He's done absolutely everything asked of him to date, and it's a helluva lot. Five wins on two different surfaces, with multiple trainers and jockeys, in 4 different states, and he hasn't had a tough time yet. There's a lot of smoke, fire and hullaballo over his connections being unsavory and schmucks in general, but there's no denying that this horse is talented.
There's also no denying that he's picked the absolutely perfect year to come and make this type of a splash. His Derby was good, but it wouldn't have beaten Street Sense last year, and while he probably would have run harder if necessary in the Preakness, he still would've been lengths behind the last 4 winners. You can only run against the horses from your generation, and it's not his fault that this class stinks, but the fact that he's "dominated" lesser horses to date has to be considered when evaluating just how well he's run recently. It's quite possible this is the tip of the iceberg of his talent and he's just unfortunate to not get credit because his competition blows, a la Seattle Slew but let's not also dismiss the possibility that he's just pulling another Charismatic and catching fire at just the right time.
Pointless banter aside, it's the final leg of the Triple Crown. Let's count 'em down in reverse order, while trying not to be too redundant with our other publication. For another fantastic look at the Derby, check out our brethren at East Coast Bias.
This is Just Mean
10. Guadalcanal. For reasons unclear, we've got a horse in this race who hasn't won a race yet. This isn't totally unheard of in Europe, but is a rarity here. We're getting all the usual excuses, he's bred for the distance, he finished well in his last, blah blah blah. The truth is, what's the point? What's the best case scenario, he finishes 4th? Why not run in a solid maiden race instead? Horses don't recover quickly from 12-furlong dirt races. Let's hope this guy makes it out in one piece.
Outsiders Looking In
9. Da' Tara. The lesser of the two Nick Zito horses, he comes in off a fairly blase runner up finish in the Barbaro Stakes on the Preakness undercard, which came right after his 5th place finish in the Derby Trial. It's tough to like him when it's difficult to like...
8. Macho Again...the horse that beat him by five lengths in the Derby Trial. The 2nd place finisher in the Preakness looks to move forward off that effort, but a re-examination of the Preakness shows that his 2nd wasn't so much a great effort as it was a matter of finishing there by default. Someone had to run 2nd, and a couple of more deserving horses had traffic trouble in the race. It's difficult to see him moving forward off his last, and it's much more likely he's already run his best race and will regress to a non-threatening back of the pack finish here.
7. Tale of Ekati. He should rate better than this, what with a Grade 1 win and a decent pedigree to get the distance, but something may be amiss with this guy--he had a pair of poor workouts prior to his last one which was okay. You never want to see quotes like this from your trainer, especially one as good as Barclay Tagg:
Wood Memorial winner Tale of Ekati worked a slow 1:18.47 on Monday morning under jockey Eibar Coa, which left trainer Barclay Tagg visibly frustrated. Tagg said, "I don't know how a world-class rider can go out there and work (a horse) in 1:18 - I just don't know, I told him go in 1:12." Coa said, "He was acting a little bit weird today. I didn't want to force him to do something that I didn't feel was the right thing. He's a better worker than that."Now yes, he did follow that up with a better effort, but this came after a bad workout on Preakness day as well. To top it off, he's still light in the Beyer department, and I feel we've already seen his best race, which wasn't that great. Time to move on.
Solely Exotics Filler
6. Ready's Echo. Clunked up for 3rd in the Peter Pan and should be running late again, and has Todd Pletcher in his corner. That's it for the positives with this guy, as he's yet to run a truly fast race and doesn't have the breeding (More Than Ready?) for 12 furlongs. You also have to question any Pletcher horse that's going to be a huge price. Some trainers (Zito, Lukas, Jerkens) are always deadly, even with longshots. Pletcher, by contrast, rarely has horses that greatly outrun their odds. If a horse is double-digit odds, chances are, it runs like one, with the only exceptions that pop to mind being Invisible Ink's & Bluegrass Cat's 2nds in the Derby; the former running before Pletcher was a juggernaut and the latter being more than double the price he should have been in the race. Still, it's not impossible to see him clunking up late to round out a superfecta.
5. Icabad Crane. Despite finishing behind Macho Again in the Preakness, he's a lot more interesting in the Belmont, as he had a fairly poor trip in the Preakness that probably cost him second, is much better bred to get the distance, and is from connections that could coax him into a money finish. The biggest quibble with him is the question of locale, as his two best races have come at Pimlico, and it's not unreasonable to think he won't be as good in New York. He's got next to no shot at actually winning the race, but if a couple of contenders misfire or get burned early, he's more likely than most to run third.
4. Big Brown. Aaaaand, the road ends here. I'm not going to deny that there's a lot to like. But as I mentioned earlier, there are three keys to winning the Belmont nowadays: adequate rest, a top-shelf jockey, and distance breeding. Big Brown fails on two of these. He's now had 5 races in under 3 months, including this being his 3rd in 5 weeks, and has already had a foot malady that's probably worse than they're letting on. The jockey....no knock here on KJ Desormeaux. But the breeding? I think that's the Achilles Heel. And I think it hits him between the eyeballs with three furlongs to go while others are still running strong.
3. Anak Nakal. Everyone's comparing him to 2004 Belmont winner Birdstone because he was an accomplished two year old, is from the Nick Zito barn, is a closer, skipped the Preakness after an okay Derby, and is trying to knock off a titan. The comparisons aren't bad, I'll grant that. The big difference is that Birdstone was a very good two year old--he won the Champagne in a fast time, and would have been the favorite in the Breeders Cup Juvenile had he been sent. His two losses prior to the Belmont had built-in excuses that he wasn't a mud horse. When we got a fast track at the Belmont, he was able to run again. By contrast, this guy isn't quite as fast or accomplished, but is bred to the wazoo for 12 furlongs. Definitely could sneak into triples at 30-1 or higher, but really tough to like to win unless the two faves fall apart and he gets first run on...
2. Denis of Cork. What type of racehorse wins the Belmont? Usually not a front-runner. Usually not a horse that makes a big move on a turn. And usually not a closer with an explosive late burst. No, it's most often an even-paced horse that sits off the pace, isn't affected by the early rush, and can keep grinding away at the lead for 12 furlongs. This guy fits the mold perfectly, and as I noted in the Derby preview, still has a lot of upside to hit. And his 3rd in the Derby was a pretty solid effort. The biggest issue: I don't love his pedigree at the distance. His daddy, Harlan's Holiday, flopped badly as the Derby favorite and wasn't stout enough to go more than 9 furlongs. How's that going to translate to his son?
1. Casino Drive. Yes, I'm aware of the foot bruise, but frankly, if he's still in the race come post-time, it means it's not that big an issue, as I don't see the connections taking any real chances here. If it's a real issue, he'll be scratched and just elevate Denis of Cork to the win slot. But besides the foot bruise, he has exactly one negative: his lack of experience. But as Big Brown has shown, even that's not a big deal, especially when contending with a mediocre field. If the foot's good, look for him to improve, take the steady and patient ride by Edgar Prado, and be in the winner's circle.
[Update: 9:02 a.m.---Casino Drive is scratched. Sigh. ---El Angelo]