By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Let the excitement begin! Now that Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner American Pharoah has added the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO) to his résumé, we will have a Triple Crown on the line in the June 6th Belmont Stakes (gr. I) for the second consecutive year. With less than three weeks remaining until the big race, it’s time to get an early start analyzing the field and handicapping the big race. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on nine horses that are preparing to challenge American Pharoah in the final jewel of the Triple Crown:
CARPE DIEM: The first of three colts trained by Todd Pletcher that are targeting the Belmont Stakes, Carpe Diem won the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) and Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) earlier this year before finishing tenth without an excuse in the Kentucky Derby. But if you liked this colt before the Derby, don’t let his poor showing change your opinion, as Todd Pletcher has had great success training Derby also-rans to strong finishes in the Belmont. Since 2009, he has trained Dunkirk (11th in the Derby), Stay Thirsty (12th in the Derby), and Palace Malice (12th in the Derby) to finish first or second in the Belmont, demonstrating that while his runners may fail to fire in the Derby, they usually bring their best race for the Belmont. Additionally, his pedigree (by Giant’s Causeway out of an Unbridled’s Song mare) suggests that the distance of the Belmont should be within his reach, and his excellent tactical speed should be an asset in the Belmont, which tends to favor forwardly-placed runners. He seems to have fallen under the radar since the Derby, but I definitely wouldn’t count him out of the mix for the Belmont. In fact, I view him as one of the main contenders to win the race.
CONQUEST CURLINATE: The Illinois Derby (gr. III) runner-up showed improved speed when finishing second in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Park, rating just 4 ½ lengths off a :46.55 half-mile fraction before rallying to be beaten just a length. From a pedigree perspective, he should be able to handle the distance as well as anyone, being by Curlin out of Higher World, a two-time winner at 8.5 furlongs. She, in turn, was sired by Peaks and Valleys, a two-time grade I winner at nine furlongs. Conquest Curlinate will need to keep moving forward if he is to win the Belmont Stakes, but his improving tactical speed is a very positive sign that bodes well for his chances.
FRAMMENTO: Trainer Nick Zito has spoiled a pair of potential Triple Crowns over the last dozen years, upsetting Smarty Jones with Birdstone in 2004 and scoring a gate-to-wire win over Big Brown with Da’ Tara in 2008. He might have a live chance to pull an upset again with Frammento, who rallied mildly to finish eleventh in the Derby. The colt possesses a grinding style that should be well-suited to the distance of the Belmont, and while his lack of early speed is a concern—deep closers don’t usually fare well in the Belmont—it’s worth noting that Frammento drilled three furlongs in :36 4/5 on May 14th over the training track at Saratoga, a bullet workout that suggests Nick Zito might be trying to sharpen Frammento’s speed.
FROSTED: He was one of just a couple horses to put in a serious late run in the Derby, rallying from fifteenth with a half-mile to go to finish fourth, beaten just 3 ¼ lengths by American Pharoah. What was most impressive about his performance was the stellar move he made on the final turn, sweeping past horses while running on the far outside before staying on gamely in the homestretch. Hand-timing the replay of the race, I caught his fourth quarter-mile fraction in about :24 1/5, a stellar time given how wide he was running. He did tire a bit after that, getting his final quarter-mile in only about :26 3/5, but that was understandable given his big run on the final turn. Although he has closed from off the pace in his last two starts, we know from his earlier races that Frosted also possesses good early speed, which should prove useful in the Belmont. The main question is whether or not he can handle the distance of the Belmont, as his full sister Macaroon was a sprinter with definite distance limitations, and Frosted’s tendency to flatten out in the homestretch suggests twelve furlongs might be beyond his best distance.
KEEN ICE: He put in a mild late run to finish seventh in the Derby, and being by Curlin out of an Awesome Again mare, he is one colt that should have no trouble with the distance of the Belmont. However, his running style of dropping way back early on and passing horses in the homestretch has not been very successful in the Belmont, so that’s something to keep in mind when analyzing his chances.
MADEFROMLUCKY: He was soundly beaten by American Pharoah in both the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) and Arkansas Derby (gr. I), but stepped up with a big effort last time out to win the Peter Pan Stakes by a length over Conquest Curlinate. The second of three Pletcher runners targeting the race, Madefromlucky’s grinding style and respectable early speed are reminiscent of Commissioner, who was beaten a nose in last year’s Belmont Stakes after leading all the way. This is definitely a colt you’ll want to keep an eye on, particularly since he has a good pedigree for the distance and is proven at Belmont Park.
MATERIALITY: If had to choose one colt that I believe is the most likely to upset American Pharoah, my choice would be Materiality. The lightly-raced colt came into the Derby unbeaten in three starts, all achieved by racing right near the early lead. Thus, when he got off to a slow start in the Derby and found himself at the back of the pack—with lots of dirt getting kicked in his face, which he didn’t seem to care for—it wouldn’t have been a surprise had he thrown in the towel and finished way back. Instead, the colt overcame the adversity, putting in a big run in the final quarter-mile to finish sixth. To me, this colt has everything you want to see in a potential Belmont Stakes winner—a strong pedigree for the distance, a good effort in his last race, and plenty of tactical speed. Throw in the remarkable success that Todd Pletcher has had in the Belmont—he’s trained eight horses to finish in the top three since 2006—and I think Materiality has the best chance to pull off an upset in the Belmont.
MUBTAAHIJ: The UAE Derby winner ran an even race to finish eighth in the Derby, but was running out of steam after a ground-saving trip. I expect that we’ll see him closer to the early pace in the Belmont, which could help his chances, but after his effort in the Derby, I do have some reservations about his ability to handle the distance.
TALE OF VERVE: He was a huge longshot in the Preakness Stakes, but rallied from far behind to finish second over a sloppy track. His performance was a major improvement over his previous efforts, but the wet track, fast pace, and sub-par races from several top contenders probably helped his chances. As I have noted several times already, deep closers haven’t had the best of luck in the Belmont, so although Tale of Verve was rallying well at the end of the Preakness, I’m not sure that he will be able to replicate that effort in the Belmont.
So now it’s your turn! What are your thoughts on the horses targeting the Belmont Stakes?