Belmont Pace Scenario Could Be Testing

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") @J_Keelerman

As we enter the homestretch of the Triple Crown, with just five days remaining until the eagerly-anticipated Belmont Stakes (gr. I), I thought it might prove useful to take a look at the potential pace scenario of the race and see how it might affect the outcome.

It’s important to note that while we have seen some very slow paces in recent renewals of the Belmont, that might not be the case on Saturday. With American Pharoah bidding for the Triple Crown, it’s very possible that we might see a quicker pace than usual in this year’s Belmont. Looking at the historical data, it can be seen that when there is a Triple Crown on the line the average pace fractions of the Belmont tends to be faster—substantially faster—than when the Belmont is just an ordinary race.

The following are the average half-mile, three-quarter mile, and one-mile fractions for the last four Belmonts in which a horse was bidding for the Triple Crown (excluding the 2003 renewal, which was contested over a sloppy track):

1/2 mile 3/4 mile 1 mile
:48.39 1:12.47 1:37.54

Compare these to the average fractions from the last seven Belmonts in which there was no Triple Crown on the line (excluding the 2011 renewal, which was contested over a sloppy track):

1/2 mile 3/4 mile 1 mile
:48.33 1:13.35 1:38.46

A couple of things really stand out when comparing the average times. First off, the half-mile fractions are almost identical regardless of whether there’s a horse bidding for the Triple Crown—in fact, the non-Triple Crown renewals of the race have had slightly faster average half-mile fractions. But all this changes dramatically during the next quarter-mile, as the six-furlong fraction of the Belmont averages about nine-tenths of a second faster when a Triple Crown is on the line. The same holds true for the one-mile fraction.

To me, this suggests that when a horse is trying to win the Triple Crown, the most intense pace pressure comes during the third and fourth quarter-miles of the race, presumably the time when the riders of the other horses challenge the potential champion and see how he responds. We saw this in 2004 when Smarty Jones—after sitting a length off the lead through a modest half-mile in :48.65—was pushed through a crushing third quarter-mile in about :22.91 and a fourth quarter-mile in an exhausting :23.68, which carried him through a mile in 1:35.44. That blazing internal half-mile almost certainly cost Smarty Jones the Triple Crown.

Granted, the 2004 Belmont is an extreme example, but even when the increased pace pressure is less noticeable, it does have an impact on the pace. Last year, when California Chrome was trying to win the Belmont Stakes, the one-mile fraction was timed in 1:37.13, the fourth-fastest clocking since 2002 and substantially faster than average.

So what does this mean for the 2015 Belmont Stakes? Well, with American Pharoah trying to win the Triple Crown, and given his preference to race on or near the early lead, I would expect the pace to get heated after the opening half-mile as his rivals try to challenge him for command of the race.

But which horses will be the ones applying the pressure? That is perhaps an even bigger question. With the defections of Carpe Diem and The Truth Or Else earlier this morning, there aren’t many horses left in the race with enough tactical speed to push American Pharoah through a fast pace. Tale of Verve, Frammento, and Keen Ice have all achieved their best success as deep closers, and it would be a surprise to see any of them near the early lead. Mubtaahij showed good speed in Dubai and could be much closer in the Belmont after unsuccessfully rating off the pace in the Kentucky Derby, but it’s hard to envision him trying to tackle American Pharoah early in the race after tiring in the homestretch of the shorter Kentucky Derby.

This leaves three horses that have flashed enough speed to make things difficult for American Pharoah, those being Frosted, Madefromlucky, and Materiality. The latter colt is believed by many—myself included—to have the best chance at upsetting American Pharoah in the Belmont, and he also appears to be the most likely to challenge the Triple Crown hopeful in the first mile of the race. A slow start cost him any chance in the Derby, where he finished sixth, but he had previously utilized his excellent early speed to go unbeaten in three starts, including the Florida Derby (gr. I). Assuming he returns to his pace-pressing style, Materiality is a colt that could apply some serious pace pressure throughout the race. The same goes for Frosted, who rallied from far back to win the Wood Memorial (gr. I) and finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby. Although he has been a deep-closer as of late, he actually possesses a great deal of tactical speed, and finished a close second in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) last year after tracking the pace. However, it’s important to note that Frosted lacked a serious finishing kick when he was a pace-pressing type, and while I think he might be positioned closer to the lead in the Belmont, I doubt he’s going to try and pressure American Pharoah too early in the race, as doing so would likely sap his finishing strength.

This brings us to Materiality’s stablemate Madefromlucky, who has flashed decent tactical speed throughout his career. Last time out, he settled a few lengths off fast fractions of :46.55 and 1:10.33 in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) before taking command to win by a length. His combination of grinding style, strong pedigree, and proven affinity for Belmont reminds me of Commissioner, who finished second by a nose in last year’s Belmont Stakes after unexpectedly setting the pace. Depending on the post position draw, I can envision Madefromlucky heading straight to the lead and setting a steady, testing pace for American Pharoah to chase, or I can picture him settling a couple lengths off the lead before cranking up the pressure leaving the backstretch.

In essence, I believe the pace scenario of the Belmont Stakes will be determined by Materiality and Madefromlucky, the two colts trained by Todd Pletcher. Both have the speed to challenge American Pharoah during the critical second half-mile of the race, as well as the stamina to remain in contention all the way to the finish. The jockeys of these colts will have to try and balance a fine line between keeping the pressure on American Pharoah while simultaneously saving enough of their own stamina to hold off the deep-closers in the homestretch. In my opinion, the outcome of the race will be determined by the strategies employed by the jockeys of Materiality and Madefromlucky.

Now it’s your turn! How do you think the pace of the Belmont Stakes will unfold?

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