Haskin's Belmont Report: Belmont Brain Teaser

Let’s try and get through this with as little pain as possible. If you think you can nail this year’s Belmont Stakes winner through conventional handicapping methods you’re most likely in for a rude awakening. But in our case the alternative is a blank space where the Friday column should be.

You can decipher all this in whatever manner you choose, but the bottom line is, we’re dealing with a full field of 14 horses – some fresh and others not so fresh – going a mile and a half for the first time over what likely will be a sloppy or muddy track, or a tricky drying out track at best.

Despite the gorgeous weather all week, it’s been a rather slow week on the backstretch, with very little media at hand. The feeling here is that a great marketing opportunity was missed by not salvaging what is left of this year’s Triple Crown with a heavy “Come see the Filly on the Filly” (or something to that effect) promotion. With the Kentucky Derby and Preakness both having tremendous historical significance this year, we do have the possibility of further history being made with Rosie Napravnik riding the filly Unlimited Budget.

Auto racing has made a national celebrity of Danica Patrick, who has not been nearly as successful in her sport as Napravnik has been. What better opportunity to reach mainstream America than by having TV commercials, full-page newspaper ads, and an appearance on one of the late night talk shows promoting Napravnik’s attempt to become the first female rider to win a classic aboard a filly. And on the 20th anniversary of Julie Krone’s victory in the Belmont Stakes on Colonial Affair, in which she became the first and only female rider to win a classic. In addition, Napravnik is riding Unlimited Budget for trainer Todd Pletcher, who saddled Rags to Riches to win the 2007 Belmont Stakes, becoming the first filly to win the Test of the Champion since 1905.

A full-fledged marketing campaign could have added great interest to the race and brought it to the attention of TV stations and newspapers around the country. It was at least worth a try and might have created a diversion from all the negative publicity the sport has received the past few years.

But what’s done is done, and we have delayed the inevitable long enough. It’s time to try to analyze this year’s Belmont Stakes.

Most people feel as if Orb’s “A” game will win this race, and he has shown no signs to dissuade anyone from thinking that way. He looks good, he’s worked well, and he has been galloping strongly every morning. He has the pedigree to get the distance and he’s already shown an affinity for a sloppy track. So, we’ll establish the fact that Orb is the horse to beat.

But we’re not here to latch onto favorites. We’re looking for value, and there is always value in the Belmont Stakes, because you can never really be sure what’s going to happen and who is going to handle the mile and a half and these big sweeping turns. There is a reason why we’ve had horses win at odds of 24-1, 13-1, 11-1, 38-1, 36-1, and 70-1 since 2002.

We’ll state right off the bat that no horse has been training better than Freedom Child, whose gallops have been machine-like. The runaway Peter Pan Stakes winner has done nothing wrong in the morning, galloping strongly and doing it in a professional manner. It would be an understatement to say he loves the slop following his 13 1/4-length romp in the Peter Pan, and there is a good chance he will get another “off” track. But even if he doesn’t, he has also proven his ability on a fast track. Like Orb, he is a son of Malibu Moon. So, you can do whatever you wish with him. The feeling here is that he will wind up going off as the second choice, because of all the buzz that surrounded him.

Revolutionary could go off as the third choice, with Golden Soul also taking action, based on their performances in the Kentucky Derby and being freshened since that race. We're tempted to go with Revolutionary as the top choice, considering he was our No. 1 ranked horse on Derby Dozen and had to hesitate several times stuck behond Golden Soul before finally making a big run, but we're simply looking for a bigger price.

Oxbow, of course, will be bet off his Preakness victory, but he was 15-1 in that race, and some will feel he will not have the luxury of a soft pace, as he did when he stole the Preakness right from under the noses of the other riders. But he has proven he can handle any kind of pace, and you can never count this tenacious, hard-knocking colt out of any race. He’s had a tough 3-year-old campaign, having already run in six graded stakes, all around two turns, and he hasn’t had more than five weeks off between races since October.

So, that brings us to the price horses who look to have a legitimate shot to upset this field. And there are plenty of them. Overanalyze, who we picked, especially as our longshot special, in the Derby, is back on his win cycle and could be tough if he can handle the 1 1/2 miles. He’s been working OK; nothing flashy, just good solid works. He’s won his only start at Belmont, taking the Futurity Stakes with a powerful stretch run and gets John Velazquez, who was aboard in that Futurity win. Throw the Kentucky Derby out. He ran a bizarre race, falling back to last and then coming on again to beat about half the field, despite having to alter course sharply in the stretch while making a belated move. He did beat Oxbow handily in the Arkansas Derby, and ran a much better race than the time might indicate. We certainly can see him winning this race and would be tempted to put at least a saver on him and include him in the trifectas.

Unlimited Budget we feel is going to be bet down and may not off much value, but if the track stays sloppy or muddy, the Valid Appeal line of her female pedigree that curtails her distance prowess, will help her stretch out because of its powerful slop influence. She worked brilliantly in her final drill and looks to be coming into the race extremely sharp. The one time Napravnik rode her was the one time she was able to relax and take back well off the pace en route to an impressive score in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds. They obviously make a great team, and we’re looking for a big effort from the daughter of Street Sense.

We began liking Incognito watching his maiden victory and then fell in love with him witnessing that remarkable performance against older horses that has to be seen to be really appreciated. Let’s just say it even surpassed Revolutionary’s Withers score as the most amazing victory we’ve seen all year. His Peter Pan was a total toss, and he actually ran a much better race than it looks on paper (see our column earlier in the week). He has the pedigree for sure, being by A.P. Indy, out of Octave, and has a big shot to at least get in the exotics. It takes him a while to get fully cranked, so don’t get discouraged if you see him being asked and not responding. Once he does he will keep coming and get stronger the farther he goes.

Now we come to our two key horses, Will Take Charge and Palace Malice. Talk about throw-outs, Will Take Charge's Kentucky Derby should be ignored other than to watch him moving stride for stride with Orb around the far turn and into the stretch. While Orb got a clear run on the outside, he ran right smack into a tiring Verrazano and got stopped cold and had to be taken up. You can’t stop a 17-hands horse like that and expect to get him going again. Also, he was coming into the Derby off an eight-week layoff, so he had that against him. Remember, he did beat Oxbow in the Rebel Stakes. We’re also throwing the Preakness out, because it is his size and huge stride that worked against him over that deep tiring track at Pimlico. Now, he gets the perfect racetrack for him that is conducive to a big long-striding horse. We love the way he’s been galloping every morning and has really been down into the bit and razor-sharp. His energy level is high and he made a spectacular appearance grazing on Wednesday. He’s carrying his flesh beautifully and his coat is radiant. He also gets reunited with Jon Court, who has been on him for all three of his career victories. Whether he’s good enough to win, who knows? But he is showing all the signs of a horse ready to run a big race.

Finally, we come to my old favorite, Palace Malice, who we still haven’t given up on. He’s had a strange 3-year-old campaign, filled with misadventure, altered schedules, and failed experiments. Last summer, he was regarded as perhaps Todd Pletcher’s most promising 2-year-old; at least one of them. When he ran in the Risen Star, he was the only horse in the 12-horse field who had never been two turns and was coming into the race off only one seven-furlong race in 6 1/2 months. He still turned in a big performance to finish third, beaten a half-length, while finishing ahead of Oxbow. In the Louisiana Derby, he looked like a potential winner when he ran into a traffic jam and had nowhere to go the entire length of the stretch. Chalk that down as a wasted race. In order to try to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, he came back only two weeks later in the Blue Grass Stakes, his first try over Polytrack. In the 14-horse field, he did all the dirty work, going after a loose-on-the-lead Rydilluc, putting him away and taking over the lead in the stretch. But he raced greenly over the strange surface, losing focus and switching back to his left lead, and was nipped right on the wire by a fast-closing Java’s War.

Coming back in three weeks, he wore blinkers for the first time in the Derby, and that proved to be a disaster. Ridden by Mike Smith for the first time, he became speed crazy in that 19-horse cavalry charge and proceeded to set suicidal fractions of :45 1/5 and 1:09 4/5. He was still right there turning for home, but he was cooked – roasted, fried, and stewed. All he managed to do was set it up for all the deep closers to finish one, two, three.

Since that debacle, he has worked brilliantly, including one sensational work. He’s bred to go the distance, he’s bred for the slop, but he did draw post 13, which we’re not thrilled about. The feeling here is that Smith should take hold of him this time and take him back, as the colt did in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby, and them methodically work his way into contention. If he sends him at the start, even with blinkers off, he’s in danger of getting hung wide on the first turn, which normally spells disaster.

The other longshots in the field, Vyjack, Frac Daddy, and Giant Finish are no slouches either, while Midnight Taboo, despite his inexperience, has exceptional mile and a half breeding.

But when push comes to shove, we’re going to give Palace Malice another shot and hope he can overcome the outside post, and also play Will Take Charge as a saver, and probably play them with several of the others in the exotics, depending on what the track is like.

If you’re looking for non-handicapping angles, well, we’ve had Orb and Oxbow, which leaves Overanalyze to complete the “Cheery-O’s” Triple.

Or how about a trifecta box of Orb, Revolutionary, and Palace Malice, who all were broken and trained together as babies at Niall Brennan’s farm in Ocala?

And, finally, how can you not put a few bucks on Rosie and Unlimited Budget, even though it has gone virtually unnoticed outside the sport.

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