Elmont, New York
Forgive the serious horseplayer for looking somewhat askance Saturday at the Belmont Stakes.
Nothing against a Triple Crown classic that is without Triple Crown drama. But there is a much better race on the card – one that may stand the test of another half-year’s worth of time to be judged the best of 2019.
How deep is Saturday’s $1.2 million Grade 1 Met Mile? Consider that there is a 20-1 morning-line long shot with a Grade 1 victory to his name.
The nine horses that meet at 4:46 p.m. EDT – two hours before the Belmont – have rolled up nearly $12 million in purse earnings highlighted by wins in 26 graded stakes. Yes, 26.
It is easy to identify what is right with all these horses. But how about what is wrong?
The morning-line favorite McKinzie (5-2) shipped in from California for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who does not have a Belmont Stakes horse to follow Justify’s Triple Crown act of 2018. With Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith riding, this is his big play this weekend here at Belmont Park.
“He has a lot of speed,” Baffert said. “We’ll try to utilize that here.”
McKinzie is only 5-for-7 in his Grade 1 races. On most days that would not be much of a criticism. But in this race there is little room for error. There was also his 12th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Not that that should create questions about his ability to ship and win. Those should have been answered emphatically with his 4¼-length win last month in the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Oaks day.
“He’s proven he travels well, and we know it’s a tough field,” Baffert said. “I’m glad we have Mike in our corner. He pretty much has free rein. He knows the horse well, and he always loves traveling back to ride in New York.”
For this race McKinzie cuts back from 8½ furlongs to the one-turn mile.
McKinzie is likely to be part of a crowded group that will be closer to the early lead than the back of the pack. That lead could be held by Mitole (3-1), Steve Asmussen’s sprinter that has won six in a row, including last month’s seven-furlong Churchill Downs Stakes. With his usual rider Ricardo Santana aboard, this will be the first Grade 1 try and the first attempt at a mile for this 4-year-old sired by Eskendereya. Not that the distance should be that big a concern. Mitole has been gaining ground at the end of his last six races.
Firenze Fire (4-1) also figures to be on or near the lead early, but he would be comfortable settling into mid-pack before making a final push. He is also comfortable just racing here at Belmont Park, where he has never lost in three starts, most recently last month’s Runhappy Stakes at six furlongs. The big question for him is whether he will get the mile this time for trainer Jason Servis and jockey Írad Ortiz Jr. He is 3-for-5 at the distance, but he missed the board in last year’s Withers and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
“Obviously he loves six furlongs,” owner Ron Lombardi said after the Runhappy. “But I don’t think a mile would have bothered him. He’s a durable horse that rebounds well.”
Sharing top weight with McKinzie at 124 pounds each, Thunder Snow (5-1) has come a long way since his bucking-bronco act rendered him a virtual non-starter two years ago in the Kentucky Derby. He has won the last two Dubai World Cups on the same track where he won the 2017 UAE Derby. With $16 million in earnings – mostly from Meydan – he has made his mark as a stalker. But not in America, where he is 0-for-3 with a best finish of second here in last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup.
“He’s ready to race,” trainer Saeed bin Suroor told a media manager in Dubai. “There are really no other races for him to get him started in America, and he will have an American campaign. He can win. He won at seven furlongs and a mile before in Group 1s in France and on the dirt at Meydan.”
Like Thunder Snow, the Todd Pletcher trainee Coal Front (6-1) makes his first start since a Middle East victory – in his case the Group 2 Godolphin Mile. The 5-year-old ridgling sired by Stay Thirsty has pressed the early pace to win three in a row, including a pair of Grade 3s during the winter at Gulfstream Park and Oaklawn Park. His only previous Grade 1 start saw him finish fifth in a Grade 1 stakes last summer at Saratoga. José Ortiz gets the ride as he had for the first time at Meydan.
The rest of the field includes the versatile Promises Fulfilled (12-1), a 4-year-old that will show early speed; Prince Lucky (12-1), the former Larry Jones gelding that has won a pair of graded stakes stalking for Pletcher; mid-pack running Pavel (20-1), winless since last June’s Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs; and Barclay Tagg’s 5-year-old Tale Of Silence (30-1), runner-up to Prince Lucky 2½ months ago in the Gulfstream Park Mile.
This race has all the earmarks of a speed contest that figures to burn out the frontrunners. At least that is the hope here with my money going to Firenze Fire and Pavel in exactas and trifectas. And hopefully not in that order.
After the Met Mile, the Belmont could seem anticlimactic – at least to the most hardened horseplayers. Unless, of course, there is more money to be made in that one.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod at VSiN.com/podcasts. The handicappers’ pop-up preview of the Belmont Stakes features Vinny Magliulo, Patrick McQuiggan, Dave Tuley and Johnny Avello. Friday’s regular episode includes XBTV’s Zoe Cadman, who offers analysis on every Belmont horse, and Belmont trainers Mark Hennig (Bourbon War) and Greg Sacco (Joevia). Also available at Apple, Google, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts, the Ron Flatter Racing Pod is sponsored by Xpressbet.