When handicapping the Belmont Stakes, never forget this maxim: the longer the race and the smaller the field, the more dangerous the frontrunner. Dirt races beyond 1-1/4 miles are rare in North America but are becoming more frequent at the stakes level given the creation of the Breeders’ Cup Marathon, which is contested at a stamina-testing 1-3/4 mile distance. The Belmont Stakes, however, remains the most visible dirt marathon in America, and it offers peculiar challenges to the handicapper.
What is considered a marathon? In human terms, a marathon takes two-plus hours to run. In thoroughbred terms, a marathon lasts 2-plus minutes. Marathons are two- or three-turn races, with a good rule of thumb being any race beyond 1-1/4 miles. These races are run more often on turf but are run on dirt as well.
The Belmont Stakes is a typical dirt marathon that rewards the horse that can most efficiently dole out its energy. The farther the race, the longer the horses must run before making their final thrust to the finish. The longer they run, the more energy they expend, so the less “kick” they have. As a result, the frontrunners only get caught if they run out of gas or if another runner has some extra punch to “close the gap.”
Think of a race car. The throttle determines how much horsepower is being released, but the gas tank limits how far you can go and still continue to compete. Wait too long, run out of gas, and you can hold the pedal to the floor all you want, and you still won’t be going anywhere.
Front-running speed is almost universally an advantage to a racehorse. The great misconception is that the longer the race, the less likely a frontrunner will win (or the more likely a closer will catch the early leaders). This just is not true. Stamina is dependent on breeding and conditioning, not on running style. In the case of a talented frontrunner like Preakness winner Shackleford, his front-running style is not a negative in the Belmont Stakes. He is a very fit animal. So his conditioning will not prevent him from getting the distance. Whether or not he is bred with enough stamina to run 12-furlongs is another matter.
Examining the other 2011 contenders, Animal Kingdom is next on the list.
Here are some notable stats from Steve Crist of Daily Racing Form:
- Animal Kingdom would be the first “Derby winner/Preakness runner-up” to win the Belmont in forty-eight years.
- Animal Kingdom is only the sixteenth Derby winner to run second in the Preakness. In the history of the series, the total record for the fifteen other “Derby winners/Preakness runners-up” in the Belmont is: 10 starts: 4 wins, 3 seconds, 2 thirds, and 1 fourth. Five skipped the Belmont altogether. So horses with Animal Kingdom’s Triple Crown track record have run fourth or better every time they’ve tried the Belmont.
Both Shackleford and Animal Kingdom will be facing a Belmont Stakes similar to the Derby and Preakness fields: a mix of Triple Crown contestants and new shooters that includes no clear standout, a few contenders, and a few throw-outs. Animal Kingdom is bred for stamina; Shackleford’s sire is primarily a sire of sprinters. But both ran well in back-to-back races beyond 9-furlongs, which gives them better stamina credentials than the rest of the Belmont field.
Their solid dirt route performances are far more important than having marathon breeding. Entrants like Stay Thirsty and Monzon may have great breeding for 12-furlongs, but their failure to hit the board in multiple recent stakes efforts makes them far weaker contenders than Derby and Preakness winners with less stamina in their bloodlines.
Nehro has run second in three-straight Derbies: the Louisiana, Arkansas, and Kentucky. He is bred to get the marathon distance, but he has run second to similar competition three-straight times. Why should this race be any different?
As for the horses that did not contest the Derby or Preakness, none enter the Belmont off a big stakes win. Prime Cut and Ruler On Ice each ran second in a minor stakes against second- or third-tier competition. They may be fresher runners than their race-worn competition, but they are not Grade One–caliber. The rest of the field are also-rans from the first two Triple Crown races, and aside from Nehro, it is hard to like any from this group.
So the race outcome seems to come back to a pair of closers in Animal Kingdom and Nehro and the frontrunner Shackleford—which brings us back to what wins marathons.
As the Belmont Stakes field seems to shrink almost by the day, the case for a frontrunner gets stronger and stronger. In a small field, it is less likely that someone else will vie for the lead. In jockey terms, the more entrants there are, the more likely one of the riders will vie for the lead or get into a pace duel. Big fields increase the chance that someone will contest the early pace.
Small fields tend to bunch up, peloton-style, with a slow pace. The leader only doles out enough effort to maintain a lead. With fewer runners applying pressure (and with fewer desperate riders taking their shot to grab the lead at any cost), the frontrunner has an advantage. Remember that field size is relative—for the Belmont Stakes, a field of eight or ten is a far cry from the twenty-horse Kentucky Derby field.
The public tends to favor closers in marathons, even though closers do not gain any advantage by waiting to go after the leaders. Although he will be the favorite in the betting, Animal Kingdom’s closing style does not help his cause. He and Nehro are bred to get the distance and rate above the remaining Derby and Preakness foes, but they may have to close a dozen or more lengths just to reach contention—and they may use all of their energy just getting to Shackleford. Either could wilt in the final furlong.
So, it makes sense to play the horses that will try to take the field wire-to-wire in the win pool and combine them in exotics with the most stamina-bred runners, including some long shots.
Requirements for Playing Marathon Frontrunners in the Belmont Stakes:
Be sure to check out Dean Arnold's first handicapping book, A Bettor Way, on sale now through Xlibris Publishing (www.xlibris.com/ABettorWay.html) and most major online booksellers.
- Races beyond 1-1/4 miles on the dirt are rare in North America but are becoming more frequent at the stakes level given the creation of the Breeders’ Cup Marathon.
- When there is a less-than-full field of runners, early speed is more likely to become a tactical advantage.
- In small fields, a single runner is likely to take a clear lead in the early stages of the race. Even if other entrants may vie for the lead, trust that the smaller field size decreases the chance of a pace duel.
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