Pundits everywhere discuss how the Derby has changes and rightly so. But the Belmont winners have had a similar if unnoticed transformation. Prior to 2000, you entered the Belmont either as part 3 of the TC series or as a young gun out of the Peter Pan, Belmont's prep race for those that weren't in the Derby or Preakness for whatever reason. If you didn't do one of those, you lost. And then 2000 came.
2000: Fusaichi Pegasus and Red Bullet wuss out on the Belmont, leaving Derby runner up Aptitude as a bad favorite. The race is won by the execrable Commendable, who ran 17th in the Derby and skipped the Preakness. Outside of his maiden win, it was Commendable's only win.
2001: Order is seemingly restored as Point Given dominates the Belmont even more easily than his Preakness win. Racing fans are still befuddled how this titan failed to show up in the Derby. Point Given wins the Haskell and Travers before being retired.
2002: Sarava, having won a race on the Preakness undercard, shocks the world by winning at 70-1. He never won again.
2003: Empire Maker skips the Preakness to freshen and easily wins the Belmont. He loses his only other start at 1-5 odds.
2004: Birdstone skips the Preakness to freshen and upsets the Belmont at 36-1. He wins the Travers but is destroyed in the Breeders Cup and retires.
2005: Afleet Alex romps as the favorite in his final career start. Much like Point Given, pundits are stumped as to how the duel Preakness-Belmont winner lost the Derby and was denied the Triple Crown.
2006: Jazil improves on his boring 4th place Derby finish to win after skipping the Preakness to freshen. It's his 2nd and final career win.
2007: Rags to Riches exits the Kentucky Oaks to win the Belmont off a 5-week break, defeating Curlin and Hard Spun, both of which ran in the prior 2 TC races. She runs once more and loses and was retired last winter.
So what trends can we glean?
1. The last two favorites to win were horses that flopped in the Derby and dominated the Preakness. Beyond this odd pattern, favorites don't win the Belmont.
2. Winning the Belmont is the kiss of death to your racing career. The last 7 Belmont winners have had a combined post-Belmont record of 3 wins in 17 races, all by Point Given and Birdstone. This may also be because...
3. The modern Belmont produces bizarre results. Between breeding for speed instead of stamina, lighter races schedules and jockeys unfamiliarity with how to ride the odd distance, we're getting results that have less to do with talent and more with breeding and jockey abilities. To find a Belmont winner, therefore, look less to current form and speed figures, and look more to whether the horse is bred for the distance, has an able jockey with experience at longer races (more common amongst jockeys who initially cut their teeth in Latin America) and a good trainer. With the exception of Afleet Alex (who simply towered over one of the worst Belmont fields ever--a maiden ran 3rd!), these characteristics are indicative of this century's winners.
Coming up next week: a look at why the last 10 Triple Crown attempts have failed, and our countdown as to who fits the bill this year.