Thursday, June 7, 2012

Belmont Stakes Preview Part II: The Contenders

Unless you're just being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian, if you want to go against I'll Have Another, you need a reason.  These facts are plain and undisputed:
  •  I'll Have Another has run four times on a fast dirt track and has won all four times.  In the process, he's defeated almost every three year old of note.
  • I'll Have Another has great tactical speed -- he doesn't need the lead, but doesn't sit far off the pace either.  This is a horse's best weapon, the ability to never be out of a race and less at the mercy of traffic than a dead closer, but not needing to control the pace.
  • I'll Have Another's last speed figure (109) is only matched by Bodemeister, who isn't in the field.  Nobody else running on Saturday is that close to him speed figure-wise.
  • The horse is not getting worse or slowing down; if anything, he's getting better.
So we have a real contender for the Crown.  Let's put aside ephemera as reasons the horse can lose.  What are IHA's real obstacles standing between him and the Triple Crown?

1.  Weather.  If the track is sloppy, IHA may have a problem.  His only bad start was over a sloppy track in Saratoga last summer, where he foundered in the Hopeful.  Now there's a chance he's improved since then and his loss in the Hopeful was for reasons other than the slop.  But if it's sloppy on Saturday, maybe you should look elsewhere immediately.  As of now, the forecast for the race is sunny, so this is probably a non-factor.

Doug O'Neill, looking dapper
2.  Breeding.  We think being by Flower Alley out of an Arch mare should be fine for 12 furlongs; Flower Alley won the Travers at 10 furlongs, and Arch is a blue-blood distance stallion.  But we don't have a huge sample size on Flower Alley's progeny at this point.  There's always the chance his pedigree trips him up, given that Flower Alley was by a miler (Distorted Humor).

3.  Another Horse Improves.  It's always possible that one of the other three year olds makes a huge leap forward and passes IHA's best efforts.  That would take a huge effort by one of the other horses though: other than Paynter, nobody else's best race is within 5 lengths of IHA's Preakness (and we've already discussed why we don't like Paynter's chances).  It's more likely that if IHA loses, it's because one of the other runners improved somewhat and...

4.  IHA Regresses.  The one outcome that's very unlikely is that I'll Have Another runs better in the Belmont than he did in the Preakness.  The only horses in recent memory that ran well in the Preakness and then ran better in the Belmont were Touch Gold (1997), Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005).  And two of those had trips from hell in the Preakness -- if they just ran their race, they were going to improve by default.  The question is whether IHA is on a similar arc of superiority like Point Given.

5.  Jockey Error.  Ah, the elephant in the room.  We went against IHA in the Derby because we didn't trust Mario Gutierrez, and were punished when he gave IHA a perfect ride.  Super Mario raised the stakes by giving IHA an even better ride in the Preakness, having just enough horse to beat Bodemeister under the wire.  So does that allay all our fears?

In a word, no.  There are going to be three enormous differences in the Belmont, and we think they might be IHA's undoing.

     a.  Pressure.  The Derby and Preakness were pressure packed, but let's be honest, nobody was talking about IHA before the Derby, and Bodemeister was really the talk of the Preakness.  Here, the entire weight of the racing nation is on Super Mario's back.

     b.  Belmont's unique nature.  Belmont Park is a 1 1/2 mile oval that is unlike any other dirt track in America.  Simply stated, there is no parallel, and unless you have a clearly superior horse (like Afleet Alex), an unfamiliar jockey runs the risk of moving too early or leaving too much to do late.  Even the great Calvin Borel screwed up on Mine That Bird in 2009, in no small part because he didn't get Belmont's nuances.

     c.  No Bodemeister.  Almost nobody is talking about this, but the absence of Bodemeister may hurt IHA more than it appears.  In the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the race flow was pretty clear: Bodemeister would be on the lead, and IHA had to stalk just far enough back to keep him honest and in striking distance when it came time to make a stretch run.  But without the pacesetter in the race, it's unclear how this race is going to be run.  Will IHA be on the lead?  Will Paynter show speed?  Will there be a speed duel with one of the other new shooters?  Or a lone front runner that IHA needs to worry about?  Tactically, it's going to be the toughest ride of Super Mario's career.

We have seen this exact scenario unfold before.  In 1999, all the speed horses from the prior two races were out of the Belmont, and Charismatic, rather surprisingly, wound up on the lead.  He ran 3rd.  (We're aware he was hurt -- he had nothing left at the top of the stretch anyway after getting burned out by Silverbulletday and others.)

But the most similar scenario is 2004.  In the Derby and Preakness, Stewart Elliott knew that Lion Heart was going to the lead and was unlikely to last the Derby or Preakness distance.  He sat Smarty Jones just off him in both races and blew by at the top of the stretch.  When Lion Heart (wisely) passed on the Belmont, Smarty Jones now was in unfamiliar territory because his pacesetter was gone.  Elliott put Smarty Jones on the lead early, and was run into the ground by Purge, Eddington and Rock Hard Ten.

With a better ride, Smarty Jones could have won the Triple Crown.  But his jockey was out-maneuvered and was unfamiliar with how the Belmont track plays and the pressure of going for a Triple Crown.  Come mid-stretch, Elliott was outgamed by Edgar Prado, who swooped in and stole the race with Birdstone.  And it would not be a surprise if this happened again on Saturday.

*          *          *

So I'll Have Another isn't a cinch.  We acknowledge he's the most likely winner and wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he's our 12th Triple Crown winner.  And at some level we're rooting for him.  But we're finding it hard to pick him.

Who can knock him off?  Well, we were all set to pick Alpha when we first started writing this post, because he's well-bred, has tactical speed, had excellent connections and was going to be a price.  Alas, he was declared from the race a week ago with an injury and won't run tomorrow.  So he's out.

Which leaves Union Rags, the second choice in the Derby.  He has a lot of obvious traits in his corner:
  • Trainer Michael Matz needs no introduction -- he trained Barbaro, and is excellent at getting horses ready for a particular spot.
Michael Matz, Union Rags' trainer
  • John Velazquez needs even less of an introduction, having won the Derby on Animal Kingdom, the Belmont on Rags to Riches, and a zillion other Grade I races.  If anyone knows how to navigate a long distance at Belmont Park, he does.
  • More to the same point, Julian Leparoux is now not riding Union Rags.  Now we love Leparoux and think he's a great jockey.  But he had zero luck with this horse, having given him poor rides and gotten poor luck in the Florida and Kentucky Derbies.  Sometimes a horse and jockey just don't connect -- see Garret Gomez and Lookin at Lucky 2 years ago.
  • His running style is perfectly conducive to winning the Belmont -- tactical speed that should keep him in the race if he gets a good trip.  He shouldn't be far off of I'll Have Another, and you know that's going to be the precise strategy that Velazquez employs.
On a more subjective level, Union Rags has the "it" factor that a lot of champions have.  When we look for the "best" performances from this class, Bodemeister's last three races and I'll Have Another's Derby and Preakness qualify.  But so does Union Rags' Champagne from last year, where he simply exploded once given some room to run:



And so did his Fountain of Youth from earlier this year, when once again, he found room and just exploded.  (Sadly, we can't embed that video.)  In short, this guy has a ton of talent and ability.  Matz admitted after the Florida Derby that the horse hadn't run his best nor was he fully geared up for the race, and we know his Kentucky Derby is a complete toss-out because of the horrible trip/ride he received.  He's definitely live and able to run well.

There are two potential negatives we see with Union Rags that give us a little pause.  First, there's the complaint that his breeding isn't conducive to a mile and a half.  But we disagree.  Sire Dixie Union may not "scream" marathoner, but he's also not a sprint/mile stallion and there's no real reason that he couldn't sire a 12 furlong winner.  Hell, Northern Afleet, a rank sprinter did.  More to the point, his damsire, Gone West, is as good a distance sire as you'll get.  We think he's no more handicapped by his breeding than anyone else in the field.

The second is that he hasn't posted a huge speed figure yet; to the point, he hasn't cracked triple digits, and even his best effort is 12 points behind IHA's Preakness.  But as we said, that's an artificial gap.  It's highly unlikely that IHA runs back to his Preakness, and given that Union Rags has had two straight trips from Hades, it's likely he'll improve off his recent efforts.  We seriously doubt that when put to the task, Union Rags won't be fast enough.


*          *          *

At some level, it's also tough to ignore history.  Time and time again, the horse that was highly considered before the Derby but flopped in the first Saturday in May wins the rematch with the horse that made the Leap in the Derby.  In 1999, Lemon Drop Kid had a bunch of hype before the Derby but flopped in the Derby and Peter Pan, but ultimately rebounded in the Belmont to beat Charismatic.  Ditto for Point Given in 2001.  And Empire Maker in 2003.  And Birdstone in 2004.  And Afleet Alex in 2005.  

We don't think that I'll Have Another would be a surprise Triple Crown winner or a disgrace.  He's a really good horse that has a lot of talent and has been well managed by Doug O'Neill.  But in our gut, we think Union Rags is simply the better horse.   We think he turns the table here and posts the mild upset.

Picks:

1.  Union Rags
2.  I'll Have Another
3.  Atigun
4.  Street Life

Enjoy the race everyone!

7 comments:

Prisoner24601 said...

Thanks for the super! Now I just need you to handicap more races

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