Belmont Stakes- History in the Making?

I for one am not getting overly excited about the chances that we see a Triple Crown winner arrive late Saturday afternoon. I’ve seen this happen more than a few times in my brief experiences with horse racing. Let’s recap briefly:

1997: Silver Charm loses to Touch Gold (I picked Touch Gold)

1998: Real Quiet loses to Victory Gallop (I picked Victory Gallop but really wanted Real Quiet to win)

1999: Charismatic loses to Lemon Drop Kid (I picked Menifee)

2002: War Emblem loses to Sarava (I picked Medaglia D’Oro)

2003: Funny Cide loses to Empire Maker (I picked Empire Maker)

2004: Smarty Jones loses to Birdstone (I picked Smarty Jones and still can’t believe this happened)

So here we go again, as Big Brown will attempt to hold off a field of seemingly underwhelming horses, although I have to say that there are at least three horses in this race other than the favorite that are miles better than Birdstone, so don’t bet the bank on Big Brown. Part of me wants him to win, and another part of me thinks that he isn’t even in at least the top five most talented three-year-old colts of the decade, and none of them won the elusive Triple Crown either, so does he deserve it? (See Fuscaichi Pegasus, Point Given, Empire Maker, Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex, and what about Curlin? Does anybody really think that Big Brown could beat CURLIN?? Hopefully we’ll see in November…) As far as being the first Triple Crown winner of my lifetime, will see on Saturday. Meanwhile, there are a lot of reasons to bet against him in the Belmont–at least a lot more than there were to bet against him in what was arguably the least competitive Preakness ever. Here we go:

– He starts from the rail. Honestly, I don’t think this is a huge negative in this race as far as the traffic factor is concerned. Post position rarely factors in this marathon, and with a small field the horses will likely spread out quite a bit. The main cause for concern is that he’s going to be forced to go early, and without much other speed in the race he’s basically going to be forced to set the pace and wire the field. Granted, he could open up 20 lengths on the field by the 9 furlong mark, but if his fractions are too fast…well, we all remember Birdstone.

– His front hoof is cracked. Obviously, if this was a serious injury, his connections would never risk jeopardizing the life of a horse whose stud value is approaching nine figures. Still, this race is not short, and a sore hoof isn’t going to help things. I’d equate the injury just below a human stress fracture and above a shin splint. You make the call.

– Do the horse racing gods really like his connections? The Dutrow story is great and all, but let’s face it– the guy is a cocky asshole. As much as I like the horse, part of me can’t help but want to see the trainer eat his words. Confidence is one thing, but Dutrow has taken it a step (or five) too far.

– He’s only raced four times, and two of those have been in the last month and a half. Combine that with a cracked hoof and a marathon challenge, and there is cause for concern.

– In the last three weeks since the Preakness, he’s only had one real workout. That was a 5f work in 1:00. This doesn’t exactly bode well for his sharpness. His injury has resulted in a bit of a training setback.

And even with all of that, you ask, what are his chances to win the race? Honestly, I think he has about a 60% chance to win. He has been dominant in every career start, is clearly the most talented horse in the race, and has shown no sign that he doesn’t want the extra distance. But given his morning line odds of 2-5, which imply a 72% chance of winning, the trader in me has to look for value. And given the likely pace scenario, I’m not expecting a Secretariat-eque performance; in fact, I expect two horses to be flying at the end. Whether Big Brown can hang on probably depends on the pace he sets and of course, that tender hoof.

Denis of Cork passed about 17 horses down the stretch of the Kentucky Derby to finish a non-threatening third, but he certainly wasn’t losing ground to Big Brown in the final furlong. In fact, he may have been gaining. He’s a spectacular figure that won’t have traffic trouble to deal with and will be able to sit back and make his move whenever he wants. He’ll be fresh off a five week rest, has been working well, and his style fits the profile of all the aforementioned spoilers. I’m still surprised by how much this horse has been overlooked. I doubt he’ll be anywhere near 12-1, but if he is, you have to take a shot. I see him taking this thing with a late charge.

Casino Drive is intriguing as well, but I feel like the hype has been almost too much. Most impressive is that his mare, Better Than Honour, has produced the last two Belmont winners, Jazil and Rags To Riches. If I was picking purely on pedigree, he would be the obvious choice, but if pedigree meant everything, then my pick for the Derby, Colonel John, would have won easily. I worry about the long trip from Japan, his uneasy works, and the fact that he’s only raced twice and hasn’t really beaten anyone. He should be there late but I still have class concerns.

After those three, it’s a bit of a mess. Tale of Etaki kind of plodded through the Derby without either gaining or losing ground to finish fourth. I suppose if everything comes to a complete stop and he keeps grinding along at a steady pace he could hit the wire first, but he has no turn of foot and doesn’t really fit the “closer” style that often upsets in this race. Icabad Crane comes closer to that style (no pun intended), but he would be a real shocker. Macho Again figures to struggle with the distance, and the rest are beyond comment.

Good luck to Big Brown. I’m picking him second, even though I have a feeling in my heart that he’s either going to finish first or last. Let’s hope, above all things, that his hoof holds up. I’ve been wrong before, and I’ll be wrong again, and this would be an acceptable time I suppose.

Picks Summary:

1. Denis Of Cork

2. Big Brown

3. Casino Drive

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