Never mind that a Triple Crown is not in play for Saturday’s $1.5 million Belmont Stakes. There may be some serious money just waiting for bettors.
When American Pharoah ended the 38-year Triple Crown drought in 2015, he paid only 75 cents on the dollar. The floors at Belmont Park were not exactly full of worthless tickets – or anyone getting rich.
Gone this weekend are Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Preakness winner Cloud Computing and top-ranked but injured 3-year-old Classic Empire. But while casual sports fans may join them sitting this one out, they are leaving bigger prices to wise and even recreational horseplayers.
In other words, Triple Crown, Schmiple Crown; just show me the bargains. There are plenty of trends that lead directly to long shots winning this weekend in New York.
Favorites seldom win the Belmont.
With a pair of victories early this year that got him Beyer Speed Ratings of more than 100, Irish War Cry is expected to be favored Saturday. Before pari-mutuel wagering opened Friday, he was a 3-1 in fixed-odds wagering at Westgate Las Vegas.
But since 1996 only three favorites have won the Belmont – Point Given (27-20) in 2001, Afleet Alex (23-20) in 2005 and American Pharoah (3-4). In those last 31 years a $2 ticket on the nose of the Belmont winner has been worth an average $31.88.
Irish War Cry’s trainer Graham Motion did not sound eager to be wearing that target. But that was more because a foot abscess cost rival Classic Empire a chance to be the favorite.
“It’s hard to get excited when you know things like that can happen,” Motion said. “That’s a perfect example of what can happen, and it’s just a little thing, but it just throws you out. It’s tough for those guys, but that’s the nature of the beast, and we just happened to benefit from it.”
Motion knows first hand about having a beaten favorite in this race. He brought Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom to the Belmont six years ago only to see him clip heels after a troubled start, finish sixth and wind up with a fracture that sidelined him the rest of the year.
Front-runners rarely finish first.
No one really knows for sure how Belmont horses will fare racing 1½ miles for the first time. This leads to a cautious approach by most trainers that do not want their horses burning themselves out as pacesetters; only two of the last 32 Belmont winners led at every call – Da’ Tara in 2008 and, again, American Pharoah.
New Triple Crown shooter Meantime has been on the lead early in all three of his races over a mile. That is exactly where he was before fading to second in the slop last month at Belmont Park in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes. He was also carrying 10 fewer pounds than he will Saturday.
Asked if Meantime would be on the lead again, trainer Brian Lynch said, “As long as the pace doesn’t get too hot. In our situation, you’d like to get left alone and dictate the terms. Hopefully they see us as a long shot and that we’re going to come back to them. The longer they leave us alone the bigger chance we have.”
Japanese import Epicharis is also a horse that tends to be sent to the lead, which is where he was before finishing second in his last race – the UAE Derby more than two months ago in Dubai. But his status was put in doubt Wednesday when a veterinarian’s report revealed that he had been treated for a potentially lame foot.
“He looked a little different favoring his right-front Wednesday afternoon,” trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara said through an interpreter Thursday. “We treated his hoof and gave him ‘bute’ (a legal anti-inflammatory drug). It looks like it is getting better, and I think there is no problem with him running in the race. We still have time so we will give him the best care we can.”
Deep closers are usually too late.
Aside from the 12 furlongs, the Belmont also has a sudden finish. Although the Long Island track has the biggest layout of the three Triple Crown racecourses, it has the shortest homestretch – only 375 yards. It discourages deep closers. Since the course was changed to its current configuration in 1926, only five winners have come from more than two lengths off the lead at the top of the stretch – most recently Summer Bird in 2009.
Lookin At Lee, the Kentucky Derby runner-up and fourth-place Preakness finisher, is a stone-cold closer. So are two other horses that were in the Preakness – third-place Senior Investment and sixth-place Multiplier – as is the seemingly outclassed Hollywood Handsome.
“He’ll be hopefully placed in the middle, not too far back,” Hollywood Handsome’s trainer Dallas Stewart said. “I think the horse can handle the endurance of the race, so we’ll see.”
Don’t ignore the dosage index.
Since Belmont horses have no track record at 1½ miles, bloodlines are often used to try and forecast success at the longer distance. That is where the dosage index comes in.
The formula developed in 1981 examines a horse’s breeding going back four generations. Higher numbers are assigned to ancestors’ success in sprints; lower numbers to those that stayed greater distances. In theory, then, the lower the dosage index, the more likely a horse is to handle the 10 furlongs of the Belmont. Since 2004 American Pharoah was the only winner with a dosage number higher than 3.00.
This trend would appear to eliminate five Belmont horses – Lookin At Lee (3.40), Multiplier (3.67), J Boys Echo (4.09), Hollywood Handsome (5.67) and, most curiously, the front-running Meantime (7.00).
Losing in Kentucky may be good.
Half the horses in the Belmont field were Kentucky Derby losers, including Lookin at Lee, the only one that may wind up starting in all three Triple Crown races.
Since 2000 eight Belmont winners not only lost the Derby but then skipped the Preakness before finding the winner’s circle at Belmont Park. It happened just last year when Creator followed up his 13th-place finish at Churchill Downs with his victory by a nose over Destin, which was sixth in the Derby.
Kentucky Derby also-rans Tapwrit (sixth), Gormley (ninth), Irish War Cry (10th), Patch (14th) and J Boys Echo (15th) all come into the Belmont with five weeks off since the Derby.
Track experience may be overrated.
It used to be de rigueur to have raced at least once on the sandy dirt at Belmont Park to get even a whiff of consideration from bettors for this race. Of the 21 winners from 1976 to 1996, 19 of them had a prior race on the same track.
But like five-man pitching rotations, once-a-month racing took changed everything. Since 1997 only 11 of the 20 Belmont winners had raced over the course beforehand.
Aside from Meantime’s runner-up effort in the Peter Pan last month, Twisted Tom is the only other Belmont Stakes horses with Belmont Park experience – and that was actually on the turf where he broke his maiden last September.
Even jockeys who had never before won the Belmont are finding recent success. Four winners since 2005 had riders who were rookies in the race, most recently José Valdivia six years ago aboard Ruler On Ice. This year Channing Hill on Senior Investment and Christophe Lemaire on Epicharis will be in their first Belmont Stakes.
Gormley’s rider Víctor Espinoza rode four Belmont losers, including two favorites that were trying for Triple Crowns, before he finally broke through two years ago with American Pharoah. He said it is too easy to overanalyze the longer distance.
“Don’t just think about it as a mile-and-a-half, because you’re trying to do too much,” Espinoza said. “You’re saving so much early that the horses are going to fall asleep. You can’t really take them out of the game early, because they will shut down, and it will be hard for them to come back. I think riding a mile-and-a-half is just the same like basically a mile-and-an-eighth.”
Just leave it to the jockeys.
Espinoza’s assessment is not be steeped in analytics, but it may be the most popular. One trainer found that it has stood the test of time with a Hall of Fame jockey who rode in 21 Belmont Stakes and won in 1976 on Bold Forbes.
“I read recently Ángel Cordero said it’s a rider’s race and you’ve got to be patient even in those big turns,” said Senior Investment’s trainer Kenny McPeek, who won the 2002 Belmont with 70-1 long shot Sarava. “This thing is wide open, though. Everybody is in there thinking they’ve got a chance, and I think it’s going to be interesting to see how it unfolds.”