Friday, June 6, 2014

2014 Belmont Stakes Preview Part II: The Countdown

Since we started following racing in the early '90s, there have been 8 horses that have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown.  We have picked against each and every one of them.  Now in one respect, we've been right each and every time, as none of the Derby-Preakness winners have come back and won the Triple Crown.  But our picks...well, this chart sums it up and brings back some horrific memories:

TC Candidate
Our Pick
Our Pick’s Finish
Silver Charm
Crypto Star
Touch Gold
Real Quiet
Parade Ground
Victory Gallop
Best of Luck
Lemon Drop Kid
War Emblem
Sunday Break
Funny Cide
Empire Maker
Smarty Jones
Rock Hard Ten
Big Brown
Denis of Cork
I’ll Have Another
Union Rags
1st (!!)
Union Rags

So by and large, we're good for picking the horse that rounds out the superfecta, and our one win came the year the horse going for the Crown scratched.  Brilliant.  Still, we would like to think that it is not hopeless to handicap the Belmont when the Triple Crown is on the line.  And we are riding a streak of picking consecutive Belmont winners.  More importantly, we do think we have a good feel for this year's edition.  So let's get to the countdown, from the worst of the 11 entrants to our pick.  As always, we're assuming the track is fast and relatively fair.

Remember Da'Tara!

11.  Matterhorn. Since breaking his maiden last year, this well-bred and expensive Todd Pletcher steed has run no better than third and has never been closer than 6 1/4 lengths to the winner of a race.  Every year we get rich owners with a well-bred horse taking a stab at the Belmont, either because they think he'll prevail on breeding alone or because they want good seats and to impress their friends in Greenwich.  Almost every year, the horse runs horribly.

10.  Matuszak. Spent his last two races futilely chasing Kid Cruz, who found the Triple Crown waters too deep in the Preakness and is skipping the Belmont for the ungraded Easy Goer stakes earlier on the card.  I suppose the connections of Matuszak figured they can't beat Kid Cruz, so they may as well look elsewhere, and oddly, arrived at the Belmont Stakes.  Oh.

9.  General a Rod.  This guy does his best running on the lead and seems to have distance limitations, a combination that's deadly in the Belmont.  We do think his presence matters though because he'll keep California Chrome honest if he chooses to run fast early.  But to win?  No.  He should be done before the far turn and ready for a vacation.

8.  Medal Count.   There are three horses in the Belmont that have more than two wins.  One is California Chrome, the other two are this guy and the next guy.  The reason we're discounting 3-time winner Medal Count is exactly the same as the Derby - show us a good performance on the dirt before we commit to you.  Sure, the Derby was a rodeo race for this guy, and he never really got running.  But we doubt it would have mattered.  Send him back to the turf, please.

7.  Samraat. His 5 wins in 7 starts belies the fact that he isn't bred to go 12 furlongs, has shown no desire to run further than 10 furlongs, and his early speed will probably cook him after 8 furlongs.  It's too bad he's not running in the Woody Stephens earlier on the card (at 7 furlongs!), where he'd be a fascinating entry.  Here, he's merely pace fodder.

Don't Take the Bait

6.  Ride on Curlin. One of the very few things we got right in our Preakness prediction was that this guy would have a new jockey in the Belmont.  Voila, John Velazquez is on board, replacing Joel Rosario.  (The reason why, we'll get to shortly.)  We're still not biting on this guy in the win slot, though.  He still remains winless in a stakes race, doesn't seem to want to flaunt much in the way of tactical speed, and was barely gaining on California Chrome late in a weaker race.  We're also completely unconvinced that his breeding screams 12 furlongs - yes, Curlin is fine as a sire, but his dam was a sprinter out of a rank (albeit good) sprinter.   There are plenty of horses with good dam-side breeding for 12 furlongs, this isn't one of them.  We think the rigors of the Triple Crown catch up to him this race and he's nowhere to be found in the stretch.

5.  Commanding Curve. He is very well bred for the distance, but is similarly challenged in the win column.  We're also completely unconvinced that he isn't just this year's version of Invisible Ink, Wheelaway, Nehro, Golden Soul, Ice Box, and Make Music For Me  - a horse that runs much better than expected in the Derby, skips the Preakness to rest for the Belmont, but ends up regressing at Big Sandy.  Lastly, his past performances indicate a plodder that clunks up late.  That doesn't bode well for Saturday in a race that more often than not demands from the winner a modicum tactical speed.

Make it 37 Years

4.  California Chrome. Yeah, we've picked against him twice and looked stupid.  And you know what?  If we look stupid again Saturday, we'll be thrilled.  Make no mistake, we are rooting for this guy.  We've thoroughly enjoyed his run this winter and spring.  He's a really, really nice horse, has great tactical speed, and has gotten some great rides from Espinoza.  We think he'd be a worthy Triple Crown winner, and no matter what happens on Saturday, we want him to run a lot more this year, next year and in 2016.  Which we think is probable if he loses - his breeding isn't exactly the type that's going to get a great stud deal.

But as to his chances in the big race....we're less than sanguine. We've already been on the record twice with our reservations and they haven't changed - he hasn't had a bad trip yet, is susceptible to speed horses (of which there are several in this race), and we're concerned about jockey error in the pressure cooker.  Now throw in 3 races in 5 weeks, or more accurately, 4 races in 9 weeks.  And throw in the fact that he is not bred for 12 furlongs.  And that in both of his last two races, he looked like he was slowing down in the final furlong, indicating, as we suspect, that he's an elite 9 furlong horse and just okay at a route.

People are equating him to Affirmed, who had tactical speed and made his own racing luck.  We don't agree.  We see Smarty Jones redux - a great miler who could win at longer than 9 furlongs on his best day but would burn himself out at long distances against long-winded horses.  We think he's spent by the top of the stretch, gets passed by each of the next three horses, and recuperates this summer in California to prepare for the Breeders Cup.


3.  Wicked Strong.  All things being equal, his Derby wasn't terrible.  He had a bad stumble out of the gate, was caught in some bad traffic around both turns, but still had enough power to get up for 4th even with a moderate/slow pace in front of him.  We're siding with others over him because he is a closer in the Belmont, and historically, deep closers are up against it while closers that lie a little closer to the pace have a better shot.  It depends just how far back jockey Rajiv Maragh wants to keep this guy; if it's 10 lengths, we don't like him to win, but if it's just 5-6 lengths, then he has a big shot.  The only real thing not to love is his price; we think he'll be around 9-2, which is okay, but not great.  By contrast...

2.  Commissioner. This guy is going to be around 20-1, even though he's perfectly bred for the distance, has Todd Pletcher in his corner and has a shot.  Now there are good reasons why this guy is going to be a long price - he completely no-showed in the Arkansas Derby against the likes of Ride of Curlin, was a non-threatening third in the Sunland Derby against lower-level competition, and was well behind General A Rod in the Fountain of Youth.  So if we're simply going off his prior races against top-shelf horses, he comes up well short.  But his 2nd in the Peter Pan last out was encouraging; he showed good tactical speed under a more aggressive ride by new jockey Javier Castellano - who's back aboard on Saturday - and finished well against a good winner.  If he takes that more aggressive tactic and stays near the pace, we think he'll be a factor come the stretch, because he's bred up and down for the distance.  Very, very live.

The Pick

1.  Tonalist. We have been waiting to bet this horse in the Triple Crown since he broke his maiden at Gulfstream in impressive fashion.  His next start was in a salty allowance race, won by Constitution (who won the Florida Derby next out), where Tonalist ran a very good second on a track where horses off the pace had no shot.  Importantly, the 4th place finisher in that race was Wicked Strong, who came back to win the Wood Memorial and run 4th in the Derby.

This guy missed the last round of preps with an injury.  So instead of trying to shoehorn into the Derby picture, trainer Christophe Clement - who's second to none when it comes to turf horses, and just hasn't had many good dirt runners - waited for the Peter Pan, the local prep for the Belmont.  After a slow start, jockey Joel Rosario pushed him to the front and had him set a moderate pace, and he won easily by 2 1/2 lengths over Commissioner.  He looked great in the process, validating our impressions that this guy might be the best horse in this class of three year olds.

Two things concern us.  First, he's a little light on seasoning with only 4 career starts.  Traditionally horses that win the Belmont have had more experience under their belt; even bombs Da'Tara, Sarava and Ruler on Ice were well-raced.  This may not be coincidental; there's something to be said for having a bunch of races under your belt when asked to go 2-3 furlongs longer than you've ever raced before.  We're concerned, but think his distance breeding offsets the lack of foundation.

The second issue is his speed and 11 post - if he gets caught wide early, he may have to run and get in a speed duel.  But again, we're willing to take that chance because good early speed is more important than a late closing kick.  And he's got tactical speed, not flaunting speed.  He has the distance breeding.  And his connections are as good as they get.  There's a reason that Joel Rosario flew off of Ride on Curlin - he knows this horse is his best chance to win the Belmont.  We think he takes home the carnations on Saturday and extends the Triple Crown drought by yet another year.

Good luck to everyone and enjoy the race!!

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