By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
As the lone twelve-furlong grade I race run on dirt in this country, the Belmont Stakes stands alone in the world of handicapping; an island in an ocean of races that are generally nine furlongs and shorter. Handicappers and horses alike rarely get a chance to exercise their skills at such a lengthy distance on the main track, which may partly explain why there have been a number of longshot winners since 2000.
In an effort to make some sense out of this often inscrutable race, I have compiled a list of a five Belmont Stakes-winning trends that have shown up repeatedly over the past several years. These are only trends, of course, and it certainly wouldn’t be surprising if the winner of the Belmont were to defy several, if not all, of the following observations. But in any case, I find these trends useful to keep in mind when handicapping the Belmont, as they have proven helpful in identifying longshot contenders I might otherwise have overlooked. So let’s give them a quick look…
1. Deep closers [generally] don’t win the Belmont
Although in theory the twelve-furlong distance of the Belmont Stakes should give deep closers more time to catch up, the reality has generally been the opposite. Particularly in the past four years, early speed has proven a huge asset in the Belmont, with no winner coming from more than five lengths behind at any call, and leaders/stalkers routinely winning or hitting the board. Last year’s Belmont was an especially dramatic example, with Palace Malice and Oxbow tracking one of the fastest paces in Belmont history before going on to finish 1-2. Coming home in third place was Kentucky Derby winner Orb, a deep closer that was unable to catch the top two finishers despite a :54.23-second final half-mile.
While determining which horses will race near the lead in this year’s Belmont is as much guesswork as science, I think it’s safe to say that California Chrome, General a Rod, Samraat, Social Inclusion, Tonalist, and possibly Ride On Curlin will be within five lengths of the early lead, while the well-regarded contenders Commanding Curve and Wicked Strong are likely to be farther back.
2. Non-stakes winners are welcome
While one would think that a race as prestigious as the Belmont would be dominated by horses with previous stakes victories, that has not been the case in recent years. Believe it or not, six of the last eight Belmont Stakes winners (Jazil, Da’ Tara, Summer Bird, Drosselmeyer, Ruler On Ice, and Palace Malice) had never won a stakes race prior to their victory in the Test of Champions.
Among the possible runners in this year’s Belmont field, Commanding Curve, Commissioner, Matterhorn, Matuszak, Ride On Curlin, and Social Inclusion all fit this trend.
3. Horses that lose the Derby and skip the Preakness have had great success in the Belmont
Since 2000, Commendable, Empire Maker, Birdstone, Jazil, Summer Bird, Union Rags, and Palace Malice all won the Belmont Stakes after losing the Kentucky Derby and skipping the Preakness Stakes. The benefits of passing on the Preakness to have a fresher horse for the Belmont are obvious, and the success rate (50%) of these horses has been striking.
This year, Commanding Curve, Medal Count, Samraat, and Wicked Strong are Derby starters that skipped a trip to Pimlico to focus on the Belmont Stakes.
4. Dosage is worth a look
I know that many people don’t use Dosage in handicapping races anymore, but after examining the pedigrees of recent Belmont winners, I found that the last ten winners all had a Dosage Index of 3.00 or lower. While I wouldn’t put too much stock in this trend, if it holds true again, it means that we won’t be seeing California Chrome, Matterhorn, Matuszak, or Ride On Curlin in the winner’s circle.
5. Expect the unexpected
Since 2000, the average odds on the winner of the Belmont Stakes has been just under 17.50-1, with eight horses finding the winner’s circle at double-digit odds: Palace Malice (13.80-1), Ruler On Ice (24.75-1), Drosselmeyer (13-1), Summer Bird (11.90-1), Da’ Tara (38.50-1), Birdstone (36-1), Sarava (70.25-1), and Commendable (18.80-1). This trend has been particularly noteworthy since 2008, as five of the last six Belmont winners went off at higher than 10-1. So if the horse you like in the Belmont is being overlooked in the betting, don’t be concerned—consider it a good thing!
Until Belmont Day actually arrives and wagering on the race begins, it’s impossible to say for certain which horses will go off at large prices. But with that said, here’s my guess on the odds that each horse might potentially offer:
California Chrome 4-5
Commanding Curve 8-1
Wicked Strong 8-1
Ride On Curlin 12-1
Social Inclusion 15-1
General a Rod 20-1
Medal Count 30-1
I’d love to hear your thoughts!