Answer to pace riddle may unlock Belmont prize

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Las Vegas

It is easy see why Tiz The Law is a heavy favorite for the Belmont Stakes. His two Grade 1 wins and his 4-for-4 record on fast tracks put him alone in the front of the plane while the rest of the field is stuck in coach.

But if it is easy to declare that he will win Saturday, why is it so hard to figure out who will lead him there?

2020_06_18_BS_futuresBlame it on Fore Left. An 11th-hour addition to the field, he is the missing piece to the pace puzzle that will come together at the start of this first race of the pandemic era Triple Crown. In short, will Fore Left try to outrun Tap It To Win to the one and only turn five furlongs up the backstretch?

“Fore Left has a lot of gate speed,” his trainer Doug O’Neill said in a text message Friday. “He has a great post, too. The plan will be to break well and be forwardly placed."

But how forward? Will jockey José Ortiz force him out of post 6 and into such a torrid speed duel with Tap It To Win that the race will melt down to deep closers like Sole Volante and Farmington Road? Or will the pace be moderate enough to give hope to pouncing horses like Dr Post, Pneumatic and Modernist?

“If Tap It To Win goes to the lead, José will have the option depending on the pace,” O’Neill said. “I’m optimistic.”

Getting the whole 1⅛ miles is another matter for Fore Left (45-1 at Circa Sports, 30-1 at William Hill, 30-1 on the morning line). He won at a mile in the UAE 2,000 Guineas in his last start four months ago. But on this side of the Atlantic, he has raced twice at a mile or more – once on dirt, once on turf – and lost by a combined 37 lengths.

Provided he gets out of the gate cleanly from his rail draw, Tap It To Win (5.75-1, 5-1, 6-1) is the more legitimate threat to deliver an upset from out front. He used that style just 15 days ago at Belmont Park, winning an 8½-furlong allowance race out of the same backstretch chute that will be used Saturday.

Tap It To Win’s trainer Mark Casse knows the drill when it comes to pre-race chatter about having the horse with the most early speed. In a conference call with racing media Monday, he playfully parroted a reporter who asked him about the game plan he will have for Hall of Fame jockey John Velázquez.

“We’re going to say, ‘If you come with us, you’re in trouble, and if you don’t you’re also in trouble,’” Casse said. “According to Johnny he was strong on the gallop-out (in the last race). He’s shown that he likes Belmont, and I like our position.”

Even with Casse’s hedge and O’Neill’s declaration, this may be about more than who has the fastest horse to the turn. Maggie Wolfendale Morley is not only a TV analyst for Fox Sports and the New York Racing Association. She is also a seasoned rider who for years has had the ear of a jockey colony. And vice versa. What she hears – and sees – are young jockeys who look up to Velázquez.

“I’m going to be more surprised if somebody goes out there and pressures (Tap It To Win),” she said. “José can be aggressive, but not when it necessarily comes to Johnny. I’ve seen it way too many times and watched too many races here in New York that Johnny Velázquez goes, and they all look at him and say, ‘OK, Johnny. I’m not going to go with you.’”

But Wolfendale Morley was not automatically conceding a loose lead to Tap It To Win. Nor was she suggesting at all that Tiz The Law will be compromised by the politics of pace.

“It’s not going to put Tiz The Law at that much of a disadvantage, because he is a horse that has natural speed,” she said. “It’s tougher than picking a winner to try to sort out a pace scenario.”’

Futures bettors generally continue to be bullish on Tiz The Law. He shortened from an even-money opener to 5-6 in at William Hill Nevada. Despite some buyback he drifted only from 20-27 to 4-5 at Circa Sports. In a prediction of this weekend’s pari-mutuel betting, he was established at a seemingly unrealistic 6-5 on the Belmont Park morning line.

Odds also favor a dry Saturday on Long Island, but it is not a sure thing. The National Weather Service forecast a 40 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms after noon. The Belmont is scheduled to start at 5:42 p.m. EDT.

Racing notes and opinions

Still looking for his first Royal Ascot victory since 2018, 10-time-winning trainer Wesley Ward has five more of his American entries yet to race before the current meet ends Saturday. Today he had Flying Aletha (8-1) set to go in the six-furlong Group 3 Albany Stakes for 2-year-old fillies at 8:50 a.m. EDT, Golden Pal (17-2) in the five-furlong Group 2 Norfolk Stakes for 2-year-olds at 9:25 a.m., and Kimari (7-1) in the six-furlong Group 1 Commonwealth Cup for 3-year-olds at 10:35 a.m. On Saturday at 8:15 a.m. he has a couple 2-year-old fillies – Campanelle (5-1) and Royal Approval (18-1) – in the Group 2 Queen Mary. Also representing the U.S., Graham Motion sends 2019 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Sharing (13-2) into the nearly two-mile Group 1 Coronation for 3-year-olds. Being run without fans or the usual pomp and pagentry, this Royal Ascot is the first in 74 years without Queen Elizabeth II in attendance. The last time she was not there was when she was Princess Elizabeth.

Add Royal Ascot: Any racing fan who did not see 6-year-old Stradivarius win his third consecutive Group 1 Gold Cup on Thursday needs to find four minutes – actually 4:32.60 – to check it out. In one of the world’s last true stayers races, he won the 2½-mile endurance test by 10 lengths. John Gosden trained. Frankie Dettori rode. Frankie Dettori leapt from the horse in victory. Personal note: During the race I was actually on the air with Gill Alexander and South Point’s Chris Andrews on “A Numbers Game” on VSiN. Well, sort of. Most of the race happened during a commercial break. As we were in three different Las Vegas locations I was watching on my phone and relaying the details. One is a horseplayer down to his toes. The other is Gill Alexander, who was taken aback by how much we were into a race that one of us could see and the other could not. You gotta love this sport.

A false alarm rang out Wednesday from Chicagoland. That is where track management leaked word that it had a tentative agreement with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association to start racing this summer at Arlington Park. The key points in the two-year deal: Only 30 dates with overnight races. No spectators. No stakes this year. No Arlington Million until next year. The season would run July 23-Sept. 6. But when it came to finalizing the deal Thursday with the Illinois Racing Board, it blew up. One report said that there were still money issues to work out. Another meeting was scheduled for Friday. Arlington Park is teetering on the brink of permanent closure after its owner, Churchill Downs Inc., would not commit to racing there beyond 2021.

Not only will it be without fans. But for the first time in 36 years the Del Mar racing summer will not have Trevor Denman at the microphone. At least temporarily. Former NYRA announcer Larry Collmus, who calls major races for NBC TV, will step in after Denman decided not to travel from his Minnesota home while the coronavirus was still on the boil. For now Denman still plans to be at Del Mar for the fall season Oct. 31-Nov. 29. The summer meet starts July 10 and will run mostly Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through a closing day on Labor Day. A substitute for Collmus will be required in early September, when he will be at Churchill Downs to call the Kentucky Derby on NBC.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted at VSiN.com every day through Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. You may also hear two current episodes of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. The handicappers pop-up features South Point’s Chris Andrews, DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello, Rampart’s Duane Colucci and VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo analyzing every horse in the Belmont. The regular Friday episode includes Tiz The Law’s jockey Manny Franco, Fox Sports and the New York Racing Association’s Maggie Wolfendale Morley and XBTV’s Jeff Siegel. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

Tiz_The_Law_paddock_NYRA_TV
Led by assistant trainer Robin Smullen and barn foreman Juan Barajas Saldana, Tiz The Law went through paddock schooling at Belmont Park on Thursday in preparation for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. (NYRA TV screen shot)
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