While still waiting for the four major sports to figure out the logistics of returning, we’re excited here at the Tuley’s Takes home office for the start of the Triple Crown with Saturday’s running of the Belmont Stakes. I’m also excited about Father’s Day on Sunday.
This reminds me of the old advertising slogan: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”
Well, this is not your father’s Belmont, and it’s certainly not your father’s Triple Crown.
All of us who have been following horse racing are used to the Kentucky Derby opening the Triple Crown season on the “First Saturday in May” at the classic distance of a mile and a quarter, followed by the Preakness Stakes two weeks later at a mile and three-sixteenths and culminating with the Belmont Stakes in early June at a mile and a half. They’ve been run in that order since 1931, so I don’t think anyone’s father remembers anything differently.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Triple Crown schedule has been turned upside down. The Belmont will start the series Saturday at the shortened distance of a mile and an eighth, followed by the Kentucky Derby delayed four months until Saturday, Sept. 5, and finally the Preakness on Saturday, Oct. 3.
In “Point Spread Weekly,” we’re concerned with the gambling implications of the altered betting menu, and this is why I think it’s even more important to stress that this is not your father’s Triple Crown.
Per usual, bettors have been trying to pick a Derby horse since last summer, locking in future prices for the Run for the Roses that they expected to be contested May 3. The first Saturday in May is when the Derby had been run for 74 years. Likewise, last year and well into March this year, the owners and trainers of these 3-year-olds had been preparing their hopefuls with an eye toward peaking on Derby day through their training and racing schedules.
And then the world changed.
Ron Flatter has kept “Point Spread Weekly” readers up to date on the Derby trail, but it has been more unpredictable than ever as handicappers try to figure out which 3-year-old will be best in September. We already knew the four-month delay would allow late-developing colts to get into the mix and add to the uncertainty for Derby futures. Then matters became further complicated when Charlatan, Nadal and Maxfield — all of whom would have been top contenders if the Derby had been run as scheduled — were sidelined with injuries. It’s hard enough to be sure who will be in the Derby starting gate, let alone who might win.
Many more reasons dictate that you can’t handicap the Derby like your father did. In my youth, I remember hearing things like a filly or a gelding or a horse without the right breeding couldn’t win the Derby. We heard other supposedly time-honored trends, like a colt couldn’t win off a five-week layoff or if he hadn’t raced as a 2-year-old. But those have been debunked over the years, and they’re even more irrelevant this year.
The Preakness could end up being the most formful race when all is said and done, which it has been for a while under the traditional format. The Derby winner has usually been able to carry its form to the Preakness two weeks later, even with the presence of fresh new shooters that skipped the Derby. That has been aided by the cut in distance from a mile and a quarter to a mile and three-sixteenths, and it should be easier for the Derby victor this year with four weeks between races. But the X Factor could be that this year’s new shooters are likely to be much more experienced since the race is being run closer to their fourth birthdays than the third.
And now we come full circle back to Saturday’s Belmont. Experienced bettors have long heard the adage that “closers don’t win the Belmont” despite its mile-and-a-half distance. Conventional wisdom is that a horse needs to be near the lead, though more closers than pacesetters have won in recent years except for American Pharoah and Justify in their front-running Triple Crown-clinching wins in 2015 and 2018, respectively. Regardless of which theory you subscribe to, we can throw all that out the window, too, with the shortening of the race to a mile and an eighth. Belmont bettors have also relied heavily on breeding information to try to figure out who can go the longer distance, but that’s pretty much obsolete as this year’s distance isn’t much more than these 3-year-olds have been running in prep races.
Tiz The Law is the presumptive and prohibitive Belmont favorite off his Florida Derby victory March 28 at Gulfstream Park, though he’s coming off what I’m assuming is an unprecedented 12-week layoff to try to win the Belmont. So, yes, I’ll be trying to beat him Saturday.
I’ll have my official analysis of the Belmont on Saturday morning in my “Tuley’s Thoroughbred Takes for June 17-21” column on VSiN.com after we see how the race shapes up with late additions or subtractions as well as the post-position draw at noon ET Wednesday. Other top contenders at single-digit odds are expected to be Dr Post, Sole Volante and Tap It to Win, but I’m leaning more to long shots such as Farmington Road, Modernist and Max Player and am interested to see how the pace scenario looks after the draw.
Until then, happy handicapping in this brave new world.