By Ed McNamara
The consensus was that delaying the start of the Triple Crown from May 2 to June 20 could help late developers catch up to the more precocious colts. Most of us figured that would make the Belmont Stakes deeper and more competitive.
Those extra seven weeks did a number on four major stakes winners. Bob Baffert’s undefeated stars Nadal and Charlatan got hurt, as did two other standouts, Maxfield and Wells Bayou, leaving Tiz the Law as the 6-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s Belmont. Besides being a one-off oddity – first classic for the first time, one turn, 1 1/8 miles instead of 1½, no spectators – the injury-depleted field is smaller than anticipated.
That was only to be expected in a horrific year in which the world was turned upside down. Considering what 2020 has unleashed upon humanity, let’s just get into what’s good. You can’t call the 152nd Belmont the “Test of the Champion,” but we’re lucky to have it and an outstanding undercard.
If not for a rough trip in the slop last November, Tiz the Law would be 5-for-5. None of his nine rivals can match his resume, but races aren’t run on paper, and late developers Tap It to Win and Pneumatic and late-running Sole Volante might be able to take him down if he’s not at his best. Judging from his outstanding string of workouts, he will be, but you never can tell.
Tiz the Law’s lead owner, Jack Knowlton, expects a big performance.
“I feel good about the 1 1/8-mile configuration, with a long run down the backstretch to the turn,” he said. “Tiz has won at Belmont and he trains there, and I think Manny (Franco) will have the opportunity to put him where he wants to put him. All of his wins have been stalking, moving around the turn and grabbing the race in the stretch.”
The field in post-position order, with morning-line odds:
Trainer: Mark Casse
Jockey: John Velazquez
Position-conscious Johnny V. will go from the rail on the likely front-runner. Unless the speedy no-hoper Fore Left duels with Tap It to Win, he should still be in front approaching the stretch, when Tiz the Law figures to make his move. Tap It to Win is the “now” horse because of his overpowering, wire-to-wire win at 1 1/16 miles last month at Belmont. If he repeats it, he could steal the Belmont. At 6-1, he’s worth a bet, but to have a chance, he needs an easy lead and Tiz the Law must regress.
Trainer: Patrick Biancone
Jockey: Luca Panici
Will this quality closer bounce off a big race with only a 10-day turnaround? I think he can repeat it, which would give him an excellent chance to be in the trifecta. The faster the fractions, the better his chances. His closing numbers are the best in the field, and his price will be better because Italian native Panici isn’t a name rider. This 4-for-6 gelding has never been out of the money, and I think he’ll extend that streak.
Trainer: Linda Rice
Jockey: Joel Rosario
He’s run only three times, been off since Feb. 1 and never beaten a top-class horse. He’s not an easy ride, so Rice matched a physically strong jockey with a colt who needs constant encouragement. He was green and disliked taking dirt before drawing clear in the Grade 3 Withers, in which Dylan Davis had to ride him like a bicycle most of the way. Rice said he’s “improved dramatically” in his training the past six weeks. She faces long odds in her bid to be the first woman to train a Belmont winner. The 140-day layoff is a major concern.
Verdict: Not a contender
Trainer: Bill Mott
Jockey: Junior Alvarado
He needs to be on or near the lead, and don’t expect him to outrun Tap It to Win and/or Fore Left early. He’s 2-for-2 at 1 1/8 miles, but both times he broke from the rail and set or tracked slow fractions. He won’t get that script this time. His speed figures aren’t much, and Ny Traffic is the only name horse he’s finished ahead of. Modernist’s even third from post 14 in the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby may have been his best race, because he had no chance to get the lead from high-powered Wells Bayou. With an ideal trip, third at best.
Verdict: Superfecta possibility, won’t win
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Jockey: Javier Castellano
Pletcher said this deep closer would have been better off in a 1½-mile Belmont. I don’t like him in this spot at all, because he comes from so far back. He’s been a distant fourth in both his graded stakes, in which he couldn’t get involved with his so-so stretch moves and lost by a total of 11½ lengths. I can’t see him making any impact on Saturday.
Verdict: No chance
Trainer: Doug O’Neill
Jockey: Jose Ortiz
This late addition can’t win the Belmont but he could have a major say in who does. He went wire to wire in three sprint stakes and in the mile UAE 2000 Guineas on Feb. 6, so Ortiz’s only option is to send him. Fore Left could be Tiz the Law’s best friend if he can wear down likely pacesetter Tap It to Win and set up the favorite. He was up the track last year in his only two Grade 1 tries and hasn’t run in 4½ months (big negative). He’s fresh and training swiftly, so he’ll be part of the pace for as far as he goes, probably a mile or so.
Verdict: Pace factor, no chance to win
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Jockey: Reylu Gutierrez
This no-hoper appears to have been entered because venerable Calumet Farm wanted to see its silks again in a classic. Asmussen is on his way to becoming the winningest trainer of all time, so it’s hard to imagine it was his idea. The 50-1 morning line looks like an underlay for a horse who’s lost four in a row, all stakes, by an average of 19 lengths. I can’t recall one who entered a Grade 1 after losing each of his last two races by 22 lengths. He lacks speed and has backed up in the stretch in every race this year.
Verdict: Automatic throw-out
Trainer: Barclay Tagg
Jockey: Manny Franco
The defections of Nadal, Charlatan and Maxfield cleared the way for this exceptionally talented New York-bred. He won the Grade 1 Champagne, a one-turn mile, at Belmont last fall, and the pace dynamic should suit his stalk-and-pounce style. Franco, an underrated rising star, has made no mistakes with him, and a long series of strong works should seal the deal. The 12-week layoff should be no problem, because he’s won three times off extended breaks.
Verdict: The horse to beat, most logical winner
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Jockey: Irad Ortiz, Jr.
He’s inexperienced (three races) but promising, and his trouble-filled win last time in an ungraded stakes at Gulfstream was as visually impressive as it gets. A closer look reveals that the second-place finisher is still a maiden (0-for-5), as is the runner-up in Dr Post’s maiden win. He has tactical speed, finishes well, and Irad is the hottest rider in the country, but the 5-1 morning line seems very low. Doubting a young, improving Pletcher horse is dangerous, and I think he can develop into a serious runner. However, my gut feeling is that the class jump will be too much in the Belmont.
Verdict: Vulnerable underlay
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Jockey: Ricardo Santana, Jr.
There was serious buzz about this late developer going into the 1 1/16-mile Matt Winn last month at Churchill. Pneumatic ran extremely well to be third, only 1¾ lengths behind the highly regarded Maxfield, in his first loss in three career races. He battled gamely up front with the speedy Ny Traffic and earned a lot of respect. He has enough tactical speed to stay close, and if for some reason Tiz the Law isn’t himself, Pneumatic might have the best chance at the upset.
Verdict: Contender at generous odds
1. Tiz the Law 2. Pneumatic 3. Sole Volante 4. Tap It to Win
If Tiz the Law drifts up to 8-5, I’ll bet him to win. If not, I’ll box him in exactas with Pneumatic, Sole Volante and Tap It to Win and maybe also box the four of them, hoping Tiz the Law is second at best. If you’re a trifecta player, boxing them all might work out well.
|1||Tap It To Win||6-1||John R. Velazquez||Mark E. Casse|
|2||Sole Volante||9-2||Luca Panici||Patrick L. Biancone|
|3||Max Player||15-1||Joel Rosario||Linda Rice|
|4||Modernist||15-1||Junior Alvarado||William I. Mott|
|5||Farmington Road||15-1||Javier Castellano||Todd A. Pletcher|
|6||Fore Left||30-1||Jose Ortiz||Doug O’Neill|
|7||Jungle Runner||50-1||Reylu Gutierrez||Steven M. Asmussen|
|8||Tiz The Law||6-5||Manny Franco||Barclay Tagg|
|9||Dr Post||5-1||Irad Ortiz, Jr.||Todd A. Pletcher|
|10||Pneumatic||8-1||Ricardo Santana, Jr.||Steven M. Asmussen|
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.