Saturday will be the 13th time since 1978 that a horse has come to the Belmont Stakes with a shot at the Triple Crown. The 12 previous times have seen those horses finish in second place four times, including Smarty Jones’ near-miss in 2004. They have finished in-the-money eight times. But in none of those cases has a horse won the Triple Crown.
American Pharaoh takes his shot on Saturday (6:50 PM ET, NBC), with seven challengers looking to deny him a place in history. The eight-horse field is abnormally small for the Belmont, though not unprecedented. It’s usually double-digits, but there was as few as seven back in 2007.
We’ve watched American Pharaoh win a close one at the Kentucky Derby and then pull away in the pouring rain of the Preakness Stakes. His record prior to the beginning of Triple Crown season was five straight wins, all in high-level stakes races. The oddsmakers say he’s a big 5-7 favorite to make history on Saturday.
The nearest challenger on the toteboard is Frosted at 6-1, who finished fourth at the Derby and did not run the Preakness. Earlier in the year he won the Wood Memorial, a top prep race at New York’s Aqueduct. Even though that race was on the New York circuit, by itself it doesn’t tell a lot about what might happen Saturday.
The defining characteristic at Belmont Park is its thick sand (the track is known as “Big Sandy” by horse race handicappers) and the defining feature of this race in particular is its long mile and a half length.
The other top challenger is Materiality, at 13-2. He won the Florida Derby, widely considered one of the most prestigious of the Triple Crown prep races, and he finished a respectable sixth at the Kentucky Derby. Jockey John Velazquez rides the New York circuit a lot and will be familiar with the uniqueness of Belmont.
Other contenders with notable wins on their resume include…
*Madefromlucky won the Peter Pan Stakes here at Belmont Park, a good prep race, though not an elite one. This is his first run of Triple Crown season and the betting odds are 14-1.
*Mubtaahij won several races in Meydan, a very rich track in Saudi Arabia in the presence of the sheiks. His Derby showing was a bit disappointing, but at eighth place, he was still in the top half of a 20-horse field that had considerably more talent than Saturday’s race will. The morning line places him at 14-1.
*TaleofVerve doesn’t have a big win, but he did finish second at the Preakness Stakes, although the way American Pharaoh pulled away down the stretch doesn’t give you confidence in this horse’s ability to challenge for the victory. His odds are 20-1.
The other two horses are…
*Keen Ice, a 25-1 shot, finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby, and had top four finishes in several good prep races.
*Frammento is the longest shot at 40-1, but does have a great jockey in Mike Smith and a trainer I like in Nick Zito—the trainer has been a leader in the effort to make sure horses are treated humanely. I’d love to see him win this one, but Frammento’s previous record shows 11th in the Derby and three other stakes races without a win.
So does American Pharaoh do it? I’m going to say no. Normally I don’t condone just giving a “No” answer when there’s seven choices lined up against him. But with a betting line of 5-7, the oddsmakers are saying that even taking the entire field against the favorite is a modestly bold stand.
From an actual betting perspective, the numbers show you can bet every horse except American Pharaoh and Frosted and turn a profit if any of the other six win. Assuming a $2 minimum bet, that would be laying out $12. If Materiality wins, you get $13 back and if anyone else wins, the return goes higher. That would be the betting strategy I would follow.
But part of the fun of this is just sitting down and picking a winner. I’m picking Madefromlucky. He’s rested and he’s won on this track. He denies American Pharaoh a place in history.