By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Belmont Stakes is a race that is either predictable or inscrutable-it often
seems like there's no in between. When you handicap it correctly, it seems like
everything comes together and you nail the trifecta. When you handicap it
incorrectly, you can be surprised by not only the winner, but the entire
of it is the 1 ½-mile distance, which none of the starters have ever come close
to tackling. Who will have the stamina to see out the distance? Or will every
horse get tired in the final two furlongs, giving an advantage to speed horses
that are right in contention at the top of the stretch?
easy to believe that late-running deep closers will thrive with the extra
distance of the Belmont Stakes, particularly those that were closing fast at
the finish of the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes. But often these strong
late runs are illusions generated by fast early paces and slow closing
fractions in the first two legs of the Triple Crown; in recent years, we've
seen horses like Ice Box, Make Music for Me, Dullahan, Golden Soul, and
Revolutionary close from way back in fast-paced Derbies, skip the Preakness,
and then disappoint in the Belmont Stakes.
not to say that deep closers can't be successful in the Belmont
Stakes-occasionally, they run very well and even win-but taking a stand against
horses that routinely drop 10+ lengths behind the early pace can be a good
place to start in handicapping the Belmont Stakes. By the same token, favoring
horses with good tactical speed can guide you to live longshots with a chance
to win or hit the board at a huge price.
there are the long, sweeping turns at Belmont Park. Getting caught wide on
these turns can be disastrous, another reason why speed horses-who race on or
near the rail-can out-perform the closers, who are usually forced to rally on
the outside and lose ground. And in a field of thirteen horses, there's an even
greater chance of horses getting caught wide, particularly those drawn in
outside post positions.
all of these reasons, I think it's worth trying to beat the heavy favorite Exaggerator. Let me start off by saying
you won't find a bigger Exaggerator fan than me. I've been a fan since his
maiden win, and as some might recall, he was one of my strongest plays at the
Breeders' Cup last year, where he finished fourth in the Juvenile.
while Exaggerator is by far the most accomplished horse in this year's Belmont,
his greatest races-wins in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and Preakness along
with a runner-up effort in the Kentucky Derby-have all come with very fast
paces that favored his late-running style. The Preakness in particular was a
race that really fell apart, as the opening quarter-mile was the fastest in
history and the closing fractions of :26.22 for the fourth quarter and :20.12
for the final 1 ½ furlongs were very slow.
are other reasons to consider playing against Exaggerator. For example, he's
3-for-3 on wet, sealed tracks and only 2-for-8 on unsealed tracks, and drawing
post 11 could set him up for a wide trip, especially if the pace is slow and
Exaggerator winds up racing closer to the lead than usual. There's also the
quick turnaround from the Preakness Stakes-can Exaggerator handle three races
in five weeks and produce another huge effort in the Belmont?
be the first to admit that trying to beat Exaggerator could be an exercise in
futility. At this point in time, he's the best horse in the race by a wide
margin and I won't be surprised if he romps to victory like Afleet Alex and
stamps himself as the best horse of his generation. I wouldn't want to play any
multi-race wagers without him, but in a race that otherwise looks wide-open, I
think there's a chance to get a longshot winner home on top and make a big
score, both in the win pool and in the exacta, trifecta, and superfecta.
since I tend to play against deep closers in the Belmont Stakes, I think horses
like Cherry Wine, Trojan Nation, Lani, Brody's Cause, and
Creator will be vulnerable as well.
One deep closers that I do like is Suddenbreakingnews,
who showed more tactical speed as a two-year-old and might revert to a more
forwardly-placed style under the guidance of two-time Belmont-winning jockey
Mike Smith. I noted before the Kentucky Derby that Suddenbreakingnews seems to
do his best running in the homestretch and not on the far turn, but the wider
turns at Belmont might enable him to start his run sooner and put himself in
striking position at the top of the stretch.
for my top choice, I want a horse with proven tactical speed and a pedigree
that suggests twelve furlongs won't be an issue. One horse that I have
seriously considered is Gettysburg,
who has been entered as a rabbit for stablemate Creator. The fact that he is a
rabbit implies that he will set the pace and tire, but I think he has a strong
chance to outrun expectations and possibly win the race. His record so far
reminds me a lot of Commissioner, who was beaten a nose in the 2014 Belmont
Stakes; like Commissioner, Gettysburg disappointed early on the Kentucky Derby
trail, but showed improvement to hit the board in the Sunland Derby (known as
the Sunland Festival of Racing Stakes this year) before finishing off-the-board
in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I). But unlike Commissioner, who never threatened in
the Arkansas Derby, Gettysburg actually ran well in that race, setting a
blazing pace before tiring in the final furlong to finish fifth, beaten just 5
that effort, Gettysburg cut back to one turn in an 8.5-furlong allowance race
at Belmont, which drew a stakes-caliber field. The talented Gift Box won
impressively in a fast time, but I thought that Gettysburg did very well to finish
third after being involved in the early pace. Again, this effort reminds me of
Commissioner, who prepped for the Belmont Stakes by cutting back to one turn in
the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) and finishing a distant second.
specific "rabbit," Gettysburg should have no trouble securing the early lead,
and it might even be a clear and unchallenged lead. If Gettysburg gets out in
front and gets into a comfortable rhythm, I think he can take this field a long
way on the front end and maybe even win.
Todd Pletcher-trained duo of Destin and
Stradivari also have a lot of
tactical speed and should be forwardly placed in the Belmont. I find it
difficult to side with one over the other, but slightly prefer Destin on the
basis of his strong pedigree, victories in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III)
and Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II), and solid sixth-place finish in the Kentucky
Derby. Pletcher has enjoyed strong success with Derby also-rans in the Belmont,
winning with Palace Malice and hitting the board with Dunkirk and Stay Thirsty,
and Destin should save plenty of ground from post two to put himself right in
the mix turning for home.
with all of that said, the horse I am picking to win the Belmont Stakes is Governor Malibu. A capable New
York-bred trained by Christophe Clement, Govenor Malibu has shown steady
improvement throughout his career and took a big step forward when second in
the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) last time out. On that occasion, Governor Malibu
settled near the back of the field through solid early fractions, but moved up
strongly halfway through the race to reach contention. Despite having to wait
in traffic on the far turn, Governor Malibu accelerated strongly once clear and
cut the corner very well, running the final three furlong in a stellar :36 1/5 to
fall less than a length short of catching the unbeaten Unified.
don't think we've seen the best that Governor Malibu has to offer, and with a
strong pedigree (by Malibu Moon out of Akilina, a two-time stakes winner going
a mile or longer), I don't think the Belmont distance will be an issue. He
showed in the Peter Pan that he doesn't mind racing inside of horses, a
valuable asset since he's drawn post position one, and having Joel Rosario in
the saddle is a positive. Rosario won the 2014 Belmont aboard Tonalist, and as
a friend on Twitter recently pointed out to me, Rosario has finished in the
trifecta with his last four mounts in the Belmont. If Governor Malibu takes
another step forward, I think he has what it takes to win this race.
Now it's your turn!
Who do you like in the Belmont Stakes?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website http://www.theturfboard.com/.