him? You can’t. But the beauty of the situation, at least from a betting standpoint, is that even if you’re playing against him, it will be an emotional windfall if he wins.
To put his actual chances into focus, let’s take a closer look at his last two races.
Many thought the Derby pace was moderate, or even slow. As it turns out, it was probably a tad on the fast side, judging by the vast improvement California Chrome and Ride On Curlin showed in the Preakness time-wise. It will be interesting to see how other horses run out of the Derby, but those two alone have provided pretty substantial evidence that the Derby was an anomaly on a day the track played consistently fast. This means that those who want to extrapolate out his come-home times (namely his final quarter-mile in over 26 seconds) are playing with fire, as there really is no benchmark for what a good time would have been. As a bare minimum, we can probably conclude that the pace was a little quick for the 10 furlongs, and the fact that he was able to show a strong burst at the top of the lane is enough of a display of stamina to suggest he can go farther (though how much farther is up for debate). A softer pace and a faster track in the Belmont, which he should presumably get, will certainly help his chances.
His Preakness win virtually mirrored his Derby. He sat just off a fairly quick pace, spurted away turning for home, and held the runner-up at bay. In the end, it appeared workmanlike because of how close Ride On Curlin was able to get to him, but there was a chasm back to Social Inclusion in third, who is no slouch. It was a thoroughly impressive victory, but unfortunately doesn’t offer much insight into his ability to go 1 ½ miles.
And that’s the crux of the problem. A mile and a half is the great equalizer, and there’s little information at our disposal to identify what horses will be able to handle it. Breeding is usually a handicapper’s biggest asset in races like the Belmont, but California Chrome has already outrun his pedigree, so those that want to use his breeding as an angle to play against him are stepping into uncharted territory.
The bottom line is California Chrome has proven that he’s the best of his division up to 10 furlongs. What happens in those final two furlongs is anyone’s guess.
Regardless of the outcome of this Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, it’s hard not to think Peter Pan winner Tonalist is a legitimate threat to win the Belmont Stakes. That may seem like a bold proclamation to make with a Triple Crown potentially on the line, but that's how impressive the son of Tapit was this past Saturday.
After a slight stumble at the start left Tonalist near the back of the pack, he cruised up to the pacesetting Fabulous Kid and seized command of the early lead shortly after an opening quarter-mile in 23.79 seconds. (It’s important to point out that he didn’t rush up to the front. He wasn’t rank, or headstrong, or urged by jockey Joel Rosario; he did it well within himself.)
Keeping up with the momentum of his early move, he ran his second quarter-mile in just a tick over 23 seconds, leading the field through a half in 46.83. This seems like a fast split on its face – the track was sloppy and not playing particularly fast – but again, he was totally in control and just galloping along.
After six furlongs in 1:10.89, and despite slowing down the tempo, it was reasonable to wonder if the early fractions and move might take its toll on the young colt, who had been off for nearly 3 months after dealing with a lung infection. Tonalist erased any doubt about his class and fitness when the field turned for home.
At the head of the stretch, with Commisioner on his inside and Irish You Well on his outside both looking menacing, Tonalist promptly switched leads and rebroke, leaving the two would-be challengers in his muddy wake. On the wire, he was four lengths clear of Commissioner, while it was another 2 1/4 lengths back to Irish You Well in third. The 3-year-old colt stopped the clock in 1:48.30 for the mile and an eighth and earned a 101 Beyer Speed Figure for the performance.
What immediately came to mind following the race was Freedom Child's Peter Pan victory a year earlier. Both wins were dominant, front-running performances over a sloppy racetrack, and produced strikingly similar fractions. Those who want to use Freedom Child's Belmont flop as evidence against Tonalist may want to reconsider.
In the 2013 edition of the Belmont, Freedom Child had the misfortune of chasing a suicidal pace (an almost identical pace to the one he set in the 2013 Peter Pan). He had won only two races prior to the Test of the Champion and had yet to be rated successfully, so it wasn't entirely unsurprising to see him ridden so aggressively, but it definitely compromised his chances. Tonalist, on the other hand, has proven to be very tractable in his nascent career. He rallied from seventh place to break his maiden at Gulfstream Park, and a month later finished second to Florida Derby winner Constitution after sitting just off the early pace. And while their Peter Pan's are superficially similar, Tonalist appeared to be the more composed of the two, which bodes well for him not mirroring Freedom Child's Belmont.
There's also been some chatter recently that Tonalist's trainer, Christophe Clement, is out of his element with a dirt horse. While it's an exquisitely ignorant claim worthy of a blog post unto itself, I'll try to keep it to a paragraph.
First off, Clement excels in just about every conceivable category. He puts his horses where they belong and can thrive, and just happens to have a lot of turf horses (probably because of his erroneous reputation). The trouble with this is that it's a cycle doomed to repeat itself. If owners associate Clement with being a turf trainer, they're going to send him horses bred for turf. If he does well with those horses, he'll be recognized for his work on the turf, and it will perpetuate the idea that he's a turf trainer, causing owners to send him more turf horses. What's a trainer to do but embrace his role and try to win races? Hopefully, Tonalist will help illuminate the fact that Clement is an all-around great horseman, not a specialist.
While Tonalist is the most exciting Belmont prospect to exit the Peter Pan, I'd be remiss not to mention Commissioner as a possible contender, as well. Races at a mile and a half have a habit of narrowing any perceived gaps in ability, especially when they're for 3-year-olds, and Commissioner has the pedigree to excel at the distance, as his sire and damsire are both Belmont winners. The son of A.P. Indy has some blemishes on his record (a pair of sixth-place finishes in the Arkansas Derby and Fountain of Youth), but has proven he's a stayer – hitting the board in four of five 1 1/8-mile races – and has fared particularly well over more tiring ground (the Peter Pan and his Gulfstream Park allowance win). I could easily see him outrunning his odds if he's overlooked in the betting.
Your opinion of this year’s Kentucky Derby probably depends on which you’re more likely to trust: your eyes or the clock.
If you operate mostly on instinct, the visual impression California Chrome made on Saturday might have you thinking Triple Crown. He rated kindly off a fast, yet reasonable pace and looked like a winner every step of the way in the Churchill Downs stretch. It was breathtaking.
But that’s where the beauty of the performance ends.
The son of Lucky Pulpit stopped the clock in a ghastly 2:03.66 for the 1 ¼ miles, running his final two furlongs in over 26 seconds on a fast track and earning a 97 Beyer Speed Figure for the effort. Empirically, it wasn’t pretty.
After seeing the fractional postings for the first three points of call and watching California Chrome bound away from the field in the stretch, I made a very crude approximation of what I thought the final time would be, given how fast the track was playing. The actual final time was nearly three full seconds slower than my impromptu estimate.
The first – and most logical – question to ask following such a dichotomous performance is how can we make the instinctual and the empirical acquiesce? In other words, how can a group of horses that consistently crack triple-digits on the Beyer scale run so slowly, and look so good doing it?
In short, I don’t know.
Perhaps the most startling statistic to take away from the Derby is that only three horses were able to run a Beyer of 90 or higher. Given the quality and depth of the field, that seems totally implausible. Even if, for argument’s sake, none of this year’s crop wants to go a mile and a quarter, they would have had to canter home to explain away such a precipitous regression.
Trip certainly plays a role in subpar performances. And, as always, there were plenty of rough trips to go around. But it still isn’t enough to say that a combination of distance limitations and poor trips account for such an anomalous result.
The death knell for figure-naysayers seems to be that the winner and runner-up ran unencumbered. Sure, Commanding Curve had to go wide around the far turn, but that was the only adversity he faced. Given the fact that his career-high Beyer was an 89 prior to Saturday, how much improvement was it reasonable to expect from him? Five points (his Derby Beyer was a 94) seems about right with a wide trip.
Of the top three finishers, the only one you can give a pass to (if you're inclined to give a pass to a horse who finishes top three in the Derby) is Danza. The son of Street Boss was squeezed out of a spot shortly after the start of the race, and then promptly whacked by Vinceremos. He was able to save ground on both turns, but lacked a clear path in the stretch and had to be angled out sharply in the vicinity of the eighth-pole. It wasn't a nightmarish trip, but certainly one that might preclude him from running his best race.
You'd have to go another 2 3/4 lengths back to find Wicked Strong in fourth. Aside from those that didn't have a fair chance (Dance With Fate, Medal Count, and Candy Boy, to name a few), it's safe to say that the horses that rounded out the Derby trifecta distinguished themselves as the best of the bunch.
Whatever that means.