Thursday, June 6, 2013

2013 Belmont Stakes Preview

Bah.  As unabashed fans of Shug McGaughey and Orb, we were extremely disappointed with the Preakness.  We weren't so much disappointed with the fact that Orb lost, it was the fact he never was in the race.  We're fine with horses losing while running well - Street Sense's 2nd in the '07 Preakness comes to mind as an example - but Orb was basically a non-factor and finished 4th by default.

So another year goes by without a Triple Crown winner.  What's neat, though, is that we've got a Belmont this year that has both Orb and Preakness winner Oxbow, plus the 2nd and 3rd place finishers in the Derby, plus a couple of other interesting returnees and two intriguing new shooters.  And the usual litany of horses that seem like they don't belong.  You know, the same way Sarava, Ruler on Ice and Drosselmeyer looked like they didn't belong.

It's one of the more fascinating Belmonts we've had in years, and we're pretty excited for it, even though a Triple Crown isn't up for grabs.  Can Orb re-establish himself as the top horse?  Is Oxbow for real?  Does the filly have a shot?  Let's count them down in reverse order of predicted finish.  We're (probably foolishly) assuming the track is going to be fast (or close thereto), even though we know that a tropical storm is about to deposit a metric ton of rain onto the track over the course of Friday and Saturday morning, so adjust a bit if the track is a soupy mess.

The Door's Over There, Fellas

14.  Frac Daddy.  In case his sprint breeding and epic failure in the Kentucky Derby weren't enough to convince you that he's in over his head in this race, he now drew the 1-hole, and trainer Ken McPeek responded they're going to gun him to the lead.  We'll discuss how this impacts the race when we get to a front-runner that actually matters.  But this decision doesn't effect Frac Daddy's chances at all - he has next to no shot no matter what style he employs unless it involves jet propulsion.

13.  Giant Finish.  He has comfortably settled in the mid-80s range for Gowanus Speed Figures.  As indicated from his last few running lines, that makes you the favorite in ungraded stakes races, somewhat competitive in Grade 3 races, and nowhere near contention in Grade 1s.  Sadly for him, he's running in the Grade 1 race on the card, and not the ungraded stakes 5 races earlier.

12.  Vyjack.  It's a little hard to get excited about a horse that is trained by an ice-cold trainer under constant surveillance, isn't bred for the distance, and lost his last race by a mere 52 3/4 lengths.

Owner Mike Repole
11.  Midnight Taboo.  He's bred up and down to be successful at distances under a mile and has been an utter failure to date at those modest tasks.  He's pretty much only in this race because owner Mike Repole has made it clear that he wants to win the Belmont more than any other race on earth, and has chosen to start his three best horses to do what Stay Thirsty couldn't do.  An admirable goal.  But this isn't the horse to accomplish the task.

10.  Incognito.  There's a glimmer of intrigue here because of the breeding - A.P. Indy won the Belmont while his dam Octave was a Grade 1 winner at 12 furlongs.  Then there's the fact that he came up completely empty in the Peter Pan four weeks ago and has yet to take on - let alone beat - a horse of consequence besides Freedom Child, who trounced him in the same Peter Pan.  It'll take quite the reversal of form to get him into the top 3, let alone the winner's circle.

Likely to Be Overbet

9.  Golden Soul.  We were wrong to downgrade his chances on Derby Day especially since the traffic trouble in his prep race suggested that he might be better than he seemed.  But this is exactly the kind of horse that gets bet too heavily in the Belmont and often does nothing - a closer that was a price in the Derby and ran fairly well that skips the Preakness, tricking us into thinking he'll run a huge race in New York with the added distance.  For every Summer Bird that gets actually runs well, there are a slew of horses like Ice Box, Make Music For Me, SteppenwolferPerfect Drift, and Wheelaway that do absolutely nothing.  You can guess where we think this guy falls.

8.  Freedom Child.  You'll know who's part of the West Point syndicate that owns this horse because they'll be the ones at the track hoping the rain doesn't stop until Saturday night.  If the track is wet, he has a shot because he freaked in the mud in the Peter Pan last out.  Even then, it's worth noting that he had everything his way that day and the mud tends to exaggerate results one way or the other.  More importantly, his races on fast tracks have been much less impressive.  At 6-1 or so, we're not moved.

7.  Unlimited Budget.  Speaking of horses that will get pounded relative to their chance, it's a filly trained by Todd Pletcher with a female jockey in the irons.  While 2007 Belmont winner Rags to Riches is the obvious comparison, it's facile, because RTR was a horse who was the clear leader of the filly class in June '07 and had stout distance breeding.  By contrast, Unlimited Budget is probably not the best filly in Pletcher's barn, since Princess of Sylmar won the Oaks and Dreaming of Julia is still the most talented lass based on her running record.  And because it's a filly with Rosie Napravenik in the irons and Pletcher, you know she'll get bet down horrendously by casual fans; we think she'll be around 5-1.  Throw in the very sprint-based breeding on the dam side, and we're looking elsewhere.

6.  Oxbow.  We commend him, Lukas and Gary Stevens for stealing the Preakness.  They cannily fooled everyone into sitting off the pace and ran away with it pretty handily when nobody challenged them the entire way around.  It was very reminiscent of Louis Quatorze's theft of the '96 Preakness.  So the history question: what happened to Louis Quatorze when he ran in the Belmont?  Well, he was chased up front, and wilted before the top of the stretch.  With Frac Daddy dead-set on the lead and Freedom Child and Vyjack also likely to flash speed, we seem the same scenario playing out.  He'll be in contention for a mile, then fading when they're on the far turn.

5.  Revolutionary.  We can take everything we said about Golden Soul and apply it here, with the caveat that this is probably a better horse than Golden Soul.  Huzzah.  We're still unconvinced simply because dead closers that clunk up in the Derby are the worst bets in the Belmont.  In fact, let's just quote what we said about Nehro two years ago:

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.)

We think the same logic applies here, and he doesn't get remotely close to the winner on Saturday.


4.  Will Take Charge.  We're still fond of this horse's breeding and the way he was running in the Derby before he was stopped in his tracks.  As we noted in our Preakness preview, we don't think it cost him the race, but we do think it cost him a spot in the money.  While his Preakness was awful, he did run down inside - not the place to be - and never really had a chance to stretch his legs until it was a moot point.  At 20-1, we're of the opinion he can rebound to his Derby and make his presence felt.

3.  Overanalyze.   Of the three Repole horses, this one interests us the most.  His breeding should get him there - his sire, Dixie Union, sired last year's Belmont winner, and Unaccounted For is a damsire we've always liked.  If you chalk up his Derby to him mostly not liking the slop - and yes, you can downgrade him if the track is a pea soup on Saturday - then he's a horse that has tactical speed and the services of the best jockey and trainer behind him at a fair price (18-1?).  The problem is we're still not sure he's all that fast.  His best race remains last year's Remsen, and he still hasn't run back to it.  Even if he does on Saturday, that may only be good enough for a third place finish.

2.  Orb.  What happened in the Preakness?  Was it the inside position?  Tougher trip?  Lack of pace?  Inevitable regression in his 5th race in 5 months?  The quick turnaround from the Derby?  Or was it just not his day?  We're mostly inclined to say it was the lack of pace, rail trip and just "not his day".  The first two would have been good excuses if he had managed to close ground late and get up for third.  But he had absolutely nothing in the stretch at all.  Even with an trip off the dead rail, he probably would have lost.

So where does that leave him for Saturday?  We would not be at all surprised if he ran back to his Derby and annihilated the field and made us all shake our heads for letting him get away at 3-1, because we still think he's the most talented horse of this crop.  But we have a nagging suspicion that his form isn't on the improve, notwithstanding his recent good workout.  And we're a little reluctant to take a deep closer in the Belmont; it's usually  not the way to go.  If Rosario keeps him a little closer to the pace - which, as we've hinted, we think will be moderate - and waits for the right moment at the quarter pole, he might just explode and win handily.  But we think he's more likely to try to catch up too late to a horse that has more tactical speed.

The Pick

1.  Palace Malice.  Yep, we're going with a somewhat unconventional pick, the horse that just finished 12th in the Derby after running one of the fastest opening 6 furlongs of the race, and has never won anything other than a maiden race.  But we've always felt like this was an extremely talented horse and that his breeding - 2-time HOTY Curlin by turf marathoner Royal Anthem - lends himself to be running well at a longer distance.  More importantly, we still believe he has plausible excuses for every one of his losses this year:
  • Allowance race: hits a sloppy track off a layoff and runs into mud freak Majestic Hussar.  It's a decent second place finish that takes nothing away from his credentials.
  • Risen Star: gets a sub-optimal trip and runs an okay third.  This was probably his worst race of the year.
  • Louisiana Derby: has a trip from utter hell and can't find any running room until it's past the finish line.  At the time we joked that Edgar Prado should have been fined for the ride that Palace Malice received.
  • Blue Grass: a good second on a synthetic track, which we don't think is his best surface, which resulted in a loss to Java's War, a horse that loved Polytrack.  Perfectly fine, if somewhat meaningless in the long run.
  • Kentucky Derby: armed with blinkers for the first time, he freaks and turns into an intractable sprinter.  Pletcher admits this was a mistake and has removed the blinkers.
Now yes, horses that have a litany of excuses are habitual money-burners, and if Palace Malice was going to be 4-1, we'd temper our enthusiasm.  But he's 15-1 on the morning line and we think he'll be around that price come post time.  We think that with the blinkers removed, he'll go back to having tactical speed and sitting about 4-6 lengths off a relatively honest pace.  That should give him the ability to pass the tiring front-runners when it matters while getting first run on Orb, Will Take Charge and the other closers.  It's roughly the same tactic that Commendable used when he stole the 2001 Belmont.  And we think he successfully pulls it off on Saturday, continuing the Belmont's trend of defeating favorites.

How to Bet the Race

Well if you like Palace Malice as much as we do, take him at double-digit odds and bet him to win. Or hook him up in the late double with Point of Entry, who towers over the field in the Manhattan in the race before.  We also think that boxing him in exactas with other horses we like would be a good hedge.

Good luck to all and enjoy Belmont day!!


Corey Miller said...

Damn, Angelo, you really outdid yourself this time! Congratulations, and I hope you took your own betting advice.

El Angelo said...

Oh I most certainly did.