Haskin's Belmont Report: How the Race Shapes Up

The last pieces of the puzzle in the Triple Crown races are the post positions, and horsemen cannot wait until they can get that out of the way.

The main drama in Wednesday’s draw for the June 11 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) came when two post positions remained in the 12-horse field – Post 1 and Post 9.  One of the two horses who still had not drawn was Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Animal Kingdom.

With a brilliant work over the track behind him and a superb gate-schooling session Wednesday morning, during which he was the consummate pro, all that was left to possibly de-rail the Derby winner was an unfavorable post position, and the rail was the not the ideal place from which to break, especially with the nightmarish memories of Big Brown’s fiasco from Post 1 in 2008 still fresh in people’s minds.

Well, it couldn’t have worked out better. Animal Kingdom drew Post 9 and the Irish invader, Master of Hounds, drew the rail. But with Master of Hounds it was a totally different story.

Trained and campaigned mainly in Europe, Master of Hounds is used to racing with cover. Not only has he shown excellent tactical speed, especially in his gutsy nose defeat in the UAE Derby (UAE-II), he proved in the Kentucky Derby he can handle the dirt and the kickback, and has the ability to weave inside and outside of horses in order to extricate himself from traffic problems. He also is more of a grinder, and he’ll have plenty of time to find his openings under Garrett Gomez, who knows him a lot better now and told trainer Aidan O’Brien after the Derby he would love to ride him back in the Belmont Stakes.

The other topic of conversation was Preakness (gr. I) winner Shackleford drawing the far outside in the 12-horse field.

But here again, of all the horses in the race, Shackleford should be the least affected by breaking from the far outside. As the only true speed horse in the race, al he has to do is break fairly alertly and then ease on over to the inside. How far will depend on hos the track is playing. Sometimes, the rail has a tendency to be dead and jockeys will fan their horses wide on purpose.

What Shackleford brings into the Belmont that he didn’t in the Derby and Preakness is a reputation. Having established his tenacity on the lead and the ability to control the pace, and with his game score in the Preakness, no one would be foolish enough to take him on early unless they are intent on going on a suicide mission.

Shackleford takes horses out of their game plan and makes them play his game, whether he’s going slow or fast. As a jockey, you don’t want to lull him to sleep by slowing the pace down to a crawl, but he appears to have the ability to slow it down for the first mile and then kick for home early and try to catch the others by surprise and make them use every bit of their stamina.

Expect to see Santiva, Prime Cut, Mucho Macho Man and possibly Master of Hounds and Nehro sitting behind Shackleford, watching his every move. Ruler on Ice shouldn’t be too far back either. The big decision for the riders will be when to pull the trigger. This track is made for Mucho Macho Man’s gargantuan strides and you sure don’t want to see him too far off and being given a lot to do in the last three-eighths of a mile. This is still pretty much a baby (he won’t actually turn 3 until four days after the Belmont) and you have to use the one physical strength he has – his stride.  

As for Animal Kingdom, let’s remember he showed excellent speed breaking his maiden going 1 1/8 miles at Keeneland and wasn’t that far back in a grass optional claimer going a mile. But he’s going to do what got him here, although there is no way he’s going to be as far back as he was in the Preakness. He showed in the Spiral Stakes and in a lesser way the Kentucky Derby he has the ability to make a strong early move down the backstretch and sustain it. And sustaining that kind of move proved successful for Afleet Alex, who just kept coming and coming around the far turn before blowing away his opposition. It also proved successful for another late closer, Jazil.

Stay Thirsty is another who can grind his way into contention. The big question with him is whether he’s good enough. His half-brother, Andromeda’s Hero, finished second to Afleet Alex in the Belmont by just coming and coming while others were backing up.

The other horse who is going to come from relatively far out of it is Brilliant Speed, and we wrote on Monday about his amazing Belmont Stakes pedigree.  The key to him is whether he handles the dirt. He seemed to have no problems in the Derby, in which he was beaten only 5 ½ lengths after having to go nine-wide.

The longest prices in the field, Isn’t He Perfect and Monzon, don’t really have any specific running style.

So, that’s pretty much the Belmont Stakes in a nutshell from a post position and strategy aspect. There should be plenty of time to make your own luck as long as the rider and horse are patient and don’t do anything silly.

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