Thursday, June 9, 2011

2011 Belmont Stakes Preview

The field has been drawn for the 2011 Belmont, which presents the first re-match between Derby and Preakness winners since 2005, when Preakness winner Afleet Alex throttled Derby winner Giacomo and other hapless opponents to win the Belmont going away, proving that his Derby flop was the fluke. The exact same thing happened in 2001, when Monarchos and Point Given squared off, and Point Given ran away to win by 12 lengths, proving his Derby 5th was the real outlier. (Also present in that race: Dr. Greenfield, who finished DAFL.)

So does this mean that Shackleford is going to run away with the race? Let's count down the field from worst to probable first.

Really? No...really?

12. Isn't He Perfect. Trainer Doodnauth Shivmangal may want to make sure his liability insurance is paid up and his attorney is available, because his treatment of this horse has bordered on malpractice. This guy is 2-for-13 in his career, has never finished better than 5th in his four graded stakes starts, which he's lost by a combined 33 1/2 lengths. He was never a factor in the Preakness, and by anyone's examination, this is a harder assignment than the race three weeks ago. Let's hope he just stays out of everyone's way.

Tough to See Competing

11. Stay Thirsty. At some point, you are what your recent record says you are. Since running a decent second in the Hopeful last year, this guy has finished 5th-1st-7th-12th in his last 4 races. While he won the Gotham over 7 horses that would be 50-1 in this race, his other three stakes races--all grade 1's--were lost by a combined 42 1/4 lengths, and at no point in time was he ever in contention. The Pletcher name only gets you so far.

10. Ruler on Ice. If you can't win the Sunland Derby or Federico Tesio--both won by horses that flopped miserably in the Derby and Preakness--why should we take you seriously here? The only notable thing about this guy is the addition of blinkers, which should keep him close to the pace. That presence up front won't last long.

9. Prime Cut.
Finished third in the Peter Pan last out, which has been a useful prep for the Belmont (Drosselmeyer and Lemon Drop Kid both used it as springboards), but the fact remains that this guy was handily beaten by Derby Kitten--who did nothing in the Derby--Alternation and Adios Charlie, all of which would be longshots here. And though he won the 1990 Preakness, Neil Howard isn't a guy we think of with Triple Crown horses; the only horse he's had do anything in the TC races recently was Midway Road's non-threatening second in the '03 Preakness. Look for this guy to rebound at Saratoga in some lighter stakes races.

Don't Fall for the Trap

8. Mucho Macho Man. After running a good 3rd in the Derby, he ran a much-less-good 6th in the Preakness. Over the last 15 years, horses with this pattern have been one of the worst plays in the Belmont. Here's how horses exiting the Preakness finished in the Belmont, by starters/win-place-show finishes:

Won Preakness: 11/2-4-2
Second in Preakness: 10/1-2-3
Third in Preakness: 10/1-0-0
Fourth or worse in Preakness: 16/1-1-1

Even that 3-for-16 in the money stat is a bit deceiving: Touch Gold won the '97 Belmont after finishing 4th in the Preakness, where he had one of the worst trips you'll ever see, and probably would have won the Preakness with any luck. That leaves us with Monarchos, who won the 2001 Derby, flopped in the Preakness, then rebounded to run a meh 3rd in the Belmont, and Medaglia d'Oro, who disappointed in both the 2002 Derby and Preakness to run a credible 2nd in the Belmont at 70-1 Sarava.

So in short, unless you're being compensated at huge odds or think the race is going to be chaotic, look elsewhere. MMM will not be a huge price and this race does not strike us as a complete crapshoot. We're looking elsewhere.

7. Shackleford.
So let's go back to that prior stat. Three horses that won the Preakness finished out of the money in the Belmont: Big Brown, War Emblem and Louis Quatorze. What did all three have in common? Right--they were front-runners. As is Shackleford.

Big Brown isn't a great comparison because he pulled up lame during the race. And War Emblem's an odd comparison too, because he stumbled out of the gate, was rushed up to the front, and was spent after 3/4 of a mile. But Louis Quatorze...actually, not a bad comparison. Front runner who milked his speed for all he had in the Preakness. Ran in the Derby close to the lead. Was not the lone pace horse in the Belmont.

What happened in 1996? By the top of the stretch, he was being passed by Skip Away and Editor's Note, both horses that took advantage of the pace scenario and their latent distance capabilities. We think the exact same thing happens here and this guy is well-beaten.

6. Master of Hounds. This guy is going to be the wise guy horse du jour and will probably be around 5-1. Do you really want to take that short a price on a horse that's made 3 trips across the Atlantic in the last 5 weeks and has one dirt start that's been so lauded (for finishing in 5th place) that it's almost overrated at this point?

Maybe they shipped him back and forth to avoid the dreaded "Euro bounce". Even so, we're still not seeing the appeal in this guy, when there are much more interesting candidates at 3-4 times the price.

The Value Play for Exotics

5. Monzon. Intriguing. He started out the year with a strong closing win in a minor stakes win at Aqueduct, closing into a solid pace, albeit beating nothing. He no-showed in the Sam Davis in February, where clearly something went wrong because he disappeared for 3 months. He resurfaced in the Peter Pan, where he ran 6th after a horrible start and horrible trip, in a race he clearly needed. Now he's had a comeback race under his belt, is bred beautifully for the distance, and is working out 40-1, there are worse ideas to fill out your triples.


4. Nehro. We just can't get that excited about this guy. Yeah, he's run three bang-up seconds in a row. But let's emphasize that word: seconds. He still hasn't won a race beyond a maiden special weight, seems to hang when it matters most, and is probably going to be in the neighborhood of 3-1.

In recent years, we've seen a few examples of horses that ran well in the Derby, skipped the Preakness and were pointed for the Belmont. Aptitude (2000), Invisible Ink ('01), Empire Maker ('03), Bluegrass Cat ('06), Denis of Cork ('08), and Ice Box ('10) all ran second or third in the Derby in fine efforts, then skipped the Preakness to prepare for the Belmont, thinking the rest would help. Five of the six lost the Belmont at short odds (all but Invisible Ink were the first or second choice), with Empire Maker being the lone winner. Nehro seems to be this year's edition of this trend. We can't fault anyone who uses him underneath in exactas and triples--it should be noted that Aptitude, Bluegrass Cat and Denis of Cork all ran 2nd--but on top, we're siding with others.

(Ed. note: add to this list
Perfect Drift, who ran next-to-last in '02 after running 3rd in the Derby and skipping the Preakness, and Steppenwolfer, who ran 3rd in the '06 Derby and 4th in the '06 Belmont. See? It's not a good play.)

3. Brilliant Speed. If you're going to take a horse that ran in the Derby and skipped the Preakness, oddly, recent history has shown that you're better off taking a horse that didn't finish in the money in Louisville. Commendable ('00) may have been an extreme case--he finished 17th in the Derby--but Birdstone (8th in '04 Derby), Jazil (4th in '06) and Summer Bird (6th in '09) all parlayed out of the money Derby finishes into wins at the Belmont. Three horses fit this bill this year. We've already discussed the first, Master of Hounds, who we don't like. But also fitting this bill are this guy...

2. Santiva. ...and this guy. So why do we prefer Santiva to Brilliant Speed? Santiva's running lines indicate to us that he might have room to take another step forward. His Blue Grass proved to be a complete toss-out, as he had a bad trip over a surface he probably didn't like. He followed that up with a solid showing in the Derby, and has posted 3 solid workouts at Churchill Downs. And he's bred perfectly for the distance. (In fairness, so is Brilliant Speed.) Brilliant Speed, by contrast, still looks like a horse that wants a synthetic surface but will run honestly at a distance on the dirt. And we can't shake the fact that Brilliant Speed has improved his speed figures in seven straight races. Doing it an eighth time seems like a stretch--it's under a 1% possibility. Since it seems unlikely that a 93 GSF will win this race, we'll side with the guy with upside.

The Pick

1. Animal Kingdom. It's still only June, but we think this guy is the best 3 year old in this class. His Derby was absolutely fine, and his Preakness effort, while a losing one, was quite good. After a horrible break and a tough trip--it was not John Velazquez's best ride--he still rallied strong and only lost by a half a length. The extra distance here should suit him fine, as his dam side breeding indicates that he's bred to run all day. The only real knock on him is that he seems to win by having an explosive "kick" when it matters, which is how you win turf races. But it's usually not how you win the Belmont; grinders and even-paced horses usually fare better.

Still, talent is talent. This guy's the fastest horse, is training well, and still has room to improve: this is only his 7th start! We think he sits a mid-pack trip off a moderate pace, pulls into close contention at the top of the stretch and wins going away. If you can get 2-1 on him, it's a good play.

Belmont Day Selections

We would like to once again basket in giving out a cold $350 triple on Derby day. Because Belmont Day is one of our favorites all year, we'll give a quick-hit picks of all the stakes races on the undercard. Blind squirrels and acorns, of course.
  • Acorn: 1. Turbulent Descent 2. Her Smile 3. Savvy Supreme
  • True North: 1. Rule by Night 2. Trappe Shot 3. D'Funnybone
  • Woody Stephens: 1. Little Drama 2. Arch Traveler 3. Bold Warrior
  • Just a Game: 1. Aviate 2. Gypsy's Warning 3. Cherokee Queen
  • Manhattan: 1. Gio Ponti 2. Bim Bam 3. Viscount Nelson
  • Belmont: 1. Animal Kingdom 2. Santiva 3. Monzon
Good luck and enjoy the day!


Teddy said...

Dr. Greenfield "participated" in that Belmont in the same way that Eddie the Eagle "participated" in the Olmypic ski jump.

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