Thursday, June 4, 2015

2015 Belmont Stakes Preview

There's plenty to say about the elite horses running in the Belmont, so let's get the lesser portion of the field out of the way quickly.

We acknowledge that crazy things happen in the Belmont  - all you need to do is remember the names Da'Tara, Sarava, Lemon Drop Kid and Birdstone, all of which were over 25-1 and ruined Triple Crown bids.  And we know that Nick Zito has upset the Triple Crown twice with a pair of those bombs (Da'Tara and Birdstone).  But Frammento has less to offer than those two horses, who at least had back class or good recent races to their credit.  Frammento has neither.

The same is true for Keen Ice, who hasn't run a good race in 7 months and still hasn't won a meaningful one.  Dale Romans is a great trainer, but this guy should be running earlier on the card in the Easy Goer, not the Belmont.  A win by either him or Frammento would be a Sarava-level shock.

Tale of Verve and Madefromlucky are ahead of those two because we can see either of them finishing in the money, but can't see either winning.  Madefromlucky was annihilated by American Pharoah twice earlier this year, and while he did win his last race, it wasn't in a blistering time or against a great field.  Tale of Verve closed on a sloppy Preakness track where nobody other than the winner ran at all, and basically finished second by default.  His breeding and running style mean that it wouldn't be a surprise if he finished in the superfecta, but it's tough to make a case for him beating seven other horses.

We're also not interested in Mubtaahij, who quietly had a very easy trip in the Derby - rating off the speed, on the rail, without traffic issues - and showed nothing in the stretch.  His breeding still doesn't scream dirt and he finished behind literally half the horses in this race with no excuse.  If we were setting a morning line for which horse was most likely to finish last, he'd be the favorite.

We give this quintet of horses a collective 4% shot to win the race; meaning they're about 25-1 as a group.  Sadly, we suspect that you won't get that price on any of those horses except Frammento.  Don't be tempted when you see Tale of Verve sitting at 18-1 and think it's a bargain.  It's not.

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On to the real contenders.  The case for American Pharoah is pretty easy and straightforward.  His Derby was probably his worst start since his maiden race and he defeated all top 3 year olds in the country with relative ease.  His Preakness was outstanding, and was almost a paid workout in the slop.  And speaking of workouts, his last two have been utterly gorgeous.  Here's his workout from Monday (jump to about 4:20):

The case against American Pharoah has been made by countless others and in other years when a Triple Crown is on the line.  Horses aren't bred like once were and can't run the distance.  Three races in five weeks is a lot to ask.  New shooters are have a huge advantage over horses that have been asked to compete in all three legs.  He hasn't run at Belmont before.  The pressure may get to the jockey. 

None of these are particularly appealing to us.  If Victor Espinoza can't handle the pressure despite having won 6 Triple Crown races and having a horse that's versatile and talented, then we don't know what to say.  The breeding on this guy is fine - his grandfather did win this race after all.  The fact he's never run at Belmont is a complete red herring to us - neither had Summer Bird, Rags to Riches, Ruler on Ice or Sarava, and they all won the Belmont.

And sure, American Pharoah may regress.  In any race, any horse may regress.  But there's absolutely no reason to think that a bad effort is coming.  Watch that workout again.  This horse is in fine form and is working out brilliantly.  Even if he regresses a little, someone is going to have to improve to beat him. 

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Only two horses appear to be able to take the next step forward and challenge him for the win slot.  The first is morning line second choice Frosted, who was last seen running 4th in the Derby.  We'll admit that there's some stuff to like here - trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is outstanding, his breeding is decent enough for the distance, and he has run well in his last two starts.

But we're very skeptical.  His Wood gets a giant asterisk from us because it was at Aqueduct, and as we noted in the Derby preview, he's a monster at Aqueduct (3/2-1-0), and ordinary everywhere else (5/0-3-0).  His 4th in the Derby is getting some accolades because he closed well and had some traffic trouble.  But to us that was a typical clunk-up finish, passing other tiring horses.  He was wide on the turns at Churchill and lost ground, but didn't really have a bad trip per se.  He tried to close from the back of the pack.  You know what happens when you try that?  You usually have to go wide and lose ground.  He may have been slightly closer to the top 3 with a better trip, but at the same time, may not have had the type of sustained rally that got him in 4th.

We're also generally skeptical of closers in the Belmont (while acknowledging that McLaughlin trained a dead closer that won the Belmont in Jazil).  Usually it takes tactical speed and a grinding ability to win the race.  Frosted doesn't run like that.  His best efforts at Aqueduct all had big moves on the turn.  So did his Derby.  Even his Fountain of Youth, where he ran a crummy 4th, consisted of a big move on the turn then a dead stop at the top of the stretch.  Generally, if you try to make a big move on the turn at the Belmont, you have nothing left for the stretch and fade miserably - recall the losing efforts by Animal Kingdom in 2011 and Mine That Bird in 2009.  So what does he do - try to make a sweeping move and gut it out for 2 extra furlongs, or attend to the pace and lose the closing bid that's made him successful?  It's a Hobson's Choice that we think sinks him.

Which leaves us with Materiality, whose troubled 6th place finish in the Derby has been noted by nearly everyone.  Unlike Frosted, he actually had a bad trip in the Derby.  He was shuffled back early and not allowed to flaunt his early speed, putting him next to last early in the race, which is not how he ran his first three races.  That he closed to 6th despite having the worst of it was a credit.  It's very reminiscent of the Trip From Hell that Lookin at Lucky had in the 2010 Derby.  And he rebounded to win the Preakness.

Adding to Materiality's credentials are his connections - Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez need no introduction here - and that he sports the highest speed figure in the entire field from his Florida Derby win.  And he's making his 5th career start, meaning there's clearly room for improvement.  Equally importantly, his draw (8 post) means that he should go just to the outside of American Pharoah and keep him in his sights.  We don't think that these two are going to engage in a speed duel; the point is that he's going to keep American Pharoah honest and not let him sneak away.

The negatives on Materiality -- other than he's not American Pharoah -- are small but exist.  The fact that he hasn't won a race away from Gulfstream bothers us a little bit.  If we're going to doink Frosted for being a horse for the course, we have to at least acknowledge that the same may be true for Materiality.  We're also not in love with his breeding.  Yes his father won the Belmont and has sired a Travers winner (Afleet Express), but we're still not a big fan of his as a distance sire.  And his dam is the daughter of rank sprinter Langfuhr.  If it comes down to a battle of who's better bred to get the final 2 furlongs, we're siding with American Pharoah.

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For years, when horses have made their bid attempt for the Triple Crown, the racing press have sneered at them as unfit to join the Pantheon with War Admiral, Citation, and Secretariat.  Everyone other than Dick Dutrow was rooting against Big Brown because of his unsavory trainer and owners, and felt they didn't belong with the likes of Billy Turner and Penny Chenery.  People picked War Emblem, Charismatic and I'll Have Another to lose because they didn't have race records before the Triple Crown that made people think they were appropriate Triple Crown winners.  Even Smarty Jones, who most people loved, was greeted with skepticism because he came from a racing backwater (Pennsylvania) and had run against nothing until his race before the Derby.  People thought he was neat, but "greatness" and "historic" seemed to escape him.

Perhaps nobody put this better than Steve Crist when writing about Funny Cide's attempt to take the Triple Crown in 2003:
The other reason I feel compelled to pick against Funny Cide is that for all his admirable qualities and likeability, he seems to stand outside the circle of greatness that characterized the only three horses to have won a crown in the last 50 years. The game has changed since the days of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, but I still want the next Triple Crown winner to be a champion at 2 rather than a winner of three restricted statebred races.
Well, here's the list of all the horses that have won the Eclipse for champion 2 year old and entered the Belmont with a shot at the Triple Crown:

Belmont Finish
Seattle Slew
Spectacular Bid
American Pharoah

American Pharoah isn't a horse that's gotten hot for 2 months.  He isn't someone who's lucked into a pair of Triple Crown wins.  He isn't some mediocrity that's been dominating a bad group of horses.  He's been the best horse in this class for nearly a year.  Since losing his maiden race, he's won every race he's entered, has dominated almost all of them, and has beaten every notable member of his class in the process.

It's time.


1.  American Pharoah
2.  Materiality
3.  Tale of Verve
4.  Madefromlucky

Enjoy Belmont Day everyone!


Mark Grabowski said...

Any thoughts to the AWD rankings? Tonalist was near the top if not 2nd in AWD when he beat Chrome last year. Any thoughts on this ranking? That would make Keen Ice in the mix. Thoughts?

El Angelo said...

I am not a huge fan of them because I think they suffer from small sample size issues and don't take into account the quality of competition - for example, Northern Afleet would never be near the top of an AWD list, but that didn't stop Afleet Alex in a bad Belmont.

That said, Keen Ice is bred for the distance, so if you're simply going off breeding, he's logical to include. Personally, I discount him since his form is just so blah and he's not going to get much pace to run at.

Much appreciate the question and discussion.

Mark Grabowski said...

I've been handicapping for only about twelve years or so. Was burned by Birdstone, burned by Tonalist (had Commissioner), suffered through disappointing finishes with Funny Cide, War Emblem, Big Brown, and I'll have another. But I've seen so many races, and so many horses and said, "This is the one, this is the one." I wasn't convinced about California Chrome. Popular horse, good story, but not enough there to pull it off. Sure thought Smarty Jones had it.

American Pharoah looks like the best horse I've seen in my short time handicapping. I hate to say this is the one - but I really believe this is the one!

I've really enjoyed reading your commentary. It's factual, detailed, laced with great supporting arguments. I've bookmarked your blog and look forward to further commentary - maybe the Travers? Breeder's Cup?

Happy Handicapping! Go Pharoah!!