The Belmont Stakes, horse racing’s third jewel of the Triple Crown, will be contested Saturday in New York. Referred to as the “Test of a Champion,” the race asks these three-year-olds to do something that most have never done before and never will again: run a 1.5-mile marathon.
A quarter-mile longer than the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont is one of the only 1.5-mile races on the American calendar. This year’s edition lacks sizzle without Derby-winner Always Dreaming, or Preakness-champ Cloud Computing, but it’s produced big prices over the last decade and that should keep potential bettors (i.e. you) interested.
Let me help you hone in on a smart wager. (Be advised: the betting advice at the end uses some technical jargon. If there’s a word or phrase you do not understand, consult our handy horse-racing glossary and/or our series of articles on exotic wagers.)
From a betting perspective, there are few things better than disliking the favorite: (correctly) eliminating the chalk is gold.
Classic Empire had his backers at the Preakness, and for good reason. He had a brutal trip at the Derby but still rallied to finish fourth despite that terrible racing luck. Those backers looked prescient at the Preakness when he put away Always Dreaming and looked to be home-free, but he was caught at the wire by Cloud Computing.
Classic Empire will be very well bet, and deservedly so after two solid Triple Crown efforts (plus winning five of seven races prior). That said, much more accomplished horses have tried and failed to win the Belmont after grueling efforts in the Derby and Preakness. Remember, prior to American Pharoah (2015), ten straight Triple Crown contenders saw their hopes die in New York.
Modern equine are not trained to race three times in five weeks. The numbers say Classic Empire should reasonably be the favorite. History tells us that what he is trying to accomplish is incredibly difficult, and he’s a great horse to bet against.
He was deservedly one of the favorites at the Kentucky Derby having won four of five career races. He finished a disappointing tenth in Louisville, and trainer Graham Motion gave him some time to recover. The winner of the Wood Memorial, Irish War Cry notched a grade-two victory at the Holy Bull Stakes. He was seventh at the Fountain of Youth Stakes in March behind Gunnevera and Practical Joke among others. He is a logical contender among this group.
Japanese-bred Epicharis finished second to Thunder Snow in Dubai’s UAE Derby in March, but then passed on the Derby and Preakness to get acclimated to U.S. soil. Now he is being asked to accomplish something we virtually never see. Classic races run on dirt in North America are rarely won by horses that aren’t based in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. Each of his four wins came in his homeland, and his jockey, Christophe Lemaire, doesn’t regularly ride at Belmont.
Based on his very short odds in each of his four wins in Japan, it seems unlikely his competition was strong. Thunder Snow, the horse that bested him in Dubai, more or less refused to run in the Kentucky Derby, breaking from the starting gate, and then stopping. At 10/1 or more, Epicharis will be a reasonable bet. Many think he’s going to be closer to 5/1. At that price, I’ll pass.
There is something to be said for his deep closing style in a race where many horses might be staggering down the long stretch run. That said, after getting a dream trip to finish second in the Kentucky Derby, he was a non-factor at the Preakness, finishing a distant fourth. He is two-for-eleven all time, and hasn’t won since two sprint victories at Ellis Park late last summer. New York-based jockey Irad Ortiz is an improvement over Corey Lanerie, who rode him in the Derby and Preakness, but Lookin at Lee is simply not good enough, particularly at a fairly short price against fresher horses.
After starting his career three-for-five, Tapwrit’s results got worse as his competition got better. He was a well beaten fifth at the Bluegrass Stakes in April, and a noncompetitive sixth in the Kentucky Derby. He’s been off since then, and trainer Todd Pletcher has a good track record with those who fail in Louisville, skip the Preakness, and return at the Belmont Park, his home track. Tapwrit also has blood on his side. His sire, Tapit, has had five entrants in the Belmont over the past three years a four hit the board: two finished first, one finished second, and one finished third. In a where you can’t be sure who wants to run that far, having the right genes is a plus.
Senior Investment (31/1) finished third at the Preakness, and didn’t get a perfect trip. He was fractious, steadied, and raced wide, yet beat six horses, finishing four-and-three-quarter lengths behind Cloud Computing. He was a big price because, aside from winning the Lexington Stakes, he had never beaten better than mid-level claiming horses. It is possible he is late developing and likes extra distance. That said, unless the price is large, there won’t be value in New York.
A winner of four out of six career races before bumping early in the Kentucky Derby and stalling down the lane to finish ninth, Gormley has won two grade-one races, including the top West Coast Derby tuneup, the Santa Anita Derby. He’s been off for five weeks, and trainer John Shirreffs has been working the horse with blinkers, which should keep him closer to the lead at the Belmont, a style that was successful early in his career.
He has two career wins but just one really good race in seven career outings (March’s Gotham Stakes, where he beat Cloud Computing). Even if you throw out his 15th-place finish at the Kentucky Derby, which saw him start poorly in muddy conditions, you still have to come to terms with his fourth-place performance in the Blue Grass Stakes. There are both reasons for optimism and pessimism.
This is a wide-open race if you don’t like Classic Empire, and therefore totally dismissing the longest shots isn’t advisable. In horizontal wagers, the more horses you can cover the better.
Patch has run only four times, with just a maiden win. He was 14th in the Kentucky Derby after finishing second in the Louisiana Derby.
Multiplier won a maiden race and then took the Illinois Derby before a sixth-place finish at 20/1 in the Preakness. He has just three weeks to prepare for the Belmont.
Meantime crushed a maiden field in the mud at Keeneland before a second-place finish in the slop at the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. If the weather is bad, he could be a factor.
Twisted Tom has won four races in six starts, including three straight, but two of the four races were against strictly New York breds, and the last two, stakes wins, were at mediocre Laurel Park. His competition is much stiffer in the Belmont. (Though he did break his maiden at Belmont Park.)
Hollywood Handsome is coming off an allowance win at Churchill Downs, but was soundly beaten against decent competition at the Louisiana and Illinois Derbys.
It isn’t crazy to throw out several of the top horses, and that means playing a relative longshot like Tapwrit, Gormley, or J Boy’s Echo to win is totally reasonable. If you are looking for a big score, take a leap of faith that Classic Empire and Lookin at Lee are tired and won’t hit the board, and toss Epicharis since he just isn’t the type that normally wins races like this. Then select your favorite three, four, or five horses, wheel them, and see if you can’t connect on a big-time trifecta.
Conversely, to save cash, you could key Irish War Cry or Tapwrit, assume your choice hits the board, and play all of your other secondary options around his candidacy in various exotics.
If you want to play for a big score, and have some bankroll, play Irish War Cry, Gormley, Tapwrit and J Boy’s Echo, over the same four horses, over all, and see if you can’t connect on a big trifecta. Play it for ten cents-per- combination to reduce costs.
Photo Credit: Naoki Nakashima (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)].
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