Derby Runners May Hold an Edge in the Belmont Stakes

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

On Saturday, Belmont Park will host a spectacular day of racing highlighted by the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes (gr. I), the third and final leg of the Triple Crown.

The last-minute defection of champion Classic Empire due a foot abscess has left the Belmont Stakes without a clear favorite, and has also removed one of the most prominent speed horses from the race. In fact, among the twelve horses that remain in the race, only a handful have shown a desire to race on or near the early lead. Since the twelve-furlong distance of the Belmont Stakes already has a tendency to result in a modest pace that favors speed, it appears that closers could be at a disadvantage in this year's edition of the race. 

With this in mind, let's take a look at the entries!

Twisted Tom: A winner of three straight races for trainer Chad Brown, Twisted Tom has a strong pedigree and was clearly best in the nine-furlong Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel on April 22nd, but his speed figures are on the slow side and this is a major class test. While you have to respect any colt that is winning with regularity, I'll side against Twisted Tom in the Belmont Stakes. 

Tapwrit: Even though Tapwrit has been beaten by double-digit lengths in his last two starts, I view him as one of the primary contenders to win the Belmont. After flashing excellent form in Florida during the winter, including a 4 ½-length romp in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II), Tapwrit finished fifth in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) without an obvious excuse, but his rebound in the Kentucky Derby was impressive, though a bit unnoticed. After a troubled start, Tapwrit found himself 14 lengths off the early lead (much farther back than usual), but gradually threaded his way through the field and rallied up the rail to finish a solid sixth, a little more than a length behind Classic Empire.

Tapwrit's form is very similar to that of Destin, another Todd Pletcher-trained runner that ran second by a nose in the 2016 Belmont Stakes after winning the Tampa Bay Derby and finishing sixth in the Kentucky Derby. Since the Derby, Tapwrit has been training steadily at Belmont Park, where he worked five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 in company with Patch, easily besting his workmate and galloping-out another quarter-mile in about :26 flat. This was a solid breeze from a horse not typically known for being impressive in the mornings, and from all appearances Tapwrit is coming into the Belmont ready for another big run. 

It's also hard to ignore Pletcher's overall record in the Belmont Stakes, which includes two winners (Rags to Riches and Palace Malice) plus five seconds (Bluegrass Cat, Dunkirk, Stay Thirsty, Commissioner, and Destin) and two thirds (Ready's Echo and Sunriver), all since 2006. Drawing post two will give Tapwrit an opportunity to save ground on the turns, which could be a big advantage. Is this the year that Pletcher picks up a third Belmont victory?

Gormley: Although his ninth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby isn't impressive at first glance, I thought Gormley actually ran a huge race. Breaking from post eighteen, Gormley was caught very wide throughout the Derby and seemed to react to the muddy kick-back early in the race, causing him to drop back early on before making a sustained mid-race move to rally into fourth place around the far turn. Considering that he was under pressure to advance from a long, long way out, I was surprised that Gormley stayed on well enough to finish ninth despite some bumping in the homestretch. 

Gormley's best efforts have come when he's been able to settle into a rhythm and stay out of trouble, so the longer distance (and presumably modest pace) of the Belmont Stakes should help him achieve that comfortable rhythm. His pedigree is strong, and his 8-1 morning line odds are solid for a two-time Grade 1 winner. I view him as an intriguing contender to win or hit the board at a big price.

J Boys Echo: After defeating future Preakness Stakes winner Cloud Computing by 3 ½ lengths in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III), J Boys Echo seemed like a major contender for the Kentucky Derby. However, he faltered when fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) and was subsequently beaten 23 lengths in the Derby, failing to contend at any point following a troubled start. Perhaps he didn't care for the wet track, but while his pedigree holds promise for the Belmont distance and he's training well, his overall form suggests that this level of competition might be a little too steep for him. I view him as a contender to round out the trifecta or superfecta. 

Hollywood Handsome: Dallas Stewart has achieved a reputation in recent years for finishing second in Triple Crown races with major longshots like Macho Again, Golden Soul, Commanding Curve, and Tale of Verve. You can make a case that Hollywood Handsome could be Stewart's latest live longshot, for the son of Tapizar recently won an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Churchill Downs with an impressive late run, closing into slow fractions to win by a neck while running the final five-sixteenths of a mile in a quick :30.16 according to Trakus.

However, as a closer without much early speed, Hollywood Handsome's running style might not be ideal for the generally speed-favoring Belmont Stakes, and his pedigree appears geared toward shorter distances than a mile and a half. While I think Hollywood Handsome is one to consider at a big price for the trifecta or superfecta, I'll look at others for the top couple of spots. 

Lookin at Lee: He's been a picture of consistency since last summer, peaking with a runner-up effort in the Kentucky Derby, but he rode the rail with a perfect trip that day and is still 0-for-8 in graded stakes company and in route races. He'll pick up the services of top jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., who won the Belmont last year with a perfect ride aboard Creator, but Lookin at Lee's deep-closing style probably isn't well-suited to a race like the Belmont.

Irish War Cry: Thus far, the career of Irish War Cry has been comprised of explosive victories and disappointing defeats, with nothing in between. On his best day, Irish War Cry is a force to reckon with-he won the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) by 3 ¾ lengths and the Wood Memorial (gr. I) by 3 ½ lengths, earning a pair of 101 Beyer speed figures while defeating the likes of Classic Empire, Cloud Computing, and Gunnevera. In between those two victories he finished seventh in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), beaten 21 lengths, and tenth in the Kentucky Derby, beaten 16 lengths. 

However, I believe that Irish War Cry's Derby effort was considerably better than it appears at first glance. Racing over a wet track that seemed to be favoring the inside paths, Irish War Cry was caught wide every step of the way while tracking a solid early pace. Rounding the final turn, he moved up to challenge for the lead and appeared to have a lot left in the tank-jockey Rajiv Maragh even looked over his shoulder, a sign of confidence, and later said he thought Irish War Cry was going to put in a big run. Instead, Irish War Cry faltered turning for home and faded in the stretch, though he was eased up a bit late and might have finished a bit closer if urged.

If you forgive Irish War Cry's Derby finish, then it's not hard to make a case that he can win the Belmont Stakes. As a son of Curlin, who sired 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, the twelve-furlong distance should be within Irish War Cry's reach. In terms of peak speed figures, he's one of the fastest horses in the race, and his ability to win while on the lead or tracking the pace is perfect for the Belmont Stakes. 

I'm also encouraged by the fact that trainer Graham Motion elected to run Irish War Cry in the Belmont after seemingly removing him from further Triple Crown consideration following the Kentucky Derby. I have the feeling that Irish War Cry is sitting on a big rebound, especially in a race that lacks any serious speed on paper.

Senior Investment: Having crossed the wire first in four of his last six starts, Senior Investment certainly knows how to win. Following a narrow victory in the Lexington Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland, Senior Investment tackled the Preakness Stakes and unleashed a big rally to finish third. However, in both of those races Senior Investment benefited from fast pace fractions that enhanced his late run; he might not get such an ideal setup in the Belmont. The time to play him was probably the Preakness, where he was 31-1-while he warrants respect, the value may be gone this time around. 

Meantime: After breaking his maiden third time out by 7 ½ lengths over a sealed track at Keeneland, Meantime caught another sealed track in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. III) at Belmont Park, in which he set the pace but was passed in the stretch to finish second, beaten 3 ½ lengths in a strung-out field. He figures to be a prominent pace factor, but if the track is dry, he might be at a disadvantage while facing a field of this caliber.

Multiplier: After rallying to win the Illinois Derby (gr. III) by a nose, Multiplier was sent off as a longshot in the Preakness Stakes, where he dropped thirteen lengths back early on before rallying mildly to finish sixth, though beaten only a length for third place. But as a deep closer, Multiplier is another that could be at a disadvantage in the Belmont Stakes, especially since his pedigree seems geared toward shorter distances. 

Epicharis: This Japanese shipper will attempt to improve on the solid form of his compatriot Lani, who finished third in last year's Belmont Stakes. In a general sense I believe Epicharis is a much stronger contender than Lani, as he went 4-for-4 in Japan (winning by an average of nearly 6 ½ lengths) before finishing second by a head to the talented Group 1 winner Thunder Snow in the UAE Derby on March 25th. However, whereas Lani ran in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness prior to his Belmont effort (improving each time he ran), Epicharis has not run since the UAE Derby and will be making his U.S. debut this Saturday. While it would come as no surprise if Epicharis runs well, this looks like a tough task and the value might not be enough to warrant a wager.

Patch: He had his fair share of trouble in the Kentucky Derby, breaking from post twenty and receiving a rough trip en route to finishing fourteenth, beaten 21 lengths. I would draw a line through that performance and judge him off his previous form, which includes a late-running second-place finish in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), in which he capitalized on a quick pace and a ground-saving trip. His pedigree suggests that the Belmont distance won't be an issue (his sire and dam sire both won the Belmont), but Patch was clearly out-worked by stablemate Tapwrit in a five-furlong breeze on June 2nd at Belmont, and since Tapwrit's form overall has been superior, it's hard to side with Patch over his stablemate. 

To condense this all into something shorter, I view Gormley, Irish War Cry, and Tapwrit as the main contenders in the Belmont Stakes. If I had to pick one horse to win regardless of odds, I would side with Irish War Cry, though in a wide-open race where it's difficult to predict how the odds will unfold, I would keep an eye on the tote board to determine which horses offers the best value. Judging strictly from the morning line odds, I am drawn to Tapwrit at 6-1, though I wouldn't be surprised if he goes off at a shorter price. For the bottom of the trifecta and superfecta, Epicharis, Hollywood Handsome, and J Boys Echo are the three that interest me most, with the latter two being of particular interest since their morning line odds (30-1 and 15-1) are significantly higher than the odds assigned to Epicharis (4-1).

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Belmont Stakes?


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

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