As the trainers, jockeys, and spectators gear up for today’s 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes, I’m reminded (especially because of the picture on BelmontStakes.com) of 1973′s Belmont Stakes, with the famous shot of Ronny Turcotte looking back at the field as he crosses the finish line aboard Secretariat, a record-breaking thirty-one lengths ahead. “Big Red” will always be in the annals of horseracing history, and it’s unlikely he will ever be matched. But one can only hope.
The “Test of the Champion” that is the Belmont Stakes (G1) is a 1.5 mile (12 furlong) endurance run, plain and simple (broadcast on NBC from 5-7pm EDT today, with post time at 6:35pm EDT). Nestled just outside of New York City in Elmont, NY, the tracks immense size makes it a horseracing anomaly, ensuring that only a champion will emerge from the pack to claim the prize.
Despite the fact that New York is called the Empire State, I’m very disappointed that Belmont abandoned their history and nostalgia a few years ago when they made “Empire State of Mind” the Belmont’s official song, rather than “New York, New York” which had been the favorite for so many years. Needless to say, not as many people know the words to “Empire” as they do the old Sinatra favorite. As one who grew up in Upstate New York, it annoys me, but that’s just me. I guess I can still enjoy hearing “New York, New York” after a good Yankees win. But enough of my griping…on to the picks!
Belmont received about a quarter-inch of rain this morning, so if the track has not dried out by post time, any horse that’s a “mudder” will definitely have an advantage. Looking at past performances, about the best one comes up with is the 3-horse Ruler On Ice, who won last October at DelMar on a sloppy track, and #5 Brilliant Speed, who was on the board last September and October at Belmont on a yielding turf course.
As for the true contenders with a fast surface at Belmont, there are eight horses in the twelve-horse Belmont field who ran in the Kentucky Derby. See my Derby post for the lowdown on those horses, but as for their performances since:
9. Animal Kingdom: He’s the odds-on favorite. Winning the Kentucky Derby (G1) and narrowly missing the wire at the Preakness (G1), he likes closing in the waning yards. If the Preakness would have been a mile and a quarter or a bit longer (rather than 1 3/16), we could have been looking at a potential Triple Crown run today. He’s had only one timed work since the Preakness, where he ran four furlongs on a fast track at :47/3, first among 33. With a 103 Beyer Speed Rating over the last two Grade I races, you know he’ll be up front at the wire. Morning line has him at 2-1 odds, and Velazquez will be aboard him again, as he was for the first two legs of the Triple Crown so far.
12. Shackleford: The wire-to-wire Preakness (G1) winner, he posted a 104 Beyer rating in the second leg of the Triple Crown, spoiling aforementioned Animal Kingdom’s chance at immortality. A 9-2 morning line favorite, he only loped through a 5-furlong workout at Belmont June 4th (1:00 flat). But of note, he did work out on a sloppy track April 23d, posting first among nine running that morning (also running 1:00 flat). Jesus Castanon will be saddled up again, as he has been in Shackleford’s last five runnings.
6. Nehro: Runner-up in the Kentucky Derby (and his previous two runs in the Arkansas (G1)and Louisiana (G1) Derbies, Nehro sat out the Preakness. NOTE: Six of the last eight Belmont winners have run the Derby, and sat out the Preakness (Summer Bird in ’09, Drusselmeyer in ’10). 4-1 morning line odds makes him one of the favorites; he’s still sitting on a 99 Beyer rating he earned at Churchill Downs. Hasn’t done too much in the workout department, but he does have the lineage of a champion (Grand-sire was champion A.P. Indy). Cory Nakatani will ride again.
10. Mucho Macho Man: A sentimental favorite for the Derby, Kathy Ritvo’s colt was a 10-1 morning line favorite. He finished sixth in the Preakness (G1) with a 92 Beyer rating (his Derby run was a 99 Beyer), and has had a couple of decent workouts. June 5th he ran five furlongs on a fast Belmont surface in :59/2 (1 of 15), and May 17th he ran four furlongs on a sloppy track in :49/1 (1 of 4). Ramon Dominguez will saddle up as “3M’s” new jockey. 3M is also the youngest horse in the field, officially celebrating his third birthday on June 15th (remember, horses all get a year older “on paper” at the first of each year).
My relative long-shot for the Belmont is Santiva starting in the 4-hole (15-1 morning line). He placed sixth in the Derby and skipped the Preakness like Nehro, and has run well on both synthetic and dirt racing surfaces. And apparently, he galloped an entire lap around Belmont Thursday. Could be a contender or he may have worn himself out. And as a Giant’s Causeway-sired colt, he’s got the bloodline for endurance.
Tech Talk (Horse Racing edition): In case you’re wondering what I’m putting after the names of the races (i.e. G1 or G2), that is the type of race that is being run. The graded-stakes races have much higher purses ($75,000 minimum for a Grade 1), and have the better horses running in them. There are certain criteria that need to be met, as specified by the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. Things like the types of horses (i.e. how good the horse) running, the type of horse that has won that race in the past, and weight/age restrictions (the Triple Crown races are only for three-year old horses, with each horse carrying 126 lbs, regardless of what its jockey weighs). Typically, all the well-known races (Triple Crown, Anita Derby, Travers) are all Grade 1 races. Many Derby prep races are also Grade 1′s.
However you bet today, whether by name, gut feeling, astrological sign (yes, I’ve seen this one online), or whether the horse relieves itself before the race, today’s Belmont will be a good one. So get your chores done early, grab a tasty beverage, huddle by the TV this evening, and be ready for the bugler’s call to the Post (by the way, in case you didn’t know, the tune the bugler plays as a call to Post is named “Boots and Saddles”).
AND THEY’RE OFF!!!