By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
It's hard to believe another Triple Crown season has come
and (practically) gone. The 2019 series wraps up on Saturday with the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes (G1) at
Belmont Park, the highlight of a spectacular card that includes seven other
Grade 1 events.
Contrary to popular belief, the 1 ½-mile distance of the
"Test of Champions" doesn't give an advantage to deep closers. Actually, the
extended distance and typically modest pace combine to favor front-runners and
pressers/stalkers who can secure good early position and keep on grinding
through the long homestretch.
With that in mind, let's go through the Belmont Stakes
field in horse-by-horse fashion and look for horses who could be advantaged (or
disadvantaged) by the Belmont's historical tendencies....
Joevia: Call me crazy, but I don't think Joevia is out of the
mix in the Belmont Stakes. He'll be a longshot, but his form really isn't that
bad. He won his debut at Monmouth last summer, then returned from a seven-month
layoff to finish second in the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct, beaten a
neck by the future Gotham Stakes (gr. III) winner Haikal. Subsequently, Joevia
used the 1 1/16-mile Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park for his two-turn
debut, but wound up chasing the capable Alwaysmining through a slow pace and
was compromised when the latter sprinted home the final five-sixteenths of a
mile in :29.99. You can draw a line through that run, because Joevia had no realistic
chance to catch Alwaysmining under those circumstances.
Then Joevia stepped up sharply in class for the Wood
Memorial (gr. II) and got caught up in a destructive pace duel with Not That
Brady, with the two front-runners pulling seven lengths clear of the rest through
fractions of :23.62 and :46.91. Understandably, Joevia weakened to cross the
wire seventh, but he rebounded in the 1 1/16-mile Long Branch Stakes on May 12th
at Monmouth, leading all the way to win by 2 ¾ lengths.
In terms of Beyer speed figures, Joevia still needs to
step up his game; the 89 he posted in the Long Branch is a little on the slow
side. But he does have one significant advantage in his favor—he's the only
true front-runner entered in the Belmont Stakes. If he receives any pace
pressure at all, it figures to be modest, so don't be surprised if Joevia takes
this field a long way on the front end. If he gets ignored up front, we could
be looking at another Da' Tara.
Everfast: He ran out of his skin to finish second in the
Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at odds of 29-1, but this was such a huge jump forward
off his previous form, it's difficult to expect a repeat in the Belmont Stakes.
You can argue Everfast was aided by a mild pace meltdown in the Preakness
(three of the top five finishers rallied from ten or more lengths off the
pace), and his style of dropping far back and making one big run isn't usually
a successful strategy in the Belmont Stakes. Everfast's form reminds me of
Cherry Wine, another Dale Romans-trained runner who capitalized on a fast pace
to finish second in the 2016 Preakness before coming home a non-threatening
seventh in the Belmont Stakes.
Master Fencer: This Japanese-bred colt outran the
expectations of many bettors when rallying up the rail to cross the wire
seventh in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), beaten just four lengths. He was
finishing legitimately fast through the final quarter-mile, running the
distance in :24.60 per Trakus, but I felt the rail was the best part of the
sloppy, sealed racing surface, so Master Fencer may have benefited from finding
the best footing down the homestretch. I suspect his late-running style won't
be as effective in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes, so I'm reluctant to support him
with wagering dollars, though he remains a fun horse to root for as a fan.
I have mixed feelings about this son of Arch. On the plus side, he put together
a nice string of efforts at Aqueduct during the winter and spring, including a
hard-fought victory in the Withers Stakes (gr. III) and a runner-up effort in
the Wood Memorial (gr. II). I'm willing to draw a line through Tax's
disappointing run over a sloppy track in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), especially
since he wasn't able to employ his usual pace-stalking style. His tactical
speed could be a major asset in the Belmont Stakes.
But on the other hand, part of me wonders if Tax has
found his ceiling as a Grade 3 type, and trainer Danny Gargan was not very
enthusiastic about Tax's final pre-Belmont workout. He even pondered skipping
the Belmont before deciding to stick with Plan A and compete as scheduled.
I also wonder if Tax might be at his best running shorter
than 1 ½ miles, since he's actually lost ground from the eighth pole to the
finish line in his last four starts. Ultimately, I'm going to lean against Tax
in the Belmont Stakes.
An experiment with adding blinkers for the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) seemed to
go awry since Bourbon War was reluctant to settle down in the early going and
failed to fire when the real running began, finishing eighth. The blinkers will
come off for the Belmont Stakes, but even if Bourbon War relaxes better, he's
still a one-run deep closer at the mercy of the pace. When he gets a fast pace
to set up his rally, he can be dangerous—just look at his late-charging
runner-up finish behind Code of Honor in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II)
three starts back. But he's more likely to receive a poor setup in the 1 ½-mile
Belmont Stakes, and as we saw in the Florida Derby (gr. I)—where Bourbon War
finished fourth in a dramatically slow early/fast late race—he has trouble
getting involved when things don't go his way. I consider using him on the
bottom of my exotics bets.
Spinoff: There are plenty of reasons to respect Spinoff in the
Belmont Stakes. He fits the typical profile of a Belmont Stakes winner, having
competed in the Kentucky Derby before skipping the Preakness, and he's trained
by Todd Pletcher, who has won this race three times in the last dozen years. If
you forgive Spinoff's no-show in the Derby, where he evidently didn't care for
the sloppy, sealed track, his form is solid with a close runner-up effort in
the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) ranking as his best performance. Spinoff has ample
tactical speed too, which should help him secure a perfect position in the
But despite Spinoff's virtues, I find myself hesitant to
support him. He had every opportunity to win the Louisiana Derby and actually
led by a length at the eighth pole before handing victory to the rail-rallying
By My Standards. Spinoff's pedigree suggests 1 ½ miles won't be an issue, but
on the track he gives me a different impression; I wonder if he might be more
comfortable running shorter distances against slightly easier company than
he'll encounter in the Belmont Stakes.
Does this mean I'll take a stand against Spinoff? Not
necessarily. He offers enough positives to warrant inclusion in my exotic bets,
but I'll avoid playing him on top, and I won't make him a key horse who must
hit the board in order for me to cash.
Sir Winston: Following a series of so-so efforts in
Kentucky Derby prep races across the country, Sir Winston stepped up his game
significantly in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. III), producing a strong rally in a
fast race to finish second by 1 ¼ lengths, earning an excellent 100 Beyer speed
But like many horses in the Belmont Stakes field, Sir
Winston lacks tactical speed and has done his best running as a deep closer.
Furthermore, in the Peter Pan he benefited from facing a small field and
picking up the pieces after Interpid Heart stumbled at the start and the pace
players weakened from trying to match strides with the victorious Global
Maybe Sir Winston turned a corner in the Peter Pan and is
ready to keep improving—he's certainly bred to relish the 1 ½-mile distance of
the Belmont Stakes. But his running style could prove problematic, placing him
near the back of the pack through slow early fractions. I'll consider using Sir
Winston on the bottom of my tickets, but I'll stand against him for win
Heart: Prior to Intrepid Heart's debut, I noticed his name
among the Triple Crown nominees and opined that this unraced colt could turn
out to be the 2019 Belmont Stakes winner. I see no reason to jump off the
On paper, Intrepid Heart jumped out as an obvious Belmont
Stakes candidate thanks to his connections and his pedigree. He's trained by
Todd Pletcher, who has sent out 11 runners to crack the trifecta in the Belmont
Stakes since 2006, a streak that includes three winners. And if there's a horse
better bred to win the Belmont Stakes than Intrepid Heart, I don't know who it
is. Intrepid Heart is a son of Tapit, who has already sired three Belmont
winners, while Intrepid Heart's dam—Flaming Heart—is a daughter of the 1997
Belmont winner Touch Gold and has already produced Commissioner, runner-up by a
nose in the 2014 Belmont Stakes.
Intrepid Heart showed plenty of potential in his first
two starts, easily breaking his maiden in gate-to-wire fashion going a mile at
Oaklawn before using stalking tactics to relentlessly rally and win a 1
1/16-mile allowance race at Keeneland by half a length. These efforts made him
the favorite for the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II), where Intrepid Heart
stretched out in distance but raced around one turn rather than two.
At first glance, Intrepid Heart's Peter Pan effort
appears disappointing. He finished third in a small field, beaten six lengths
while never threatening the top two. But the Peter Pan was a fast race from
start to finish (the winner, Global Campaign, posted a 101 Beyer), and Intrepid
Heart's grinding style wasn't enough to keep up. He was also compromised by
stumbling at the start and running up behind another horse in the homestretch,
causing him to check and lose momentum.
Intrepid Heart will add blinkers for the Belmont Stakes,
which should help him show more speed, and I think the 1 ½-mile distance will
bring Intrepid Heart's stamina into play and make him a tough contender to catch
in the homestretch. He's trained well for the Belmont, most recently breezing
five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 on June 1st, a move that reportedly saw
him gallop-out a mile in 1:38 and change. That's a sharp move reminiscent of
the work turned in by Pletcher's Palace Malice prior to his upset victory in
the 2013 Belmont Stakes.
I'll admit Intrepid Heart probably isn't the most likely
winner of the Belmont Stakes; he does need to step up his game a notch. But at
anywhere near his 10-1 morning line odds, I view him as the horse offering the best
wagering value in the Belmont Stakes, so I'll stand by my declaration from
before Intrepid Heart's debut and side with him to win on Saturday.
of Will: At this point, I really can't knock anything War of
Will has accomplished. I just have to tip my hat to a colt who has repeatedly
outperformed my expectations throughout the year, most recently in the
Preakness Stakes (G1), where he was perfectly professional rating behind horses
before rallying up the rail to win by 1 ¼ lengths with a 99 Beyer.
War of Will has gradually transformed from a
front-running turf horse into a versatile dirt runner who can run his best from
pretty much any position. He's got the tactical speed to secure a
forwardly-placed trip in the Belmont, and while his pedigree doesn't
necessarily scream 1 ½ miles, there's enough stamina there to back up his
talent and help him see out the distance.
War of Will is probably the most likely winner of the
Belmont Stakes, and I'll use him on all my tickets, including multi-race
wagers. But at 2-1 on the morning line, I'm not convinced he offers the best
betting value in this seemingly wide-open race.
Tacitus: This son of Tapit has done little wrong in his career,
scoring back-to-back wins in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) and Wood Memorial
Stakes (gr. II) before rallying to cross the wire fourth in the Kentucky Derby
(gr. I). I was particularly impressed with his Derby performance, since he
seemed decidedly uncomfortable dealing with muddy kickback throughout the race,
but nevertheless persevered to rally and finish just 3 ¼ lengths behind.
Tacitus showed the same tenacity in the Wood Memorial, battling his way through
traffic early on to secure a good position and ultimately wear down Tax to win.
The only problem with Tacitus is his running style.
Forgive me if I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but Tacitus is yet
another late runner who figures to drop well off the pace early on, especially
while breaking from post ten. Tacitus is probably the best closer in the
Belmont field, in part because he has a bit more tactical speed and can get
into contention sooner rather than later, but a slow pace wouldn't help his chances
and I'm not enthusiastic about counting on a closer to prevail at 9-5. Can he
win? With the right trip, yes. Can he hit the board? Absolutely, and I'll use
him on my tickets. But among the favorites, I'm more enthusiastic about War of
Will, who figures to have a significant tactical advantage over Tacitus.
First: Intrepid Heart
Second: War of Will
Live longshot: Joevia
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Belmont
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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 www.theturfboard.com.