Elmont, New York
It becomes a process of elimination, doesn’t it? It is less about what horse will win Saturday’s Belmont Stakes as which ones will not.
Even in a year when the Kentucky Derby winner(s) will not be seen again until the summer, it is entirely possible to use 10 recent and longer lasting trends and practices to boil down the betting possibilities.
1. Avoid Preakness horses. So much is made of the two-week turnaround between the Derby and the Preakness. But the three weeks between the Preakness and the 1½ miles of the Belmont are arguably just as taxing – maybe statistically more so. In the last 13 years, the only two Belmont winners that also raced in the Preakness were Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify. (Stand by to see those two names – a lot.) If you buy fully into this, you buy into eliminating War Of Will, Everfast and Bourbon War.
2. Rest matters. In the past five years, 12 of the 15 horses that finished in the money in the Belmont came in with at least four weeks’ rest. Nine of the 12 had raced in the Derby. The only ones that raced in both the Derby and Preakness included Lani – third in 2016 – and of course Pharoah and Justify. If Derby horses that did not race in the Preakness have an edge, then the lean this weekend goes to Tacitus, Master Fencer, Tax and Spinoff. The non-Derby horses coming in off four weeks’ rest are Sir Winston, Intrepid Heart and Joevia.
3. “Big Sandy” experience counts. That used to be a virtual lock with 19 of 21 winners from 1976 to 1996 having raced at Belmont Park beforehand. But as horses race less frequently, only 11 of the last 22 winners had previous experience on the track. Still that is an impressive 50 percent. This year Sir Winston and Intrepid Heart come in having seen the track, finishing second and third last month in the Peter Pan.
4. Whither the Peter Pan syndrome. Locked in now to the week after the Derby, the Peter Pan Stakes is the traditional prep for the Belmont. But since 1987 the only two horses to win both races were A.P. Indy in 1992 and Tonalist in 2014. The problem with the Peter Pan is that it is a one-turn mile, and the horses carry 10 fewer pounds than they do going the extra half-mile in the Belmont. There will not be a Peter Pan-Belmont double this year, because last month’s winner Global Campaign is not racing Saturday.
5. Wire to wire? Fuggedaboudit. Only three of the last 34 winners of the Belmont led at every call. They included Da’ Tara the year Big Brown stopped in 2008 and – yep – American Pharoah and Justify. This time there is no obvious candidate to assume the early lead. And there is certainly no Pharoah or Justify.
6. It is even tougher for late closers. Since the current course layout was established at Belmont Park in 1926, only five of the 88 winners were more than two lengths behind at the top of the short, 366-yard stretch – and none since Summer Bird in 2009. This trend will not be kind to closers Bourbon War, Master Fencer and Tacitus. (Mathniks note: Yes, there have been 93 runnings of the Belmont since 1926, but five were moved to Aqueduct from 1963 to 1967 while the Belmont Park grandstand was rebuilt.)
7. Improve now, stay later. This applies to more races than just the Belmont. Horses that make up ground late in their previous starts are generally demonstrating an ability to stay longer distances. Those that do not may have reached their distance limit. Past performances show that Spinoff and Tax failed to make gains in the stretch in either of their two most recent starts.
8. Who’s your daddy? Look at the sire line of the last five Belmont winners. Tapit has been there for three of them – Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016) and Tapwrit (2017). Again, Pharoah and Justify were the exceptions, and Tapit progeny still hit the board behind them; Frosted finished second to Pharoah, Hofburg third to Justify. Tapit’s boys this year include Bourbon War, Tacitus and Intrepid Heart.
9. Remember the dosage index? American Pharoah seemed to destroy this examination of breeding as it relates to speed and stamina. A lower number shows that a horse is bred to stay longer distances. At 4.33, Pharoah was the first Belmont winner since 2004 to carry a dosage figure higher than 3.00. But he remains the lone exception to that rule in the past 15 years. Everfast (5.86), Joevia (3.80) and Tacitus (3.31) would be out to buck that trend, too. But in a time when breeding tends more toward sprints and middle distances, the dosage index for many handicappers has gone the way of the horse’s buggy.
10. Chalk does not pay. Point Given, Afleet Alex, American Pharoah and Justify were the only four post-time favorites since 1996 to win the Belmont. Two were Triple Crown winners, and all but Afleet Alex were trained by Bob Baffert, who is conspicuous by his absence from this year’s race. Morning-line favorite Tacitus may be hard done by this trend.
This whole process knocks out War Of Will, Everfast and Master Fencer and throws shade on Tacitus, Joevia, Tax, Spinoff and Bourbon War. Still standing tallest are Intrepid Heart and Sir Winston, two pace-chasing horses that are much more manageable to consider.
Sir Winston took a wide trip to finish second this month in the Peter Pan, but his only two wins came on all-weather tracks. After winning his first two races, Intrepid Heart was favored but finished a distant third in the Peter Pan after a poor start. This weekend he gets blinkers from three-time Belmont winner Todd Pletcher, who trained Palace Malice to a Belmont victory after taking his blinkers off.
Bought for $750,000 at the April 2018 Ocala Breeders’ Sale by Robert and Lawana Low, Intrepid Heart puts together the analytical pieces. He carries value with morning-line odds of 10-1. His lack of graded-stakes experience notwithstanding, he is a Tapit. He is out of a broodmare that produced 2014 Belmont runner-up Commissioner. He fits into a chasing role in the pace scenario.
In short, Intrepid Heart is the across-the-board play here.
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.