For only the third time since 1970, we have a Belmont that has neither the Derby nor Preakness winner. Let's take a look at those two editions to see if they provide any relevant information for this race:
2000: Derby winner and phenom Fusaichi Pegasus is upset in the Preakness by Red Bullet, and while both were perfectly healthy, neither goes to the Belmont; the former because of a bruised foot and the latter because they wanted to point for the Travers, which he would never make. The two would combined to win three races for the rest of their career: Fusaichi Pegasus' dominant Jerome in September, and Red Bullet's win in an allowance race and something called the Foggy Road Stakes.
Instead of being treated to Round 3 of a fun and budding rivalry, the Belmont had an 11 horse field, where Aptitude was made the strong favorite off a 3rd place finish (behind FuPeg and Red Bullet) in the Wood and a 2nd place finish in the Derby but still had only won one race in his career. The next selections in the betting were Unshaded, winner of the Peter Pan; Impeachment, who had just run a pair of non-threatening 3rds in the Derby and Preakness; Curule, who was from Dubai; and Wheelaway, who had won a minor stakes race and menaced for about 7 seconds in the Derby. A stellar group of horses this was not.
And a goofy result is exactly what we got. After pace setter Hugh Hefner set moderate fractions and folded like a tent, D. Wayne Lukas' Commendable took the lead with 6 furlongs to go and never looked back, upsetting the field at 18-1. And this price was probably short: he had only finished better than 4th once (winning his first race) and had just lost the Derby by 27 lengths. Aptitude, Unshaded and Wheelaway got moving too late and could never catch the stalker in the stretch. 50% of the credit for the win goes to Pat Day for a tremendous ride, 45% of the credit goes to Lukas for a great training job, and 5% goes to the horse, who never won another race.
2006: Derby winner Barbaro was a permanent patient with Dr. Dean Richardson and Preakness winner Bernardini passed on the Belmont to point for the Travers (which, unlike Red Bullet, he won easily). Like 2000, this left us with a fairly motley crew of horses to contest the 1 1/2 mile Test of Champions:
- Five horses that ran in the Derby but skipped the Preakness, either for rest or to duck Barbaro. This included the top four choices: Bob and John, Bluegrass Cat, Steppenwolfer and Jazil, plus longshot Deputy Glitters. Clearly, the public thought the cream of the crop consisted of horses that ran in the Derby.
- Two also-rans from the Preakness (Hemingway's Key and Platinum Couple) who were dismissed in the betting at 15-1 and 38-1, respectively.
- Three horses out of allowance races, including a horse that won a race on the Derby undercard (Sacred Light, 36-1), one who previously ran at Belmont (High Finance, 10-1) and a Euro shipper making his dirt debut (Oh So Awesome, 12-1).
- The winner of New York's traditional prep for the Belmont, Sunriver.
- A maiden. What's worse is that Double Galore was only 45-1.
So what can we draw from these two races? Well, pace indeed does make the race. The absence of the other classic winners puts a premium on how the other horses run in the early fractions, because there isn't a horse or two in the field that everyone fears. And the four keys we previously identified remain important to picking the winner: good distance breeding, a jockey who knows how to handle a long race, an intelligent trainer, and relative freshness entering the race.
With that in mind, let's take a look at this year's entrants from predicted worst to predicted first. We remind everyone that while we're looking for a winner, we're also interested in a price, so if it's between two horses we give roughly the same shot at wildly divergent odds, we'll always favor the longshot.
12. Spangled Star. In his first career race, he ran a Gowanus Speed Figure of 2. Is that the worst GSF ever for a horse running in a Triple Crown race? He ran 4150% better in his last race--a non-threatening third in the Withers, a mile race around one turn--and his only win was when he broke his maiden on January 2nd in Delaware Park. Even implausible bombs Da'Tara and Sarava had better credentials than this guy.
11. Dave in Dixie. In his lone dirt start, he was thrashed by American Lion and Backtalk, who were up the track in the Derby, and Yawanna Twist, who just ran 4th in the Preakness. He lacks tactical speed, distance breeding and the talent to run particularly fast. Outside of that, we're sure he's a lovely animal to get to know.
10. Uptowncharliebrown. His father (Limehouse) was a successful sprinter, as was his mom's sire (Langfuhr). If they decide to call it a race after 7 furlongs, he stands a chance.
Good Trainer, Mediocre Horse
9. Game On Dude. Comes in off a fresh speed figure top in an impressive win in the Lone Star Derby. Unfortunately, that means nothing, as there were no other horses of note running against him, and a whopping zero winners of the Lone Star Derby have ever won a Grade 1 stakes race. He's very likely to be overbet because he's trained by Bob Baffert, which is good, because he doesn't have much of a chance.
8. Drosselmeyer. Billy Mott's a fantastic trainer, but this horse appears to be a hanger: he passes absolutely nobody in the stretch and was nowhere near the winner in the Dwyer in his last start. He seems to have plateaued as a mediocre horse who might have a future on the grass.
Tough To Endorse a Closer
7. Make Music For Me. Some parallels exist between this guy and the 2006 Belmont winner Jazil: both are dead closers, both clunked up for 4th in a Derby with a solid pace, both only had one win before the Belmont. Here's the two big differences: Jazil was well-bred (this guy isn't), and Jazil had shown some potential before the Derby in running a decent second in the Wood. The Derby is the aberration on this guy's past performance line, which contains only one other start with a GSF over 83 (on the turf, no less) and no starts on a fast track. Unless we see a rainstorm on Saturday, look for a big regression to the mean for this guy.
6. Stately Victor. Quite similar to Make Music For Me in style and past performances, with the big differences being a win in the Blue Grass at 40-1 and a less inspired run on the Derby. We don't like this guy's breeding for the big race, however--Ghostzapper, while arguably the best horse of the last decade, wasn't really bred to route, and his dam was a turf miler. And he's going to have to out kick a few down the stretch, including...
5. Ice Box. The probable favorite, he's eerily similar to Aptitude in 2000, who ran a very good 3rd in the Wood, then an excellent 2nd in the Derby when closing from the back of the pack, and sat out the Preakness to wait for the Belmont. With the Derby and Preakness winners skipping the Belmont, he was the heavy favorite...and ran second to longshot Commendable, who sat off a moderate pace and had plenty left for the stretch. While everyone assumed that Aptitude would improve off his prior two efforts, he instead stagnated and couldn't do better than the 2 slot.
We see something similar happening on Saturday. There's not much pace in the race, and Ice Box has shown that he runs best when he's 15+ lengths out of it. To win, he'll have to make up ground on horses that won't have run particularly fast in their first 8 furlongs. And as we saw in the Derby, being a stone closer leaves you vulnerable to traffic trouble, and jockey Jose Lezcano has done nothing to show us that he's good enough to coax the right ride out of this horse. So yes, we'll concede that he's quite likely to finish in the money and is a solid bet for a show pool. But to win at a short price? We'll look elsewhere, thanks.
4. First Dude. Lone speed? Maybe. He's going to get a ton of play and be the second choice because he just ran a pretty nice Preakness and is the only horse that clearly is going to be at the front. And his breeding isn't bad for the distance. Still, we're a little wary. The 16-point jump in GSF from his prior race has "bounce" written all over it, and the same's true even if you toss out the polytrack Blue Grass and look to his Florida Derby. And he had a picture-perfect trip in the Preakness, which probably contributed to the GSF top. Conventional wisdom is saying that there's no other speed in the race but we're not sure about that--we think Game On Dude will be near the lead, and it wouldn't surprise us if Drosselmeyer pressed the pace as well. Given that, is this guy going to get the same love trip again? It's unlikely.
3. Interactif. Here's another horse who may be part of the early running. He's flashed speed in the majority of his races, has drawn the outside post, and has Javier Castellano in the irons, a jockey not known for his patience. So why are we putting him higher than First Dude? Well, the short answer is it's Pletcher at 12-1 or higher, which may qualify as an automatic play. But there's more to like here as well: great distance breeding, good foundation and freshness, and tactical speed. We fully recognize that he hasn't had a ton of success on the dirt, but he hasn't given it a real shot since last July, and Pletcher has been meaning to run him on dirt all year. We like him to threaten early and hang around for a piece.
2. Stay Put. Our longshot du jour. Addressing the obvious problems first: yes, he's never finished better than 5th in a stakes race, 2 of his 3 wins came in the slop, and he hasn't topped a 90 GSF. We still think this guy's sitting on a big effort at a huge price. He's bred to run 12 furlongs, as Broken Vow horses should handle the distance with ease and Dixieland Band is a perfectly fine damsire. We like trainer Steve Margolis, who has a Breeders Cup win (Cajun Beat, 2003 Sprint) and just hasn't quite gotten the top level of stock needed to compete with the big boys. We like that he's coming in with 5 weeks of rest off a sharp effort on Derby Day. And he gets into the winner's circle: he has been there three times, which is twice more than First Dude & Make Music for Me and once more than Game on Dude and Drosselmeyer. We see him being near the back of the pack and closing stoutly to hit the board at a huge price.
1. Fly Down. There's a lot to like here, starting with the breeding: a Mineshaft horse should have no trouble getting 12 furlongs and his half sister won multiple route stakes races. His connections (Nick Zito & John Velazquez) are impeccable. He's run three times this year, meeting the freshness requirement. And let's take a close look at his five career races:
- 1st start: closes well to finish 3rd in a maiden race. Long-time East Coast racing fans know this is typical for a Zito maiden.
- 2nd start: breaks his maiden around 2 turns at Churchill in a somewhat slow time while rallying off a solid enough pace. In the process he beats First Dude.
- 3rd start: given 3 months to grow into himself as a 3yo, he makes his seasonal debut winning an allowance race at Gulfstream...once again over First Dude. Importantly, this win was at 9 furlongs around two turns.
- 4th start: Zito (or probably, the owner) catches Derby fever and throws him to the wolves in the Louisiana Derby. Predictably, he closes belatedly to finish a non-threatening ninth.
- 5th start: Running in the Dwyer, he throttles Drosselmeyer and others by sitting off an average pace to win by 6 going away. Unlike his Louisiana Derby flop, he's not well off the pace--he's in last, but only 6 lengths off the leaders.
Playing the Race
We suspect that Ice Box will be around 2-1 and First Dude will be around 5-2, meaning that our pick and our underneath horses will all be square prices. We like not only a win bet on Fly Down but also exactas and trifectas with Interactif and Stay Put. And make sure to check out the Pick Four that ends in the Belmont--each of the races has 10+ horses and vulnerable favorites (Bribon, Amen Hallelujah and Gio Ponti) to beat.
Good luck and enjoy the races!!