It always happens with the Belmont Stakes, especially when the Triple Crown is a goner.
Right after the Preakness, there is talk of a full field, of even using the auxiliary gate for the second time ever. Then a couple of defections come before Memorial Day weekend. No problem. There will still be plenty of excitement.
Finally comes the day of the draw, and the race fizzles like the Comet Kohoutek, the astronomical dud of 1973 that was supposed to make us forget about Secretariat. How did that work out?
The Kentucky Derby winner will not be here, whoever it is. Medina Spirit is equina non grata, thanks to the New York Racing Association’s padlock, to which Bob Baffert is not being given the key. Heir apparent Mandaloun is preparing for the little Pegasus next month at Monmouth Park, the better to fit his distance limitations.
The better, too, not to show up Essential Quality. Mandaloun’s stablemate from the Brad Cox barn will be the favorite Saturday in the Belmont. The morning line written by David Aragona of TimeformUS says 2-1. One global bookmaker made him 11-4 after the draw that put Essential Quality into the 2 hole against seven rivals.
That’s right. Seven. There have not been so few horses in the Belmont since American Pharoah scared off all but seven overmatched opponents in 2015. Who is scaring everyone off this year? Maybe it is just the cartoon character carrying the shovel at the quarter pole to smash in the face of anyone or anything daring to go 1½ miles.
Probables and possibles that perhaps were never ever coming included Midnight Bourbon and Keepmeinmind and Promise Keeper and Sainthood. Oh, yes. There was Rebel’s Romance, who won the UAE Derby, thus meaning he had no business here anyway. An infection in a hind leg spoiled that trip from overseas.
That leaves the field of eight — and a wasteland for value hunters. That is unless a horseplayer dares to look at a long shot that is in over his head. Bourbonic (15-1 morning line, 18-1 global) got his 15 minutes of fame down the road, winning the Wood Memorial. Also from the Todd Pletcher stable, Overtook (20-1, 25-1) has a maiden win in five starts. The two of them combine to look like space fillers.
Bless the heart of France Go De Ina (30-1, 28-1), but here he looks like a tourist in Times Square getting sucked into a game of Three-card Monte.
That leaves five horses for which a legitimate case may be made for winning the Belmont.
No. 2 Essential Quality (+ 275 morning line, 3-1 global): He is by Tapit, the sire responsible for three of the last six winners of the 1½-mile Belmont. He also has the perfect style for winning this race. Sit just off the lead, then pounce on the far turn before the quarter pole. Maybe Bruno De Julio, the clocker for whom I do podcast work, was right. Maybe the two hours between waterings of the main track at Churchill Downs kept any horse from closing in the Derby. On another track maybe Essential Quality gets the job done. Maybe a track like “Big Sandy” at Belmont Park.
No. 3 Rombauer (3-1, + 375): Closers do not usually do well at the Belmont, nor do Preakness horses coming back from the three weeks since Baltimore. Oh, yeah. Mentioned that. Being by Twirling Candy out of Cowboy Cal mare might mean that he is bred to go 1½ miles. But the aforementioned De Julio warns there are holes in Rombauer’s pedigree, because his grandsire Candy Ride is from South America, where records are not co-mingled with those from North America. All that makes him feel like an underlay, which can happen with Preakness winners.
No. 4 Hot Rod Charlie (7-2, 4-1): With two Derby and two Preakness wins, trainer Doug O’Neill needs only to take the Belmont to complete his career Triple Crown. There is a case to be made with a talented jockey like Flavien Prat, who leaves Rombauer to reclaim the ride he had finishing third at Churchill Downs. There is also his pace-chasing style. There is that indefatigable question about fatigue, though. Can he get the 1½ miles? That is the big question for the whole field. It seems particularly so in this case.
No. 7 Rock Your World (9-2, + 425): The old dirt-in-the-face rap will not go away for John Sadler’s would-be pacesetter in the Derby. He beat only two horses in Louisville, but getting pinballed at the start left him eating dirt for the first time in a career spent mostly on turf. He is ideally drawn for trainer John Sadler and jockey Joel Rosario. If he leads the whole way, he would join American Pharoah, Justify and Da’ Tara, the 38-1 spoiler of Big Brown’s 2008 party, as the only gate-to-wire winners of the 1½-mile Belmont this century.
No. 6 Known Agenda (6-1, 6-1): As more of a mid-pack horse, he is not the deep closer Rombauer is, so the best of Pletcher’s Belmont trio would seem to have every chance to replicate his Florida Derby victory. The problem is he is in the same field as Essential Quality. Like Rombauer, he may need a torrid pace ahead of him, and in this race that sometimes means simply clicking 12s for the first mile. Being by Curlin out of a Byron mare, he may have the genes to run all day, or at least for 12 furlongs. This is the one that looks, sounds and smells like value.
The weather is supposed to be nice Saturday after a couple rainy days, so the track should be dry for the 153rd running of the race known as the Test of the Champion. If, however, expectations are dashed the way they have been the last couple of weeks, maybe this renewal of the Belmont Stakes will be a sodden one.
Wouldn’t that be an appropriate finish to a Triple Crown season that has been mired in talk of a medication violation and a disqualification that might not arrive until my ashes are in an urn? In short, the spring’s classics really have been all wet.
In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com along with expanded coverage during the Belmont Stakes. This week you can also hear two episodes of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted at VSiN.com/podcasts. A Wednesday pop-up is for hardcore handicappers with Belmont analysis from Las Vegas horseplayer/bookmakers Chris Andrews, Johnny Avello, Duane Colucci and Vinny Magliulo. The regular Friday episode from New York includes Rock Your World’s trainer Doug O’Neill. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST Bet.”