Playing the Belmont Stakes

Preakness Stakes, Spur of the Moment, Triple Crown Comments Off on Playing the Belmont Stakes

By Dean Arnold

The Belmont Stakes (G1) is a true marathon, and most horses will not run as well in this race as they have run previously — simply because they were trained for middle distance races, not marathons.

Most horses on the Triple Crown trail are much better suited to nine-furlongs than Belmont’s 12-furlong grueling test. For $1,500,000 in purse money and the chance to take home a classic trophy, trainers will try to stretch the limits of their horses before giving them a long summer break.

Traditional handicapping principles can be misleading when assessing Belmont Stakes (G1) entrants. Speed figures, pace figures, ability to carry a lead, and ability to finish in the stretch at middle distances should not be extrapolated into an estimate of marathon performance.

Every year, the Belmont Stakes (G1) seems to come down to jockeys working with their mounts in a contest of carefully doling out energy. The farther the race, the longer the horses must run before making their final thrust to the finish. The more they run, the more energy they expend, so the less ‘kick’ they have. That is why so many horses that looked brilliant in the stretch of the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness (G1) rarely show such athleticism in the Belmont Stakes (G1).

But how does one judge horses that were well thought of but ran poorly in the Kentucky Derby (G1) when they return 35 days later and try to run even further? It is easy to give horses a second chance if they went into the Kentucky Derby (G1) as serious contenders and ran poorly with a legitimate excuse. If you think Tacitus didn’t show his best due to mud, wide trip, etc. there are reasons to give him one more chance. But the distance of the Belmont Stakes (G1) makes it a very unique challenge. The long layoff helps, and since 2000 there have been 11 Belmont winners that last raced in the Kentucky Derby (or Kentucky Oaks). In the same time period, only Justify, American Pharaoh, Afleet Alex, and Point Given won the Belmont after contesting the first two legs of the Triple Crown. This is a grueling series, and the toll it takes is the reason only War of Will will contest all three legs in 2019.

With War of Will, it’s all a matter of perspective:

If you are a fan of War of Will, you see a top prospect that had a perfect trip early in the Kentucky Derby (G1). He bided his time, waited to make a winning move, and just as he began a rally to engage the leader (Maximum Security), he was eliminated from contention. He regrouped in 14 days and showed his dominance in the Preakness (G1), establishing that he is indeed one of the top three-year-olds of his generation. For fans of War of Will, anything above even money is a bargain against this largely unproven field.

If you are not a fan of War of Will, you probably see him as a horse who was enjoying a perfect rail trip on a sloppy track that he was bred to relish in the Derby. Right when he was running out of energy, he was brushed aside by Maximum Security and faded from contention. Two weeks later, he came back in the Preakness (G1), again enjoyed a perfect rail-skimming trip and spurted to the lead with enough momentum to keep anyone else from catching him before he crossed the finish line. Being a son of War Front (known more as an amazing middle distance sire than as a father of great stayers), War of Will won the Preakness (G1) at the outer limits of his pedigree stamina. Asking him to win the Belmont Stakes (G1) at a much greater distance and as the only horse to contest all three legs of the Triple Crown is asking too much of a horse that has shown he needs every advantage to win. For those that feel this is an accurate description of War of Will’s Triple Crown efforts thus far, he is a beatable favorite that should be played against with enthusiasm.

Tacitus has a close to the pace stalking style and a five-week freshening that may put him in the best position to endure and prevail in the Belmont Stakes (G1). Like War of Will, he will stalk the early leaders and try to pounce, but may be better bred for marathon distances and may have more energy left at this point in the spring campaign. Closers like Bourbon War, Master Fencer and Tax tend to be favored by the public in marathon races and certainly may be able to close a lot of ground and factor into exotics, but getting up to win from far back is an unusual path to Belmont victory in recent years. It seems clear that War of Will and Tacitus are a cut above the other runners in the field. The combination of stamina breeding, five weeks rest, and a New York home field advantage all tip the scales in Tacitus’ favor. Should War of Will completely succumb to the taxing efforts of the Triple Crown campaign, it is entirely possible that he fades from top positions in deep stretch. In that case, it is easy to make the case for any exotics upsetter. So Tacitus is a solid win play, but horseplayers are cautioned from relying on any particular upsetter stealing the show on the win end from far back, for many of the runners entered this Saturday are simply overmatched against the best of this generation.

Be sure to check out Dean Arnold's handicapping book, A Bettor Way, on sale now through Amazon.

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