Saturday's $1 million Belmont Stakes lacks the drama of a Triple Crown bid, but it shapes up to be an exciting race with the winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness meeting for only the 22nd time in the 143-year history of the "Test of the Champion." Last year, both the Derby and Preakness winner failed to show up in the Belmont.
Derby hero Animal Kingdom and Preakness winner Shackleford are the top draws in the 12-horse field, but there will be plenty of familiar faces in the starting gate. Eight horses from the Derby, including for the first time the top seven finishers, return for the 1«-mile endurance test at Belmont Park, strong numbers for the final leg of a demanding five-week series that usually claims a much higher attrition rate.
And while Animal Kingdom and Shackleford are the horses to beat, the former posted a 20-1 upset in the Derby while the latter was overlooked at 12-1 in the Preakness. It's been a common theme all year on the Triple Crown trail, with longshots prevailing in most prep races, and that trend can't be discounted in a deep Belmont field.
The 1 1/2-mile distance is a beast, a route of ground that used to be more common but is now more of a sideshow in American dirt racing. A quarter-mile farther than the second-longest Triple Crown race, the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont has been known to exact a severe toll upon horses with pedigrees slanted toward shorter distances.
Animal Kingdom, Brilliant Speed, Master of Hounds and Stay Thirsty are on the opposite side of the spectrum, with noted stamina influences prominent in their immediate pedigrees.
An aggressive pace doesn't appear likely - Shackleford is the lone speed on paper - but Stay Thirsty and Mucho Macho Man were front-running winners earlier in their career and may try to mix it up on the lead from the start. And there's always the possibility of a wildcard speed horse that we don't expect.
I'll break down the Belmont field into three categories, listed alphabetically in each, before arriving at my final selections.
Isn't He Perfct was never a factor when ninth in the Preakness and has been well-beaten in all four starts against graded stakes rivals. He will be overmatched once again.
Monzon may have needed his last start off a layoff - a dull sixth in the Peter Pan - but can't envision him moving forward enough to make an impact at this level. His lone stakes win came in a small field on the inner track at Aqueduct and he's probably in too deep here.
Prime Cut was never a serious factor when finishing third in the Peter Pan and has lost ground in the stretch in his last two starts at shorter distances. With a suspect pedigree for the distance, he appears unlikely on the class hike.
Ruler On Ice lacks the credentials to challenge. He wasn't flattered when the horse that beat him last time in the Federico Tesio Stakes came back to finish a dull 10th in the Preakness and his BRIS Speed numbers are too low.
Brilliant Speed showed that he runs well with time between starts, winning the Blue Grass off a two-month hiatus, and the improving colt has received a five-week rest after a rallying seventh in the Kentucky Derby. He remains a question mark on dirt, but Brilliant Speed is eligible to move forward off an encouraging performance last time. Love his pedigree for the distance and give him a chance to come running late for a minor award.
Santiva will look to secure a favorable trip from post 4, just off the early leaders in position to strike, and has the potential to jump up with a career best that nets a top-three placing. He opened 2011 with a good second in the Risen Star (G2) but got little out of his final Derby prep, a ninth in Keeneland's Blue Grass on Polytrack. The Eddie Kenneally-trained colt exits a better-than-it-appears sixth at Churchill Downs, stuck in traffic while on the slowest part of the track for most of the race before rallying well to be beaten only 5 « lengths, and he's trained forwardly in the five-week interim since the Derby. Santiva owns only one career win, capturing the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) in a slow time last fall, and his lack of a triple-digit BRIS Speed rating is a concern. But he appears headed in the right direction and rates as an intriguing longshot with a solid pedigree for the distance.
Stay Thirsty makes this grouping based on his breeding and potential. His recent form is disappointing - 12th in the Derby and seventh in the Florida Derby (G1) - but the Grade 1 runner-up has run his best races in New York, posting two wins and two seconds from four attempts. He easily defeated subsequent Wood Memorial (G1) winner Toby's Corner in his last appearance in the Empire State, winning the Gotham S. (G3) in February by 3 1/4 lengths, and figures to show some speed from his inside starting position (post 2). And the dark bay colt appears to be training sensationally for Todd Pletcher since the Derby. He'll need to step up in a big way, but Stay Thirsty can be regarded as an exotics contender at huge odds.
Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby for fun and came up only a half-length short in the Preakness, but they were completely different races for the late runner. After racing within seven lengths of the early lead at Churchill Downs, Animal Kingdom essentially lost contact with the field following a slow start at Pimlico, racing 18 lengths behind the pacesetter after a blistering opening quarter-mile. That left him too far back to catch Shackleford, but the added distance and expected slower pace in the Belmont will be more to his benefit. The Preakness was only his second dirt attempt and Animal Kingdom had never dealt with so much kickback, according to trainer Graham Motion. "I've never had a horse come back from a race like that; the dirt was literally caked in his blinkers," Motion said of the Preakness experience. "It was extraordinary. I don't think that's going to happen in the Belmont." I agree with his assessment and was enamored with the colt's sharp four-furlong workout at Belmont Park on Monday. Look for Animal Kingdom to race closer from the start before making a serious impact in the stretch.
Master of Hounds made his first dirt start in the Derby and struggled some during the opening stages. But he gallantly navigated his way through traffic to finish fifth, rallying up the rail in the stretch while on the slowest part of the track, and is eligible to benefit greatly from the experience. And the added ground in the Belmont is another plus. Shipped immediately back to his Irish base after the Derby, Master of Hounds arrived in New York on Tuesday, spending two days in quarantine before visiting Belmont Park for the first time Thursday. His connections weren't bullish prior to the Derby, but jockey Garrett Gomez exited the race with extreme confidence for the Belmont and T.J. Comerford, assistant to trainer Aidan O'Brien, said Wednesday: "He'll definitely put up a good show here. The 1 1/2 miles will hit him on the head." Master of Hounds is very dangerous.
Nehro will look to shed the bridesmaid label following consecutive runner-up finishes in the Kentucky Derby, Arkansas Derby (G1) and Louisiana Derby (G2), and rates as a logical win contender. A maiden scorer in late February, the colt has blossomed over the past three months for Steve Asmussen, who has publicly praised the colt's training and continued development since the Derby, and Nehro possesses tactical speed to sit a favorable trip close to the expected moderate pace. He lacks certain intangibles - most Belmont winners have more than a maiden victory to their credit - but his BRIS Speed ratings are improving nicely (96-99-102) and there's plenty to like about Nehro's chances on Saturday.
Shackleford must be considered a serious wire-to-wire threat, especially if he shakes loose on an uncontested lead and slows the pace down. He established ridiculously slow fractions on the lead in the Derby and displayed plenty of courage fending off Nehro for the longest time in the stretch while racing on the inside part of the track, and the Dale Romans-trained colt clearly improved upon his fourth-place effort two weeks later at Pimlico, letting speedball Flashpoint do all the dirty work on the lead while waiting to pounce in second. One can make the case that shorter Preakness distance, as well as the dimensions of the Pimlico oval, enhanced his chances, especially with a sire known for producing sprint/middle-distance specialists, and the 1 «-mile Belmont distance is a potential roadblock with his pedigree. But by the same token, Shackleford is a gritty as they come and may save enough on the front end to carry his speed all the way to the wire.
- Animal Kingdom - Rallies powerfully to nab his second jewel in the Triple Crown
- Master of Hounds - Carries promising Derby form forward with a strong late run
- Nehro - In position turning for home but winds up settling for another minor award
- Shackleford - Takes them as far as he can but ultimately comes up a little short
- Santiva - Capable of running sneaky well in this spot; whether that will be good enough is open to debate
- Brilliant Speed - Faces a tall task but is eligible to make a late impact if he takes to the dirt at Belmont