By Ed McNamara
It’s called the “Test of the Champion,” although “One of a Kind” or “The Glorious Anachronism” might be a better fit. The Belmont Stakes (G1) is a relic of long ago, when stamina was prized more than speed.
The 21st century thoroughbred is not meant to run 1 1/2 miles on dirt, which makes the Triple Crown finale a confusing and unique spectacle.
None of the eight in Saturday’s 153rd Belmont has gone more than 1 1/4 miles. When they reach the stretch at spacious Belmont Park, they’ll already have traveled that far, turning the final quarter mile into a Zone of the Unknown. Predicting who will complete it first is oh so challenging.
Picking the horse who looks best on paper has been a losers’ game for the past 25 Belmonts. Only five favorites won, including Triple Crown heroes American Pharoah and Justify. It’s four if you disregard last year, because 9 furlongs around one turn is not a Belmont.
Don’t be afraid to bet on Kentucky Derby (G1) flops. Commendable ran 17th in the 2000 Derby before paying $39.60 in the Belmont. Birdstone, a 36-1 shot, upset Smarty Jones in 2004 after finishing eighth in the Derby. Jazil, fourth in the Derby, paid $14.40 in the 2006 Belmont. Then came upset specials Summer Bird (fifth, 2009 Derby), Palace Malice (12th, 2013), Creator (13th, 2016) and Tapwrit (sixth, 2017), whose Belmont odds were 11-1, 13-1, 16-1 and 5-1, respectively.
Then there were the Belmont shockers who skipped the Derby, topped by 70-1 Sarava in 2002. Also fitting that profile were Da’ Tara (38-1, 2008), Drosselmeyer (13-1, 2010), Ruler On Ice (24-1, 2011), Tonalist (9-1, 2014) and Sir Winston (10-1, 2019).
My advice is to embrace the chaos and think outside the box. The Belmont, like life, is full of surprises, so let’s try to beat the horse to beat.
Essential Quality (post 2, 2-1 favorite on the morning line) is the best horse on paper, and the 2020 2-year-old champion deserves to be favored, because he’s never run a bad one in six career races. Despite a troubled start and being five-wide for much of the Derby, he still was fourth, beaten only a length. He’s versatile, having won on the lead, stalking and coming from behind, and 2020 Eclipse Award winner Brad Cox has joined the trainer elite. Maybe the most logical result is Essential Quality wins and pays $6.60.
However, his speed figures are good but not great, and his only race outside Kentucky was against a very weak field at Oaklawn. Maybe he won’t handle Big Sandy’s surface, or maybe he’ll hit the wall in mid-stretch. Then there’s this negative factoid: In the past 31 Belmonts, American Pharoah is the only 2-year-old champ who won.
I’ll include Essential Quality in exactas, doubles and pick 3’s, but I’m going elsewhere for my win bet.
I’m throwing out Todd Pletcher’s duo of Bourbonic and Overtook, along with Japan shipper France Go de Ina. I’m picking Pletcher’s third runner, Florida Derby (G1) winner Known Agenda (post 6, 6-1), to give the newly minted Hall of Famer his fourth Belmont trophy.
Pletcher is deadly off extended layoffs, and his Belmont winners (Rags to Riches, Palace Malice, Tapwrit) came off five-week breaks, just like Known Agenda. Belmont is his base, and he’s figured out its signature race. He’s a head and a nose from winning five of the past 14. No other trainer in this renewal has done it once.
Known Agenda’s sire, two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, was edged by Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont. If Known Agenda doesn’t win, it won’t be because he lacks a stayer’s pedigree. I see him sitting fourth behind a solid, contested pace set by Rock Your World and Hot Rod Charlie before moving in upper stretch. The California speedsters fade as Essential Quality, who stalked in third, takes the lead, but he tires in mid-stretch as Known Agenda grinds past him. Rombauer rallies for third, but the longer distance blunts the powerful finishing kick that won the Preakness (G1).
Like Palace Malice and Tapwrit, Known Agenda was a Derby disappointment. He never was in the mix and came in ninth, 10 lengths behind Medina Spirit.
“I think he’s being overlooked a little bit,” Pletcher told drf.com. “I think his Derby was better than it looked. He was one of the few that made up ground. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the early position we wanted, and I think that made all the difference. Plus, the way the race unfolded, no one really came back to the field.”
I’ll bet Known Agenda to win and place and box him in exactas with Essential Quality and Rombauer. And if I’m right, I’ll be singing “The Sidewalks of New York.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.