WinStar's Belmont Bunny

You can’t say the wheels at WinStar aren’t always turning. Approaching the Belmont Stakes, they were cooking up an enticing stew, with all the basic ingredients. They had the Arkansas Derby winner Creator, who they own outright, and the Preakness winner and early favorite Exaggerator, whose breeding rights they have purchased. But there was only one thing missing in their perfect recipe for hasenpfeffer – the rabbit.

They actually did have the rabbit, who would have been a perfect pacesetter for the late-running Creator and the more versatile closer Exaggerator in what looked to be a paceless race, but, alas, he was in someone else’s kitchen. That someone was Todd Pletcher, who two years ago nearly gave WinStar a wire-to-wire Belmont winner in Commissioner, who led every step of the race except the last.

So, the solution was simple. Just have Pletcher run Gettysburg, who actually is a pretty darn good horse in his own right, in the Belmont, thus giving Creator and Exaggerator a much better chance than if they were crawling up front.

But that wasn’t quite as simple as it sounds. You see, Pletcher has two other horses in the Belmont, Destin and Stradivari, who not only have different ownership, but were the only two horses in the field capable of taking advantage of the lack of speed. Although both have been stalkers, sitting just off the pace, they have the natural speed and talent to go to the front, slow the pace down, and just keep going.

So, it obviously would not be the sporting thing to do to force Pletcher to use a horse to heat up the pace, while possibly compromising the chances of his two other horses. No one can say whether the addition of Gettsyburg would hurt or help Destin and Stradivari, because no one knows how fast he’ll be going on the front end. It seems as if Destin and Stradivari would prefer having a horse to run at, but what if Gettsyburg pulls a Hedevar and cuts out a sizzling pace to set it up even more for Creator and Exaggerator?

WinStar wasn’t about to compromise their chances when they had the horse to prevent a dawdling pace and a possible theft by one of Pletcher’s horses, especially since Creator, in his last three starts, has been 21, 15, and 15 lengths off the lead. That running style normally doesn’t win Belmonts unless the lead horses back up noticeably in the stretch.

So, WinStar did the only thing possible. They took Gettysburg away from Pletcher and moved him to the barn of Creator’s trainer Steve Asmussen. That left Pletcher off the hook with the owners of Destin and Stradivari.

Pletcher, as expected, said he was fine with the move, and it actually should work out better for him, allowing his two horses to utilize their best weapon, which is stalking. That is, as long as Gettysburg doesn’t do anything rash up front and gives them a good target to run at. With all this maneuvering and switching, there’s no way Gettysburg is going to lollygag on the lead and prove useless. But as long as he sets a legitimate pace it should help all parties involved, as well as the other deep closers, Brody’s Cause, Cherry Wine, Suddenbreakingnews, Trojan Nation, and Lani, making for a truer run race with no excuses.

Of course, those other horses would love for Gettysburg to play sprinter for a day and cut loose, dragging Pletcher’s pair down with him. But Destin and Stradivari are much more versatile than people may think, and they should be able to adapt to whatever pace is thrown at them.

There is one other factor that should be addressed. Gettysburg is no slouch who is going to fold his tent after doing his job. This is a horse who set lively fractions of :46 1/5 and 1:10 3/5 in the Arkansas Derby and hung tough in the stretch, finishing fifth, beaten 5 1/4 lengths. And he was a good stalking second behind Collected in the Sunland Park Festival of Racing. And he has more than enough pedigree to at least stick around for a while. But he doesn’t appear to be exactly in love with Belmont, finishing a dismal ninth in his career debut and tiring to finish third, beaten 6 1/2 lengths, in an allowance race in his last start as the 6-5 favorite.

So, with one carefully thought out bit of strategy, WinStar has changed the entire complexion of the Belmont, while moving one of their best horses to another trainer along the way.

And the most unusual aspect of it is that everyone seems to be happy, which is not often the case when it comes to rabbits. Whether Pletcher is happy after the race depends on how the pace scenario plays out. But having seen his two horses at their best, and knowing the running styles of everyone else, I believe this move will benefit everyone, including Destin and Stradivari. But we’ll know for sure after we see whether or not Gettsysburg attacks with the ferocity of Pickett’s Charge at Cemetery Ridge.

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