By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
If you're reading this post,
then you're probably wondering who I've picked to win Saturday's 153rd running
of the Belmont Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park. Join the club! I'm still wondering
I find this year's renewal
of the 1 1/2-mile classic to be among the most perplexing in recent memory.
Usually I feel some semblance of confidence in my selection, with time
eventually revealing whether I've landed on the winner (Palace Malice remains a
favorite of mine) or an also-ran (at least Intrepid Heart has won a couple of
races this year!)
But this year, I feel no
such confidence. A firm grasp on the race has eluded me. The Belmont field has
come up small but competitive with eight entries in the mix, and I feel like I
can make a case for anyone to hit the board, and for half a dozen to visit the
winner's circle. Hmm, perhaps I could box the entire field in a 10-cent
superfecta and hope for a chaotic outcome...?
The problem is, we're less
than 48 hours out from the race. So as much as I'd like to wait for a
last-minute handicapping epiphany to bring the Belmont Stakes into
crystal-clear focus, it's time to put picks down on paper (or pixels, as the
case may be) and commit to my selections.
Over the last few days, my
meandering Belmont musings have reached a handful of conclusions, from which a general
wagering strategy can be concocted:
I'm not especially
keen to support morning line favorite #2
Essential Quality (2-1). The champion two-year-old male of 2020 is easily
the most accomplished runner in the field, and a very wide trip surely cost him
victory in the Kentcuky Derby—he was only beaten a length after running at
least 5 1/2 lengths farther than his three conquerors. But has Essential
Quality already peaked? And is he cut out to handle 1 1/2 miles? He flattened
out down the homestretch of the Kentucky Derby, and it's worth noting no
Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner has ever gone on to claim the Belmont.
Florida Derby (G1)
winner #6 Known Agenda (6-1) and
Santa Anita Derby (G1) hero #7 Rock Your
World (9-2) both have the talent to compete at this level... but both have
raced greenly in the past, with occasionally frustrating results. Known Agenda
still feels like a work in progress, and Rock Your World blew the start in the
Kentucky Derby, costing him any chance at victory. The good news is, the small
Belmont Stakes field provides fewer opportunities for Known Agenda and Rock
Your World to get into trouble.
#4 Hot Rod Charlie (7-2) is a picture of consistency, and his
relentless, grinding nature is an ideal fit for the Belmont Stakes. The Kentucky
Derby third-place finisher flaunted stamina when edging away from future
Preakness (G1) runner-up Midnight Bourbon to win the Louisiana Derby (G2) in essentially
gate-to-wire fashion, and he figures to receive a perfect trip on Saturday,
likely stalking Rock Your World through a modest pace.
#3 Rombauer (3-1)
was breathtaking in the Preakness (G1), rallying powerfully from mid-pack to
score by 3 1/2 lengths in the rapid time of 1:53.62. The son of Twirling Candy
was really motoring around the final turn and down the homestretch, running the
fourth quarter-mile in approximately :23 3/5 and the final five-sixteenths in around
:18 3/5. Rombauer has always shown talent, but the Preakness suggests he's finally
putting everything together and maturing into a star.
#8 Overtook (20-1)
is a live longshot with the potential to outrun expectations at double-digit
odds. He probably wasn't fully cranked for the Peter Pan (G3) at Belmont last
month, where he finished third in his first start off a three-month layoff. But
the stoutly bred son of Curlin has trained encouragingly in the interim and
adds blinkers for his toughest assignment to date. I won't be surprised if
Overtook takes a significant step forward for three-time Belmont-winning
trainer Todd Pletcher.
So where does this leave me?
Arguably my most valuable opinion (if I'm correct, of course) is the notion
that Essential Quality is vulnerable as the favorite. His impressive resume notwithstanding,
I'm tempted to exclude the champion gray from my exacta and trifecta wagers, opening
the door for big payoffs.
Among the rest, Hot Rod
Charlie is my tenuous selection. As much as anything, I feel like I can count
on the son of Oxbow to bring his A-game every time, and in a race as
competitive as this Belmont, that's a virtue not to be underestimated. I'm thinking
of keying Hot Rod Charlie for first, second, and third place in trifecta
tickets while using Rombauer, Known Agenda, Rock Your World, and Overtook for
the remaining slots. It's something of a scattershot approach, sure—but if the
right combination hits, we could be looking at a four-figure return on a relatively
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the Belmont Stakes?
Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.