Futures bettors have already made a statement about next Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, turning what should be a wide-open race into a two-horse underlay.
Like it or not, Tacitus and War Of Will are going to gobble up a big chunk of the handle for what will be an anticlimactic finish to the 2019 Triple Crown at Belmont Park, New York.
The best price to be found off shore or overseas for would-be favorite Tacitus is 7-4 at Bovada. As handicapper Dick Downey from The Downey Profile said on my podcast this week, “He’s not even in the starting gate. You’re getting terrible odds.”
It is not much better with Preakness winner War Of Will, best-priced at 5-2 at Bovada and in Europe at Sky Bet and Unibet.
Don’t expect the situation to get much better when everyone dives into the pari-mutuel pool next weekend. While it is true that bookmakers’ prices are influenced by exposure that is not a factor at the track, they are often better bellwethers than the morning line.
History certainly works against whichever one is the top choice. Only four post-time favorites since 1996 have won the Belmont. Three were trained by Bob Baffert, who does not have a horse in the race. And two – American Pharoah and Justify – won the Triple Crown.
This year? Not only are there no super horses in the field, but most are still eligible for races that exclude winners of more than one other than a maiden. The “Test of the Champion” has turned into the “Test of the N1X.”
Granted, Tacitus and War Of Will each won a pair of graded stakes before they splashed through the Kentucky Derby, so on paper they are worthy of attracting most of the money. Out of 25 other starts in graded stakes, the rest of the expected Belmont field has accounted for only one win. That was by Tax in the Grade 3 Withers. Overseas he is as long as 20-1 to win next weekend.
“I think the distance will fit him fine,” Tax’s trainer Danny Gargan told VSiN. “I don’t know if he really wants to go a mile-and-a-half. But if they leave him loose out there by himself loafing on the front end, they might not catch him.”
Therein lies the rub of this year’s race. There is no obvious pacesetter – and no obvious pace. On form alone, 33-1 Joevia might be the horse that goes to the early lead. But that is presuming that he actually comes into the race for trainer Greg Sacco, who said he would not make that call before a breeze on Saturday.
“He’ll have one more work,” Sacco said this week. “He’s not definite, but we’ll talk it over with the owners and make a decision.”
The last time Joevia was seen racing in New York, he was a troublemaker. He veered in hard from his outside post at the start of the Wood Memorial, crowding a bunch of rivals. The Equibase chart writer said that he was “heck-bent on a mission for the front end.” Stewards eventually demoted him from seventh to last.
In a less crowded race this month, Joevia defeated three rivals – one of which lost his rider – to win on a wet track in the Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth Park, New Jersey.
“It was nice to get him back into the win column after the sort of disaster he caused in the Wood,” Sacco said. “We know he’s a better colt than that. He’s still learning and improving with each start.”
That’s right. With no horse to scare off the pretenders, the Belmont may be semi-filled with horses that are “still learning and improving.” Well, they are 3-year-olds.
Form players will then be looking at the past performances to see signs of improvement late in the Belmont entrants’ last starts. That would indicate an ability to keep going as these horses face the longest race of their careers. The most impressive finisher in his last race was the Japanese import Master Fencer. He made up six lengths going from 12th at the top of the stretch to cross under the wire seventh in the Kentucky Derby.
“He has a big heart and big lungs and is better suited to the longer distance,” said Yosuke Kono, Master Fencer’s exercise rider. “He is not the type to make crazy speed. He has a long, strong, late kick. For him the mile-and-a-half will be a lot better.”
But Master Fencer’s five-furlong breeze Wednesday at Belmont Park ended with an abrupt stop after he stumbled. In a collective sigh of relief, his traveling connections said Thursday that they were satisfied with a veterinarian’s conclusion that Master Fencer would be fine for next Saturday’s race.
So think about it. Horseplayers fishing for value are faced with horses that have never won at this level, one that has but whose trainer hedged his words about the race’s distance, a pacesetter that made like Maximum Security in his last New York appearance and a Japanese import that stumbled in his last breeze.
Thank goodness we have another eight days to sort all this out.
Racing notes and opinions
The Belmont Stakes is not the only attraction on next week’s New York cards. Far from it. There are 13 graded stakes on Friday and Saturday at Belmont Park, and the best of them promises to be next Saturday’s $1.25 million Grade 1 Met Mile around one turn on the main track. On a six-race winning streak, Mitole (3-1 in Europe via Oddschecker) could be the favorite coming off his seven-furlong win on Kentucky Derby day in the Grade 1 Churchill Downs. But this will be his first time going a mile. Trained by Bob Baffert, McKinzie (10-3) drew away to win the Grade 2 Alysheba over 8½ furlongs on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. Firenze Fire (11-2) is 3-for-3 at Belmont Park, including this month’s Runhappy sprint stakes. Two-time Dubai World Cup winner Thunder Snow (7-1) and Godolphin Mile victor Coal Front (7-1) make their first starts since their triumphs in the Middle East. Promises Fulfilled (16-1) and Pavel (33-1) fill out the field, and all they have done is win Grade 1s. This is one case in which the appetizer should be more satisfying than the main course.
Grade 3 winner A Thread Of Blue (5-2) is the morning-line favorite to win this weekend’s $500,000 Grade 2 Penn Mile for 3-year-olds racing on the Penn National turf near Harrisburg. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin and ridden by Luís Sáez, this colt sired by Hard Spun will not surprisingly try to lead the entire race. Grade 3 victor Forty Under (7-2) and juvenile stakes winner Empire Of War (9-2) will chase the pace. Sprint graduate Real News (5-1) figures to challenge A Thread Of Blue for the early lead. Rail starter Moon Colony (12-1), Mark Casse’s mid-pack colt, was hung out wide finishing fifth in the Kitten’s Joy at Gulfstream Park. That was four months ago, and the layoff will turn off some players. But he fired bullets in his last three workouts, and he has $400,000 worth of owner John Oxley’s faith. With warm, dry weather and a firm track in the forecast, Moon Colony is my across-the-board play for the Penn Mile, posted for Saturday at 7:50 p.m. EDT.
With a 2-for-2 record and an average victory of 5½ lengths, Sir Dragonet (3-1) is the favorite to win Saturday in the 240th running of the $1.89 million Group 1 Epsom Derby, a 1½-mile turf classic that is England’s richest race. Chosen by Europe’s best jockey Ryan Moore to be his ride, Sir Dragonet drew the widest post and is one of seven Aidan O’Brien-trained colts in the field of 13. After an up-and-down 2-year-old season, Broome (9-2) is 2-for-2 this year for O’Brien. Telecaster (11-2) is two weeks removed from a Group 2 win at York and is the most backed of the non-Coolmore horses. Bettors are following Moore like he is a pied piper, and that is often wise. But value seekers should look to Bangkok (9-1), an Andrew Balding trainee that has shown an impressive turn of foot late in his two wins this spring. For anyone wanting to a swing at the fences, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Line Of Duty (50-1), a disappointing seventh two weeks ago in his 2019 debut for Godolphin, is worth an each-way bet. On a good-to-firm track, post time for the Epsom Derby is Saturday at 11:30 a.m. EDT.
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, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Trainer Danny Gargan discusses Tax’s chances in the Belmont Stakes. Handicapper Dick Downey examines the field of likely Belmont starters and discusses the state of racing in 2019. Twitter feedback and this week’s commentary include reaction to the controversial racing exposé shown on HBO’s “Real Sports.” The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available at iTunes, Apple, Google and Stitcher.