Friday, June 5, 2009

2009 Belmont Stakes Preview

The big story from this year's Belmont isn't who's running, it's who's not running. Despite winning the Kentucky Oaks and Preakness, thrusting herself well ahead of the pack in Horse of the Year discussion, Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen have decided to keep super filly Rachel Alexandra out of the Belmont, doing "what's best for the horse." Which is refreshing.

But maybe it's also because winning the Belmont Stakes this decade has been something of a curse to a horse's later career. Since Lemon Drop Kid took home the carnations in 1999, Belmont winners have been an astoundingly bad 3-for-23 in their post-Belmont career. A quick run-through:

2000: Commendable upsets the Belmont at 18-1 in a brilliant ride by Pat Day. It's his second and final career win, as he drops his next four starts.

2001: Arguably the best horse to run this decade, Point Given romps in the Belmont, then comes back to win the Haskell and Travers, and is subsequently retired with an injury. Had he come back as a four year old, he may have been one of the more dominating older horses we've seen this side of Invasor.

2002: Sarava shocks the world by winning the Belmont at 70-1. He shocks nobody by finishing out of the money in his next four starts.

2003: Empire Maker gets revenge for his Derby loss, and then follows that up with a loss in the Jim Dandy at 1-5. He's then retired after a minor injury, given that his stud value has gone through the roof.

2004: Birdstone pulls off a surprise win over Smarty Jones at 36-1, then follows that up with a Travers win. For some reason, he's laid off until the Breeders Cup (where he loses), and is retired to stud. This is odd simply because he was owned by Marylou Whitney, who didn't exactly need the money, and because he wasn't a hot sire prospect.

2005: Afleet Alex wins by a football field over the immortal Andromeda's Hero. It's his final start, as he's ushered off to the breeding shed.

2006: Jazil beats a fairly motley group of horses (only 1 horse behind him, Bluegrass Cat, was actually any good) for his second and final career win. He follows it up with two second place finishes the following year and a dead-last finish on the turf before being retired.

2007: Rags to Riches takes the entire summer off after winning one "for the girls", and loses her comeback race to Lear's Princess. It's the last we see of her.

2008: Da'Tara pulls off a 39-1 gate-to-wire shocker, and has lost all 6 races since then.

Is there a common theme here? Not quite, but you could argue that the explanations fall into three categories:
  • The horse wasn't any good to begin with. This explains the big upset winners (Commendable, Sarava, Da'Tara), and to a large extent, Jazil, who really just took advantage of a good ride and good fortune against a Grade II field. While 2006 was one of the best classes of 3yos we've seen in a while thanks to Bernardini, Barbaro, Discreet Cat, Showing Up, Corinthian and Lawyer Ron, note that none of these horses were in the Belmont.
  • The horse was injured. This knocked Rags to Riches out. The question is whether the Belmont was the cause of her injury.
  • The stud deals were too good to pass up. Say goodbye to Empire Maker, Afleet Alex, Point Given and Birdstone for that reason. All but Birdstone also suffered minor injuries in their 3yo season, which were good pretexts for retiring early.
What this tends to show is that the Belmont is both grueling and lucrative. A win can mean a bonanza at stud, so long as you're not an inconceivable longshot. But it also may mean that your career may be cut short...unless, of course, you're a gelding, like Mine That Bird.

So who's going to be cursed this year? Let's run the entries down this year from worst to first. As a side note, we're going to try to live blog the Belmont tomorrow, but won't be getting there until the 4th race or so. Go Bimini.

Tough to See Winning

10. Luv Gov. Now that everyone is ripping off our exclusive coverage of Marylou Whitney's droll sense of humor, this horse is infamous. The problem is that he can't run that fast, and will be hard pressed to finish in the top half of the pack.

9. Brave Victor. The first of Nick Zito's two horses, this guy's the closer that clunked up for third in the Peter Pan last out. Given that the winner of the Peter Pan is someone we don't like (we'll get to him in a minute) and the runner up look like garbage in the Met Mile, it's tough to endorse him, the show finisher.

8. Flying Private. While he ran 4th in the Preakness, there wasn't a single point in the race where he looked like he was a threat to run better than fourth. And while he established a new top Gowanus Speed Figure in his last, it's more than a little bizarre that almost the entire Preakness field established a new top figure in the race. That's generally indicative of a bad figure, so downgrade his last by 5-8 points. Doing that makes him too slow and uninteresting.

7. Summer Bird. Going from Chris Rosier to Kent Desormeaux is arguably the biggest jockey change in the history of this race, so long as Kent doesn't pull this guy up in the stretch as well. The jock switch doesn't change the fact that this lightly raced colt owns nothing more than a maiden win and a clunk up third that looks even less impressive on review: Old Fashioned exited the Arkansas Derby with an injury, while Papa Clem has firmly established himself as mediocre. Some are touting this horse for a short at a price; we see him as, at best, exotics filler, but more likely overrated.

The Sucker Play

6. Charitable Man. The probable second choice in the race (our guess is he'll be around 5-2), he's a fantastic bet-against. His supporters will note that he's undefeated on dirt, 2-for-2 at Belmont, blah blah blah. The truth is he has no 2-turn experience (outside of a polytrack disaster), and his last race wasn't as good as it seemed, given that he had a perfect trip behind an intractable front-runner and no good horses behind him. To make matters worse, every trainer is well aware that he's a threat, to the point where they see him as the horse to beat. Shouldn't that be good? No. In a rider's race, a horse with tactical speed can get ridden to death by smart jockeys. It happened to Funny Cide, Smart Jones and to some extent, Big Brown. Look for it to happen again here.

The Interesting Price Plays

5. Mr. Hot Stuff. Well that was helpful. As noted in our Preakness preview, the Derby did little to tell us whether synthetics surface horses will do well on dirt because of the slop factor. Then came the Preakness, and Pioneerof the Nile flopped miserably. Does that damn this guy to also-ran status? Not necessarily. We like the extra time off and the fact that he was improving with every race until the Derby. He's probably not fast enough to win the race, but he's a must use "underneath".

4. Miner's Escape. Horse with early speed trained by Nick Zito that just ran well in his last at Pimlico and will be a square price...any of this sound familiar? Yeah, he's very similar to last year's upsetter, Da'Tara. We like him to be addressing the pace early and giving Charitable Man fits. Will he still be around at the end? Depends a lot on how the other horses run; if they're just off his flank, we don't love his chances, but if they let him and Charitable Man run a bit, he could sneak off with the race before anyone catches him. Intruiging price play for your Pick 3's.

Chief Contenders

3. Mine That Bird. We'd be very surprised if this guy was off the board, as he's turned out to be a pretty honest horse with a good late run. But we'd also be surprised if he's the winner. Why? Simple: dead closers do NOT traditionally fare well in the Belmont, because of the deep sandy track, the wideness of the turns, and the long homestretch. Grinders and pace pressers fare much better. There hasn't been a winner that's come from more than 10 lengths back in well over a decade, and the only "closer" this decade, Jazil, was less than 3 lengths out of it halfway through the race. While his trainer is saying that he'll be closer to the pace, we doubt they mean that he'll be that close to the front. He should be coming late (a la Denis of Cork last year), but arrive too late to win.

2. Chocolate Candy. He should be able to get first run on the rest of the field if the two front runners wilt. The big questions though remain: does he like dirt? Is he fast enough? Is he bred to go the distance? We're pretty sure the answer to the last question is yes (Candy Ride oiut of a Seattle Slew dam), and we think he's fast enough, there's just the nagging question of whether he'll translate well to the fast dirt. Given that he didn't totally pitch it in the Derby, and is working out well, we'll say yes and use him aggressively.

The Pick

1. Dunkirk. Anyone remember who the second choice in the Derby was? Oh right, this guy, who was everyone's favorite potential freak coming into the race. And the reason he wasn't the favorite was the same reason he was uncompetitive in the Derby: the mud. The slop elevated the excreable Friesan Fire to the role of favorite, and by all accounts (watch his replay), kept him from running even a passable race. It's a classic toss-out race. When you throw that race away, you're left with the horse who has the best GSF, good breeding (we're not crazy about Unbridled's Song at 12 furlongs, but if Northern Afleet can sire a classic winner, anything's possible), perfect connections, and has the most upside of anyone in the field. When in doubt, we side with the potential superstar. That's Dunkirk.

For those of you looking to make some plays on the fantastic undercard on Belmont day, we like Fabulous Strike in the True North, My Princess Jess in the Just a Game, Munnings in the Woody Stephens, Funny Moon in the Acorn, and Marsh Side in the Manhattan. Good luck and enjoy the day!

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