Now that the post positions for the Belmont Stakes have been drawn, we at least can make an educated guess on how the race might be run. But we still have track condition to consider, and at this point it looks as if we are going to have a wet track on Saturday. But to what degree, and if it is sloppy, what type of slop are we going to get? Those are the questions that could determine who runs well and who doesn’t.
Horses who handle a true sloppy track, with standing water on top and a firm base, might love it , but may not like a drying out track that is tiring and sticky. And then there is the most likely kind of surface, and that is a sealed track, which can be very hard.
But for now, let’s concentrate on post position. As with most two-turn races, the rail means speed and the outside has the potential for disaster, especially at Belmont with that big first turn that can easily cook any horse who gets caught wide. You do not want to lose ground around this turn, because of its sweeping nature, because you’re stuck on it for much longer than other turns.
You also don’t want to go wide into the second turn. Many times, you’ll see a horse go wide into the turn, make a big move outside horses, only to fall apart after turning for home. Many jockeys who are unfamiliar with Belmont often make the mistake of thinking this is Churchill or Pimlico and circle horses on the notorious turn of no return. The key is saving ground as long as possible on the turn and then look for a seam around the five-sixteenths pole and ease your way out. Then it’s OK to go wide at the head of the stretch.
Some horses can overcome a wide trip, mainly those with a great deal of stamina and lung capacity, as well as a big long stride. But it’s much better to avoid it if possible.
As for this year’s field, we do have the potential for an early speed battle, which means a contentious pace and testing fractions. Although Freedom Child looks to be the controlling speed from post 2, Kenny McPeek has been training Frac Daddy (post 1) for speed, giving him three sharp half-mile works, including two bullet moves. His gallop Wednesday morning was so strong, the NYRA clockers actually clocked him going five furlongs in 1:04 3/5. McPeek said he is seriously considering giving him a three-furlong blowout on Thursday, which means you can pretty much expect this colt to come out running from the rail post position. The son of Scat Daddy was on the muscle walking the shed and grazing after shipping in from Kentucky Tuesday, and there is no doubt he is razor sharp right now. And McPeek has always loves disrupting the natural order of things. You can never count him out.
Preakness winner Oxbow, drew beautifully in post 7, and he should be tracking these two, which brings us to the enigmatic Palace Malice, who will break from post 13. Mike Smith will have three choices. One is to break sharply, outrun those inside him, and try to save as much ground as possible going into the turn. The only problem with that is, despite the removal of blinkers, there is always the danger of Smith losing control of him as he did in the Kentucky Derby and having him go too fast early. If he breaks cleanly and takes a slight hold him, trying to ease to the inside, there is the danger of being floated wide going into the turn by Oxbow or Giant Finish or any of the tactical speed horses.
The final option is taking a strong hold of him, let the inside speed outrun him, and then tuck in and try to have him come from well off the pace. Pletcher has always felt this colt has excellent natural speed, but wasn’t using it in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. However, going a mile and a half, he could be ready to use those tactics this time, especially with the blinkers off. He ran a huge race coming from ninth in the Risen Star to be beaten a half-length, despite having never been two turns and having only one seven-furlong race in 6 1/2 months. In the Louisiana Derby, he dropped back to eighth, and it is our opinion that he would have won the race or been right there had he not had the trip from hell, trapped on the rail with nowhere to go the entire length of the stretch. Going 1 1/2 miles now, with his pedigree, the feeling here is that he can drop out of it, sit back in the pack and then make a steady move heading into the far turn in much the same manner as Afleet Alex in the 2005 Belmont and even the stone closer Jazil in 2006.
Pletcher’s other horses are a guess, as we have no idea what tactics Unlimited Budget will use from post 13 or Revolutionary from post 9, or even Midnight Taboo from post 8. All have good tactical speed if asked for it, even though Revolutionary has come from the clouds in his last two starts. But that is not really his style of running, and he has more speed than one might think.
We also have no idea what tactics Will Take Charge and Vyjack will use coming out of posts 11 and 12, respectively. Will Take Charge, who no one has mentioned all week (yes, Wayne Lukas has two horses in the race) is a 17 hands giant with a huge stride and he should love Belmont’s big turns. If you throw out the Preakness and judge him based on his Derby run and the way he way moving stride for stride with Orb until he got stopped cold at the head of the stretch, you have to consider him an interesting longshot possibility. He had an excellent gallop Wednesday morning and was really into the bit. Remember, Lukas is the only trainer in history to have won two legs of the Triple Crown in a single year with two different horses, and he has an opportunity to make it three this year.
As for the deep closers, Orb and Golden Soul no doubt will take back as they usually do, but both will try to keep improving their position throughout and not wait as long as they did in the Derby. Overanalyze also will take back from post 3 and try to save ground as long as possible. If you look at his winning race--bad race pattern, he’s ready for another victory.
Finally, that leaves us with the biggest mystery horse, Incognito, who continues to fascinate us. He should relish the mile and a half, but must stay in the clear as much as possible. He apparently did not care for the sloppy kickback in the Peter Pan and took himself out of the race, but as we mentioned in an earlier column this week, he ran a sneaky good race down the stretch and galloping out, as if he was just getting rolling.
So, now that we’ve totally confused you, good luck trying to figure this race out. Ideally, we’d love to see Palace Malice take back well off the pace and use his speed and stamina the last four to five furlongs. If he can get lucky and ease his way to the inside after the start, that would be ideal as well, but you can’t depend on that happening, and if he fails to get in, he could be in big trouble. Of course, a sloppy track would likely keep the entire field off the rail, so ground loss wouldn’t be as critical as it would on a fast track.
I’m going to stop now before I drive everyone, mostly myself, crazy.