There is nothing more hoary than truisms about Triple Crown races. Except, perhaps, the word “hoary.”
As weather-worn as the phrase “Test of the Champion” are certain beliefs and angles about the Belmont Stakes. Blame it on its increasingly rare 1½-mile distance and the fact that most, if not all, the horses that finish those 12 furlongs for the first time will never be asked to do it again.
It really ought to be called the Test of the Horseplayer, especially with such a small sample size of past performances from modern-day 3-year-olds.
This week handicapping was complicated by Irad Ortiz Jr.’s fall during a maiden race Thursday at Belmont Park. Thankfully, he will be all right, but a wrist injury means he will miss his ride on Known Agenda in Saturday’s Belmont.
That new wrinkle on an old race adds to the list of factors that everyone from serious players to $2 players will take into account between now and Saturday at 6:49 p.m. EDT, when the Belmont will be run on what the National Weather Service predicts will be a dry track.
Some adages have been around for a long time – and have stood the test of it. Others are as vexing as that old story of Doug Williams being asked by Butch John at Super Bowl XXII how long he had been a black quarterback. They linger with a life of their own, even though they are patently false.
At the risk of plagiarizing myself, I have dusted off a two-year-old evaluation of these truisms, updated them and even tweaked them with new research. Oh, yes. In most cases I have ignored last year’s 1⅛-mile, pre-vaccination race, which was the Belmont Stakes in name only.
Fade Preakness starters. Historically speaking, the three-week turnaround from the Preakness to the Belmont is tougher than the two-week break between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Since Afleet Alex’s victory in 2005, the only horses to start the Preakness and win the Belmont were American Pharoah and Justify. This does not bode well for Rombauer and France Go De Ina, who were first and seventh nearly three weeks ago at Pimlico.
Give them a break. Take the last six normally scheduled Triple Crown years – 2014-19. Of the 18 horses that hit the board in the Belmont, 15 had at least 27 days between races, and 10 of them were last seen in the Derby. The only ones that showed up for the Preakness were Pharoah in 2015, third-place Lani in 2016 and Justify in 2018. Rombauer is the only Belmont starter wheeling back less than four weeks since his last start.
Belmont experience. Here is one of those truths that became a truism. Between 1976 and 1996, 19 of the 21 winners had raced at least once before at Belmont Park. That angle has been hit and miss since. Sir Winston in 2019 and Tiz The Law last year had prior experience at “Big Sandy.” But that makes only 14 of the last 25. Yes, 56 percent is meaningful, but it is hardly the 90 percent lock that it used to be. If it still means anything, only the Todd Pletcher trio of Known Agenda, Bourbonic and Overtook can flex their home-track advantage.
Frontrunners fade. Of the last 36 Belmont winners, only three led at every call. The Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify were two of them. So was Da’ Tara, who capitalized on Big Brown being a virtual no-show in 2008. (Find me in a bar to offer the salacious, unconfirmed story of what really happened that day, and keep your phone recorder turned off.) That does not bode well for Rock Your World, the likely pacesetter Saturday.
Closers don’t close the deal. After Da’ Tara’s upset, his trainer Nick Zito said the easiest way to win the Belmont is to lead the whole way. History says the hardest way is to be a deep closer. It is staggering to think that since the current layout of Belmont Park was established in 1926, only 5 of 90 winners were more than two lengths behind at the top of the stretch. Summer Bird successfully closed from three lengths back in 2009, and no one has done it since. Rombauer, Known Agenda, Bourbonic and Overtook will be out to overcome that – or at least be closer to the lead before coming out of the second turn.
Oh, let me interrupt what has obviously turned into a list to say there was not any knowingly bad math in that last paragraph. How is it there are only 90 Belmont Stakes in that sample since 1926? That is because five of them were moved to Aqueduct between 1963 and 1967 while construction crews took their dear, old time rebuilding the grandstand at Belmont Park.
Now, where was I?
Tapit brews success. What do Tonalist, Creator and Tapwrit have in common other than finishing first in the Belmont? They were all sired by Tapit, who is thus responsible for three of the last six winners of the 1½-mile version of the race. The other Tapits that hit the board between 2014 and 2019 were Frosted, second to American Pharoah in 2015; Hofburg, third to Justify in 2018; and Tacitus, second to Sir Winston in 2019. Essential Quality is favored to maintain the tradition of that pedigree Saturday.
A dosage massage. I wrote about the dosage index here last month, and I since got a good lesson from racing analyst Bruno De Julio (he pays me to produce his podcasts) that called for a second look. For the uninitiated, the dosage index is a number that reflects how a horse’s bloodlines might inform its speed and stamina. The condensed form of the dosage index says that all but one winner of the Belmont since 2004 – American Pharoah – had a figure of 3.00 or less. This year that would appear to rule out Overtook (3.29) and France Go De Ina (7.00). But De Julio points out that too often the dosage index has incomplete data for horses and their antecedents when they are bred outside North America. American Pharoah was one such case; his great-great grandsire Lord At War was foaled in Argentina. Based on the fuller evaluation of the Belmont starters’ bloodlines, Essential Quality, Rock Your World and Known Agenda have the most encouraging dosage profiles.
No value in favorites. For some that is an obvious statement. For anyone betting the Belmont favorite since 1996, it has been especially true. Point Given, Afleet Alex, American Pharoah and Justify were the only ones to come through in those 24 runnings at 12 furlongs. All but Afleet Alex were trained by the now-suspended Bob Baffert, who actually has not had a Belmont starter since Justify and Restoring Hope in 2018. Yes, favored Tiz The Law won last year, but again, 1⅛ miles were not so much of a mystery for bettors. Take heed, then, betting Essential Quality for this 1½-mile renewal.
Distill everything presented here, and every horse is eliminated, although there is a fine line for one of the starters. Known Agenda does not have to close from out of the clouds, and he fits the other angles. The only question Thursday night was who would replace Ortiz and hopefully ride him closer to the lead before the field turns into the short, 366-yard homestretch?
Since Pletcher is never lacking for a good jockey (it is Thursday night when I write Javier Castellano is available), I will continue to key Known Agenda on my tickets with Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie and my long-shot play being the $1 million colt Overtook. With only eight starters, a bunch of superfecta bets seem silly, so I will isolate on win-place-show, exacta and trifecta plays. If I had to squeeze the budget, I would eliminate Hot Rod Charlie.
Despite all the dramatic distractions of Baffertgate, this Triple Crown could be historic in one other sense that should be catnip to value players. In the more than one century of pari-mutuel betting on the American classics, there have been only six years when all the winners carried odds of at least 5-1. They all happened since 1996, including three times since 2011.
The Kentucky Derby’s temporary winner Medina Spirit was 12-1. Rombauer paid off at 11-1 in the Preakness. Known Agenda is 6-1 on the morning line for the Belmont.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. It is posted more frequently during coverage of big races like the Belmont Stakes. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. The Belmont means there are two episodes this week. One is a pop-up with Las Vegas bookmakers and horseplayers Chris Andrews, Johnny Avello, Duane Colucci and Vinny Magliulo analyzing all eight horses in Saturday’s race. The regular episode from Belmont Park features Fox Sports and New York Racing Association TV analyst Maggie Wolfendale Morley and trainers Doug O’Neill, John Sadler and Hideyuki Mori. Every episode of the RFRP is available via free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.