Belmont Field Takes Shape and History is Against Preakness Horses

After the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes are in the books, New York’s Belmont Park again becomes the center of the racing universe thanks, in part, to the upcoming running of the third jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes. The 2017 Belmont Stakes, to be run on Saturday, June 10, headlines what will be one of the year’s best weekends of racing from June 8-10 at the “Big Sandy”.

In all, the three-day Belmont Stakes Festival will feature 18 stakes races – 15 graded –  worth in excess of $10 million. The Belmont Stakes will be one of six Grade 1 events being run, along with the $1.2 million Metropolitan Mile, the $750,000 Ogden Phipps, the $1 million Manhattan, the $700,000 Just a Game and the $700,000 Acorn.

But when all is said and done, the weekend is still all about the running of the Belmont Stakes. This is true even in years like this when we won’t have a Triple Crown on the line.

When no Triple Crown is on the line in the Belmont Stakes, the second-best item on any racing fan’s wish list is a “rubber match” – a face-off between the winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. If that is not possible, then at least we’d like to see one of the previous two winners – either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness winner – come back and strut his stuff in the spotlight at Belmont to capture two-thirds of the Triple Crown.

Unfortunately, those wishes will probably not come to fruition in 2017.

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Kentucky Derby winner ALWAYS DREAMING finished eighth in the Preakness and is likely to be given a break by trainer Todd Pletcher. The same appears to be true for Preakness winner CLOUD COMPUTING, whose trainer Chad Brown also likes to give his horses time between races to recuperate and is likely to point for a race like the Travers or Haskell instead.

What we will be left with this year is a line-up of also-ran horses from the Derby and Preakness looking to rise to the occasion in a big way on racing’s biggest stage – similar to what Cloud Computing did in the Preakness – hoping for their break-out day in the Belmont Stakes.

Two horses at the top of many handicappers’ lists in the Belmont Stakes, vying for favoritism perhaps, will be Preakness runner-up CLASSIC EMPIRE and Kentucky Derby runner-up LOOKIN AT LEE.  If those horses are destined to lose the Belmont Stakes, however, it will probably be for the same reason the favorites almost always lose the Belmont Stakes – the three long and demanding races in five weeks within a five-week span while going up against fresher horses, which is a distinct disadvantage for both horses, according to recent history.

Of all the factors likely to derail any Belmont Stakes hopeful not named American Pharoah, the biggest hurdle in the Belmont appears to be the grind of running three races in five weeks. Belmont Stakes hopefuls who ran in both the Derby and Preakness always face a field of fresher horses. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and ask Calfiornia Chrome’s owner, who became the world’s most infamous buffoon in the summer of 2014 thanks to his ranting temper tantrum about this issue after Chrome lost the Belmont.

Facing a field of fresher horses, combined with the Belmont’s distance of 1 ½ miles, undoubtedly gives you the number one factor accounting for the most Belmont Stakes disappointments. Some recent Triple Crown losers, including Charismatic (Lemon Drop Kid), Funny Cide (Empire Maker), Smarty Jones (Birdstone), and California Chrome (Tonalist) all lost to fresher horses.

In 2016, there were only two graduates of both the Derby and Preakness running in the Belmont, and predictably both lost.  Exaggerator finished 11th and the Japanese-based Derby and Preakness also-ran, Lani, sucked up for third in the Belmont.

Yes, American Pharoah did win the Belmont Stakes – and, therefore, the Triple Crown – in 2015, but American Pharoah was a special horse, and we haven’t seen another one like him come along in the last 40 years.

When the Belmont Stakes horses arrive at Belmont Park, what awaits them will be a dramatically different surface from the racetracks at both Churchill Downs and Pimlico.  In terms of the Belmont Stakes itself, it is difficult to use traditional handicapping axioms to try to handicap the race, because Belmont runs almost no other two-turn races due to its 1 1/2-mile circumference. Therefore, besides the Brooklyn Handicap, and maybe one or two annual 1 ½-mile or two-mile dirt races, you have almost nothing else at Belmont to compare to the Belmont Stakes, except for the other past editions of the race itself.

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In the Belmont Stakes, in terms of the odds, it goes without saying that favorites have done poorly in the third jewel of the Triple Crown. After all, only American Pharoah has swept the Triple Crown since 1978, with 12 horses during that stretch losing their historic bids in the Belmont Stakes. The 12 horses since 1979 to lose the Belmont in their bid for the Triple Crown were Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2008), and California Chrome (2014). Another candidate, I’ll Have Another (2012), was scratched before the race and never even made it into the starting gate at Belmont.

No matter how good the favorites might look in the Belmont Stakes, it is still worthwhile – from a handicapping and wagering standpoint – to bet against them if they have run in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.  The Belmont Stakes has been opposite of recent Preakness runnings. The Belmont Stakes is a graveyard for favorites of all shapes and sizes.

In 2017, Creator won the Belmont Stakes and paid $34.80. The favorite was Preakness winner Exaggerator at 7-5.  He finished 11th.  The second and third favorites, Suddenbreakingnews and Stradivari, finished ninth and fifth respectively.

As a matter of fact, when Union Rags won the Belmont Stakes six years ago as the second-choice, he came about as close to being a winning favorite as there’s been in the Belmont in recent memory other than American Pharoah.  Union Rags paid $7.50 to win as the close second-choice behind that year’s favorite, Dullahan. When California Chrome went for the Triple Crown and lost in 2014, he was going against a sub-par field that included Tonalist but not much else.

This year, barring the possibility that CLOUD COMPUTING will be entered, the competition lining up for the Belmont Stakes is led by the aforementioned CLASSIC EMPIRE and LOOKIN AT LEE, who will be the first and second choices. Challengers pointing for the Belmont include Peter Pan Stakes runner-up MEANTIME, trained by Brian Lynch, and Fedirico Tesio winner TWISTED TOM, trained by Chad Brown. Some of the Kentucky Derby also-rans will also be back to take another crack in the Belmont, including Santa Anita Derby winner GORMLEY and Blue Grass Stakes winner IRAP. That list also includes Todd Pletcher representative TAPWRIT. Highly-touted Japanese-based EPICHARIS, second in the UAE Derby, is also considered probable, as is Preakness third-place finisher SENIOR INVESTMENT.

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The questions to ask on Belmont Stakes Day will be this: What will CLASSIC EMPIRE and LOOKIN AT LEE have left in them? Did the demanding Kentucky Derby and Preakness efforts take too much out of him for the Belmont Stakes?

We’ll have to wait and see if they can succeed where others have failed in the Belmont (horses running in all three legs of the Triple Crown). Can they handle the marathon 1 ½-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes after two big efforts back-to-back two weeks apart this last month? Or will the Triple Crown grind of three races in five weeks, in conjunction with the 1 ½-mile distance, be their downfall?

One thing is certain: any potential favorite in the Belmont Stakes will need to prove himself a truly exceptional horse in order to win, and none of this bunch has been able to do that yet.

Noel Michaels
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
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