by Noel Michaels
Notwithstanding the victory in 2018 of Triple Crown winner Justify, the Belmont Stakes truly is one of the great unheralded graveyards for favorites in all of horseracing. It has become increasingly difficult for a horse to win the Belmont Stakes who has already competed in both of the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Because of this, no matter how good the favorite might look in the Belmont Stakes — in this case, War of Will — it is still worthwhile from a handicapping and wagering standpoint to bet against him.
Part of the reason favorites tend to do badly is because the Belmont Stakes favorites are usually horses that are coming into the race after having run in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and are already depleted when facing off against fresher horses (California Chrome comes to mind). Additionally, the Preakness, in particular, seems to have become a negative key race in terms of running successfully in the Belmont Stakes.
Dating back to Commendable in 2000, 10 of the last 19 Belmont Stakes winners had not run a race in the five weeks in between the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont. When you narrow it to four weeks out from the Belmont to accommodate horses exiting the local Belmont prep race in the Peter Pan, then 12 of the 19 Belmont winners had at least a four-week layoff going into the Belmont.
Recent Belmont winners like Tapwrit, Creator, Palace Malace, Union Rags, Summer Bird, Jazil, Birdstone, Empire Maker and Commendable had all run in the Kentucky Derby, but skipped the Preakness in favor of other ways of readying for the Belmont Stakes. Filly Rags to Riches had no race between the Kentucky Oaks and the Belmont.
The 2014 Belmont winner Tonalist and 2010 Belmont winner Drosselmeyer hadn’t run in either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness, but did have a race in between in the Peter Pan. They won the Belmont off four-week layoffs. Lemon Drop Kid, like Tonalist and Drosselmeyer, ran in the Peter Pan Stakes in-between the Derby and Belmont but didn’t win. The Peter Pan has proven to be an effective Belmont Stakes prep in recent history and is a good place to look for a longshot.
Belmont Stakes winners of yore usually were war horses that danced every dance in the Triple Crown series, but that’s no longer the trend to look for in a Belmont winner. A quintet of recent winners of the Belmont Stakes were making their Triple Crown debuts in the Belmont Stakes, including Tonalist in 2014, Drosselmeyer in 2010, Da’ Tara in 2008, Rags to Riches in 2007 and Sarava in 2002.
This year, of the Belmont probables, only Preakness winner War of Will will have raced in all three Triple Crown races. That has to considered a negative in terms of his chances to win. Meanwhile, Owendale and Everfast are exiting third-place and second-place finishes in the Preakness, which is a possible knock against those contenders. The new shooters in terms of this season’s Triple Crown races that are headed to the Belmont Stakes include Joevia, who won Monmouth’s Long Branch stakes on May 12 for trainer Greg Sacco, and the Mark Casse-trained Sir Winston and the Todd Pletcher-trained Intrepid Heart, who exit second- and third-place finishes in the Peter Pan.
Finally, the group of Belmont Stakes-bound horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby and then skipped the Preakness — giving them the experience of running in the Derby and also the benefit of five weeks off between races — includes Tax, Spinoff, Master Fencer and especially Tacitus, who was fourth in the Derby (third via DQ) for trainer Bill Mott. In a year like this without a true headline performer in the Belmont Stakes, the advantage could go to these horses, not only to win, but also in the exactas and trifectas.
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.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.