No Weyburn. No Midnight Bourbon. Who in the world is supposed to be leading the pack next week early in the Belmont Stakes?
If pace makes the race, this race is a long way from being charted. Click Google Maps for directions around the 1½ miles at Belmont Park, and it should say, “Can’t find a way there.”
Essential Quality may be the early 3-1 betting favorite in global markets, and he will not be far from that in post-time pari-mutuels. But making a Belmont wager right now without knowing who will show the way is like going to the refrigerator and not knowing what to eat.
Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World could be that horse. He was supposed to be 3½ weeks ago. That was before he and Joel Rosario found themselves in an exhibition of full-contact martial arts with Essential Quality coming out of the gate in the Kentucky Derby. In only his second dirt race, and in his first time getting dirt kicked in his face, he beat only two of the other 18 starters.
Essential Quality has never been one to try to seize the lead, even with the ever-aggressive Luis Saez riding him. Like the rest of the horses being considered for the Belmont, he has been more comfortable letting others guide the pack.
Still without an assigned jockey, Japanese shipper France Go de Ina might be a candidate to be the horse the others try to catch. Aside from an eyebrow-raising challenge on the backstretch, talk that he would do that at the Preakness went virtually unrequited on his way to a seventh-place finish. Of course, that was supposedly just a prep race for his team to prepare for the Belmont. Let that mystery continue to unfold.
Conventional wisdom says if there is no obvious pacesetter, there will be no pace. That, however, is historically untrue. In the last 10 runnings of a 12-furlong Belmont, the field was led by a surprising speed horse three times.
2013: Frac Daddy went completely against form and set early fractions of 23.11 and 46.66 seconds. That was a surprise. His fade began with a mile to go. That was no surprise. Then Preakness winner Oxbow inherited the lead for a glimmer. That was before he was passed on the outside by Palace Malice, who went on to win in what is still the slowest time (2:30.70) on a fast Belmont Park track in the last decade.
2014: A 4-5 favorite to end what was then a 37-year Triple Crown drought, California Chrome was stepped on at the start by 40-1 long shot Matterhorn. So much for his showing the way. Never before on the lead at any mid-race call in his six previous starts, Commissioner found himself in front. Despite tepid fractions of 24.06, 48.52, 1:12.84, 1:37.13 and 2:02.43, Chrome could not fight back. Instead, Peter Pan winner Tonalist wore down Commissioner and prevailed in the end by a neck.
2017: Drawn into Post 9, Meantime found himself chasing the pace for only the second time in his five starts. Not completely averse to being on the lead, Holy Bull winner Irish War Cry was out front for most of the race. After a 23.88 opening quarter, Rajiv Maragh tapped the brakes and was loose on the lead with times of 48.66, 1:14.01, 1:35.95 and 2:04.10. Never more than two lengths off the pace, Tapwrit found the lead with Jose Ortiz guiding him through an erratic, serpentine finish and a two-length victory.
The only pattern that remained true through these and most other recent runnings of the Belmont has been that the pacesetter has usually held his ground until the very end. Seven of the last 10 horses did not give up the lead until at least the top of the short, 365-yard homestretch. Two of them did not relinquish it at all and led from gate to wire. You might have heard of American Pharoah and Justify.
Neither of those horses is walking through that Belmont Park paddock in 1½ weeks. In fact, with Medina Spirit’s tainted win in the Kentucky Derby and Rombauer’s long-shot breakthrough in the Preakness, whispers about this year’s 3-year-old crop being weak are growing in volume. The only other time in Triple Crown history that all three classics were won by double-digit long shots was 2011, when Animal Kingdom (20-1, Kentucky Derby), Shackleford (12-1, Preakness) and Ruler On Ice (24-1, Belmont) found their way to the winner’s circles. Animal Kingdom and Mucho Macho Man were the best of that crop, especially as older horses, but the class was otherwise thin.
OK, back to this year. If the Belmont field is led onto the backstretch by a horse that has had little if any experience holding the lead, the race sets up for a rival to make a decisive run in the sweeping final turn. It is the old saw about getting first run on the fading pacesetter.
The early read says Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie, a late-moving third in the Derby, and Florida Derby victor Known Agenda, who made up seven places to finish ninth at Churchill Downs, might be prime candidates to make that decisive move.
There is also that lesson about closers not being right to win the Belmont, but that is a conversation for next week, especially since the field is not yet 100% in place.
Who knows? Maybe someone will bring a horse with quantifiably early speed into the field in time for Tuesday’s draw. If nothing else, it will provide a talking point near the end of a Triple Crown season that has hardly been lacking for conversation.
In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. You can also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. National Horseplayers Championship Hall of Fame finalists Sally Goodall, Jim Goodman and David Gutfreund will be part of a roundtable discussion of the Triple Crown season, and clocker Andy Harrington will handicap the holiday stakes weekend at Santa Anita. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST Bet.