Belmont Stakes Preview: Can Exaggerator Pass the Test of the Champion?

“The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles.”
~Garth Stein

Belmont Park

Exaggerator can stake his claim as the top three-year-old in training on Saturday if he can win the 148th edition of the Grade I Belmont Stakes.  After finishing a strong second to Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby, Exaggerator proved his doubters wrong and won the Grade I Preakness Stakes in impressive fashion.

A victory Saturday will propel him to the head of the class in the three-year-old division and put his hat in the ring in the very early discussion of Horse of the Year honors. To be clear, there is still a ton of racing left this season and a victory in the Belmont Stakes is not a slam dunk for the Keith Desormeaux charge.

The Belmont Stakes is the final and most challenging leg of the Triple Crown. The race, nicknamed “Test of the Champion,” is the longest (1 ½ miles) and the most grueling leg of the Triple Crown.

Several Belmont Stakes favorites have fallen victim to the 12-furlong grind. Horses such as Sunday Silence, Alysheba and California Chrome failed to seal the deal in this race.

I understand that these horses were racing against history and going for the Triple Crown, but anything can happen in this race. Longshots such as Ruler on Ice at 24-1 odds, Da’ Tara at 38-1 and Sarava (the longest shot of them all) at 70-1 have all visited the winner’s circle following the Belmont Stakes.

Let’s meet the field for this year’s edition:

1-Governor Malibu (12-1)
He is getting a lot of attention and could possibly be a sneaky “wise guy” horse for the Belmont Stakes. He is coming off a solid effort against Unified in the Peter Pan, losing to that rival by less than a length.

Prior to that effort he ran against Awesome Speed in the Tesio and barely beat that rival before being disqualified for interfering with him down the lane. Awesome Speed came back to compete in the Preakness Stakes and was completely outmatched.

The same combination that brought you Tonalist (Christophe Clement and Joel Rosario) is back with Governor Malibu. He has a similar look to Tonalist — not just the same prep race to get here, but his style of running is comparable as well. It looks on paper like he has enough speed to be in contention early in the race and, if the price is right, he may be worth a long look. Watch the tote board.

2-Destin (6-1)
The Tampa Bay Derby winner ran a fairly good race in the Kentucky Derby. He wasn’t too far off the torrid pace set by Danzing Candy at Churchill Downs and finished up a respectable sixth (only beaten by seven lengths).

He will be one of the few Belmont probables that will be close-up throughout. Destin is a true grinder and the Belmont Stakes may be just what the doctor ordered for the Todd Pletcher sophomore to get back to his winning ways.

His tactical advantage over most of the field will ensure that he either has the lead turning for home or that he will be in striking range to pounce and grind. These are very important features to have when one is tackling the third jewel of the Triple Crown.

He seems to be overlooked by many and his stable mate Stradivari will more than likely go off as the second choice in wagering, so Destin’s odds should make him a nice value play. He is a must-use on your tickets, especially if you are trying to beat the favorite.

3-Cherry Wine (8-1)

The horses round the final turn in the 2016 Preakness Stakes.

The horses round the final turn in the 2016 Preakness Stakes.

The stable-mate of Brody’s Cause, Cherry Wine enters the Belmont Stakes after finishing a closing second to Exaggerator in the Preakness Stakes.  As with most of his races to date, he was settled near the back of the pack and came with a nice rally to nip a tiring Nyquist for second place but was no threat to the winner.

In the Preakness Stakes, he earned a lifetime best Brisnet speed figure (100), which is the second-highest last-race Brisnet speed figure in the field (behind only Exaggerator).  It is not unrealistic to think he has another step forward in him.

There is not a lot of speed entered in this edition of the Belmont Stakes, however, which leaves us with the question as to whether or not he can outkick the others if the pace is soft.  Dale Romans likes Cherry Wine a lot and his jockey, Corey Lanerie, will undoubtedly try to save as much ground as possible with him.

If you think he can lay closer to the pace Saturday and still make a solid bid, outkicking his rivals down the lane, don’t be scared to play him. If the favorite doesn’t fire Saturday, the race is pretty wide open and your odds should be decent enough.

Suddenbreakingnews Workout 050116

Suddenbreakingnews

4-Suddenbreakingnews (10-1)
Plenty of people scoffed at Donnie K Von Hemel when he announced his plans to skip the Preakness Stakes and wait until the Belmont to run Suddenbreakingnews.  His come-from-the-clouds style will be tested in an affair that, on paper, is lacking speed to set up his late rally.

Suddenbreakingnews may have the best late kick in the field and if by some chance we get a decent pace Saturday it will probably benefit him the most.

I have a really hard time picking against Suddenbreakingnews in here, but I just think his style will be compromised by the pace. If things fall apart, he can be close, but the chances of that happening are slim. I am playing against the colt on the win end, but will keep him as a definite-use for the underneath plays.

5-Stradivari (5-1)
The likely second choice in this year’s Belmont Stakes is coming off an impressive fourth-place finish in the Preakness Stakes. He was close throughout the crazy fractions Nyquist was carving out and, then, had to go six-wide on the turn. He was just a few strides away from beating Nyquist for third.

His Brisnet numbers are better than most in here and further progression is expected. His running style is perfect for this race and he should have first run on Exaggerator. Whether he is ready to beat him at this point in his career remains to be seen, but it seems to me and many others that Todd Pletcher might have a special one on his hands in Stradivari. The one to beat.

6-Gettysburg (30-1)
Welcome to the speed of the Belmont Stakes. Is he a “rabbit” or is he in here to try to steal it on the front end? The answer could be both. His late addition to the Belmont Stakes has changed the whole complexion of the race.

Gettysburg is quick and will be forwardly placed — that much we know. What we don’t know is if Seeking the Soul will go with him or sit off of him. They seem to be the speed of the speed. If they tackle each other early it will definitely have the feel of a “rabbit” scenario, which favors everyone not close to that pace — primarily speaking, his stable mate, Creator. I’m playing against him.

7-Seeking the Soul (30-1)
Recent maiden winner ships in from Churchill Downs for the toughest test of his career. He has never run in a race over a mile and he is going against more established rivals in here. Seems like a possible pace candidate or, at the very least, a horse who will be close early on. His odds will be huge, but Dallas Stewart must think he can run some to put him in here or he thinks he can get the 1 ½-mile distance.   He is a pass for me.

8-Forever d’Oro (30-1)
His recent maiden victory was here at Belmont in late May where he earned a Brisnet speed figure of 90. He is completely outclassed by this field and should not have a say in the outcome. I will be shocked if this son of Medaglia d’Oro so much as hits the board Saturday. He is a pass for me.

9-Trojan Nation (30-1)
Here is the most eligible bachelor in the field as he has danced every dance but has not won a race… nada, zilch.

He is still a maiden, folks, and, after Saturday (barring a late scratch), he will have run in the Wood Memorial, Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

His Kentucky Derby run was not flattering and the problems he had in that race occurred at the beginning, so no real excuses. He just wasn’t good enough. His works since the Derby have been good and I am sure he is ready for his best effort to date.

He has shown in his previous races that he can be closer to the pace than he has been recently. I think a change of tactics is necessary for him to have a remote chance to crack the top-5 in here. If he drops to the back of the pack, there are many other closers I would rather roll with than him.  He is a pass for me.

10-Lani (20-1)
The mysterious Lani enters the Belmont Stakes off of a very sharp effort at Pimlico in the Preakness Stakes. He came from way out of it to finish fifth, only five lengths off the winner Exaggerator. Heading into the Belmont Stakes, Lani and Exaggerator are the only two horses in the field to have competed in both the previous two legs of the Triple Crown this season.

Lani has acclimated well to America and seems to be heading in the right direction. He is trained to run all day, so I definitely think the distance will not be an issue for him at all. I am worried his odds will be lower because of the amount of fans he has acquired since his arrival shortly before the Kentucky Derby.

Still, I think Lani has a great shot to hit the board Saturday. His closing style is not what usually wins this race, but he is a horse on the improve. Leave him off of your tickets at your own risk.

11-Exaggerator (9-5)

The victor, Exaggerator (right), and the vanquished, Nyquist (left), after the 2016 Preakness Stakes.

The victor, Exaggerator (right), and the vanquished, Nyquist (left), after the 2016 Preakness Stakes.

The Preakness champion rolls into New York as the deserving favorite in the Belmont Stakes. He has a devastating turn of foot that can put him in the thick of it whenever Kent Desormeaux asks him. Nonetheless, there are plenty of doubters out there looking to knock him.

Yes, it is true that he has benefited from suicidal pace scenarios; yes, it is true that he likes a sloppy track; yes, it is true that closers normally do not run well in the Belmont Stakes.

But, as Vince Lombardi once said, “Champions make their own luck.” Perhaps we should give credit for what he has accomplished.  Perhaps we should appreciate Keith Desormeaux for running him in all three Triple Crown races. Perhaps we should acknowledge that good horses can run well on any surface or with any scenario thrown their way.

The Belmont Stakes will be his toughest test to date and he is not a slam dunk to run well in the “Test of the Champion.”

Exaggerator has quite a bit in his favor coming into the Belmont Stakes:

1) His main rival (Nyquist) will not run in the Belmont Stakes due to an elevated white blood cell count.
2) His Brisnet speed figures (BSFs) continue to improve with each race

Exaggerator Race Chart
Exaggerator has six of the highest BSFs in the (probable) field:

Top Brisnet Speed Figures

The son of Curlin has raced at seven different tracks in his young career, so adjusting to a new track should not be an issue for him.

When he finished a close second to Nyquist in the  seven- furlong San Vicente Stakes, Exaggerator showed that he can go towards the front of the pack and stalk a fast pace.

He is the pick, but watch the tote board and make sure you are getting value if you bet him. If he is less than even money, you might be better off taking a shot elsewhere.

12-Brody’s Cause (20-1)
The only horse in the race that has finished in front of Exaggerator on two separate occasions (granted, those races were last season).The hype machine behind the Dale Romans’ trainee coming into this year’s Triple Crown season was at a fever pitch until he laid an egg in the Tampa Bay Derby and was soundly defeated by Destin.

He rebounded quite nicely to win the Blue Grass Stakes over his stable mate Cherry Wine and looked like a possible threat to the top horses in the Kentucky Derby. His race never materialized, though, and he was a non-factor in Louisville, finishing seventh.

As bad as his Kentucky Derby looked visually, he still came away with the same Brisnet speed figure he earned when he won the Blue Grass Stakes — a 94. He is a two-time Grade I winner and will be completely overlooked at the windows.

He will need to improve his speed figures to compete here, but I feel he still has room to take another step forward. The addition of Gettysburg helps his cause and his odds will be terrific. My longshot play.

13-Creator (10-1)
The Arkansas Derby winner returns to the races after a disappointing 13th-place finish in the Kentucky derby. One could argue he had the worst of trips that day as he had issues throughout the race and was never able to get back on track.

Creator is another deep closer in a race in which the pace mainly will be determined by his stable mate (Gettysburg). It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Creator in the top half of the field as they make their way down the backstretch. Whether that makes him a contender to steal the show, I am not so sure.

His Arkansas Derby win showed he has the talent to compete when he is able to get a clean trip.  If he gets first jump on the frontrunners in a race like the Belmont Stakes, he could be tough to beat, but if the pace is slow and he sits near the back of the pack like normal, it could be tough sledding for the son of Tapit. Major Player.

Tale of the Tape

Tale of the Tape Chart

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of US Racing.

Andrew Morisch
Drew Morisch, aka “Drew Mo” or the “Bloghorse,” has been an avid sports fan since he was born. Growing up in Nebraska, it was easy for him to fall in love with football and horse racing. He became a huge horse racing fan by attending Ak-Sar-Ben race track before its gates closed (sadly) for the last time in 1995.

Horses such as Breeders’ Cup Classic champion Black Tie Affair, Preakness winner Gate Dancer and local favorite Who Doctor Who all graced the dirt at Ak-Sar-Ben and helped power Drew’s passion for the Sport of Kings.

Drew has other passions to go along with horse racing. He is a big Nebraska Cornhuskers fan. You will usually find him tailgating at some undisclosed location on game days. Drew loves crunching numbers and analyzing data. Whether it’s PE ratios on stocks, speed figures in horse racing, or assist-to-turnover ratios in basketball, there is no such thing as too much information in his book. Drew also plays fantasy sports.

You interact with Drew on Facebook at www.facebook.com/DrewMorisch or follow him on Twitter @thebloghorse.

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