Racing didn't get a Triple Crown winner, but it got a compelling race in the Belmont Stakes.
Union Rags was a deserving winner. He showed class and stamina rallying up the rail to beat Paynter by a neck. Union Rags was America's best two-year-old in 2011, and there is still an outside, remote shot he could be our best three-year-old in 2012. To earn that honor, Union Rags needs to get faster. He still hasn't jumped forward at age three from a speed figure standpoint (he was given a 96 Beyer speed figure for the Belmont), but this is a win he can build on in the second half of the year.
Paynter also aquitted himself well. He set all the fractions and turned back Optimizer, Unstoppable U and Atigun before succumbing late. I did not like Mike Smith's ride on Paynter.
Smith used Paynter too early (did he think he was on Bodemeister!?) and then compounded that error by allowing Union Rags to rally up the rail. A rematch of these two in a race such as the Jim Dandy at Saratoga would be interesting. The Belmont was only Paynter's fifth career race. He is a major talent.
Atigun ran a surprisingly nice race to be third. This is an interesting pedigree -- by second-crop sire Istan (Gone West), out of a Dynaformer mare.
Street Life ran ok to finish 4th, beaten 7 1/2 lengths, but his lack of early speed is going to continue to haunt him. He may need class relief or he could try turf next.
The two other horses coming out of the Belmont that interest me are Dullahan and Unstoppable U. Dullahan is better than he showed here, but I am still not sure how good he is. He might go back to turf for his next start. His stride has always looked a little choppy on dirt, and a little more efficient on turf or the synthetics.
Going into the Belmont I thought Unstoppable U was a horse to watch, although not necessarily in this race. His first two career starts were really nice, much better than they look on paper, but the connections got a little too ambitious by putting him in the Belmont coming off a one-turn mile win at the NW1 level. He flashed enough ability in the Belmont to keep me interested in his next start.
Here are my notes on a few other members of this crop that could have a good second half of the year:
Bodemeister: He could be unbeatable in a race like the Haskell, at nine furlings on a speedy track. I predict they'll have trouble filling the gate if Bodemeister goes here.
Howe Great: He ducked out at the start from the 13-hole in the American Turf S. (G2) and found himself much further back than he is used to. His rally for third behind Silver Max was a good effort. Those two will rematch Wednesday night (!) in the Oliver Stakes at Indiana Downs. That race drew a field of 12, including Travel Advisory and Cozzetti.
Finnegan's Wake, who closed for 4th in the American Turf, returned Sunday to win an allowance race at Churchill with an impressive late burst. Look for this son of Powerscourt (GB) back in graded stakes company next time.
Speaking of turf sires, I am looking forward to seeing Optimizer get back on the turf when/if he recovers from his ill-advised Triple Crown campaign. Optimizer ran in all three legs of the TC and hasn't seen turf since his first two career starts, which produced a maiden win and a second in the With Anticipation Stakes, where he was beaten by State of Play but finished ahead of Dullahan.
Optimizier is by English Channel, a superior turf influence and one of my favorite new sires in years.
Went the Day Well: If I could have picked one horse out of this year's Derby to skip the Preakness and aim for the Belmont, this would have been the one. I think Went the Day Well can run all day. He is being pointed to the 1 1/4-mile Travers, and his connections will consider the Jim Dandy or a confidence-building prep in New York-bred company.
What three-year-olds are you interested in watching, and perhaps betting on, in the second half of 2012?