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.
California Chrome came up short in his bid to win the Triple Crown on Saturday. The winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes just didn’t have the closing kick after jockey Victor Espinoza brought him off the rail and around to the outside to try and finish. California Chrome ended up tied for fourth, and then his owner Steve Coburn tore into the entire Triple Crown system in a post-race interview.
“This is the coward’s way out,” was the most inflammatory phrase in the Steve Coburn interview. The owner referred to rules that require horses to go through extensive qualifying for the Kentucky Derby, but then don’t apply that same standard to entries for the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. The result is fresh horses coming in and a tired Triple Crown aspiration not able to beat them.
Let’s set aside Coburn’s incredibly boorish sportsmanship, and his idiotic comment that “it’s not fair to these horses” (note to Steve: horses don’t have a conception of fairness, and certainly not the meaning of the Triple Crown. It’s we the people that have that.) Let’s instead ask whether or not he has a point.
I have mixed feelings. Let’s start by saying that putting Coburn’s rules in place—that only the twenty horses that qualify to run the Kentucky Derby can run any Triple Crown race, would drastically diminish the achievement of winning all three. Every Triple Crown winner in history has had to beat fresh horses at the Preakness and the Belmont—not as many as today, but the basic rules were still in place.
What made a Triple Crown great—as pointed out ESPN pundit and horse racing enthusiast Tony Kornheiser today on Pardon The Interruption—was that the horse who did it beat all comers, not just the same 19 horses three straight times. In this regard, I have little sympathy for Coburn’s points, even if he had made them in a classier manner (which, in fairness to him, he had prior to his post-Belmont hissy fit).
But Coburn’s commentary strikes a nerve at the real problem in horse racing and it’s the lack of a cohesive organization of all its races, not just the Triple Crown. In any other sport—including the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, which is most analogous to horse racing—we have a full season where we can get to know contestants, become familiar with the storylines and watch it build to a championship. And then we watch them come back the next year and try it again, further building the story and fan interest.
There’s no reason horse racing shouldn’t be the same. The three-year old thoroughbreds that run the Triple Crown races (along with all the good Derby prep races that mark the first four months of the year) are just starting their racing careers. Why aren’t we hearing more about them? It would be akin to the NFL introducing the great quarterback draft class of 2012, and then after the first run, never hearing the names of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson or Ryan Tannehill ever again. And having to start over the next year.
Or let’s go to another analogy. Right now, most sports fans are tuned into LeBron James going for his own version of the Triple Crown, as he tries to lead the Miami Heat on a three-peat. We’re interested because we’ve followed LeBron up to this point. We know what he went through and what his team went through.
Just as important, we know the competitors. We know the San Antonio Spurs were “thisclose” to beating Miami last year and now are taking another shot at it. We have all this because basketball—like every sport—is organized. Would we feel the same about LeBron’s “Triple Crown” if he faced 15 new teams in the playoffs every year that we never heard of and had no idea if they were any good. We might be interested, but our interest wouldn’t sustain itself. That’s precisely the problem horse racing has.
There is no reason horse racing shouldn’t have some sort of a championship pursuit. The Breeders’ Cup, run every November, can serve as a building block. Let those be true championship races, the definitive measuring stick of the best horse in each age bracket for any given year. Put in place an organized system of races, easily comprehensible to fans who might be only causally interested in horse racing, so they can track who is on the road to qualifying.
Ensure that you get the best horses from all the major circuit. New York, Florida, SoCal and Kentucky would be sort of the “power conferences” and then mix in a few “at-large” spots for the best horses from places like Illinois, Maryland, Louisiana and Arkansas. Then you have a system in place where people can choose to follow just one track if they want, knowing that their best horse is going to the championship round. That’s the framework for building interest in college football, and last I checked, that sport isn’t hurting for money.
Once you have a fun, easy to follow championship format in place, horse racing’s natural appeal—betting—can drive interest further. What if you got NBC Sports Network to televise a Pick-Six of the Week every Friday night from a major track? The network could promote the six races—the favorites and longshots—the same way a network would push the late Sunday afternoon NFL game each week.
Think about how popular this might be in sports bars, with their Friday night crowds, and bars able to establish pools. Horse racing is an ideal sport to watch in that kind of environment—two minutes to race, 15-20 minutes to go back and socialize, then two more minutes to race. We live in a sports world where everyone wants to make things faster and insists the viewing public doesn’t have a long attention span. What sport is better suited to appeal to that than horse racing?
Those are the possibilities that are out there for horse racing. But this is an industry overrun by its own selfishness, shortsightedness and greed. No one works together, everyone is just out for themselves and their short-term interest. And ironically, it’s costing them all a lot of money.
California Chrome is poised to make horse racing history tomorrow at the Belmont Stakes (6:52 PM ET, NBC), as he looks to become the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown, following his reasonably comfortable wins in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Ten horses have a chance to upend the dream tomorrow, so let’s run through the challengers to California Chrome.
The Belmont Stakes doesn’t have the same reputation as the Kentucky Derby when it comes to longshots and big payouts. The Belmont’s field is little more than half the size of the 20-horse Derby, and in most years, when there’s not a Triple Crown at stake, the general sports public has lost interest in horse racing by the time the Crown’s third jewel goes on the line.
But that doesn’t mean longshots don’t win—in fact, it’s the norm. If we just keep it at the last five years, four winners have paid out at a price better than $20 based on a two-dollar bet. That includes Ruler On Ice and his $51.50 price tag in 2011. The long race—it’s a mile and a half, longer than pretty much every major race anywhere in the country—and the fact that the better-known horses are tired by this point in the Triple Crown serves to create some unpredictability.
All of which is to say it’s worth knowing about the challengers. History tells us they have a real chance, and if you’re interested in betting the race, they drive up the prices on the exacta and trifecta, even if California Chrome should win.
THE PRIME CHALLENGERS
Wicked Strong (6-1): The horse named in honor of the Boston Marathon victims won the Wood Memorial here on the New York circuit (though it runs at Aqueduct, not Belmont Park) and he finished a strong fourth at the Kentucky Derby, his last trip to the post.
Tonalist (8-1): This is one of several horses making their first appearance at a Triple Crown race, and Tonalist just won the Peter Pan Stakes, also at Belmont Park last month. He’s ridden by Joel Rosario, one of the best jockeys in the country, though Rosario does most of his work in the west.
THE DARK HORSES
Ride On Curlin (12-1): If you’re looking for an edge at jockey, look no further than John Velazquez aboard Ride On Curlin. His recent Belmont Stakes record—second in 2009 (Dunkirk), second in 2010 (Fly Down) and a win in 2012 (Union Rags). None of the major jockeys have as strong a record at the Belmont Stakes as Velazquez, and New York is his natural circuit.
Commanding Curve (15-1): A limited resume gave little indication that he would come out of nowhere to finish second at the Kentucky Derby, drive up the price on the exacta, and likely result in a lot of people tearing up their exotic bets.
THE 20-1 SHOTS
Samraat: A great record on the New York circuit started with a win in the Damon Runyon Stakes. I just have to stop here to say that I love the fact we live in a world where Damon Runyon has a race named after him—this is the man who wrote a compilation of short stories celebrating gangsters and gambling and watched it turn into the Marlon Brando/Frank Sinatra classic Guys And Dolls. If you haven’t seen the movie, rent it this weekend.
Back to Samraat, he also won the Gotham Stakes and finished second to Wicked Strong at the Wood. He’s fifth-place finish at the Kentucky Derby was certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
Medal Count: He ran a respectable eighth at the Kentucky Derby, although his prior record was, relatively speaking, pretty thin. Medal Count finished second at the Blue Grass Stakes, a key Derby prep, but that’s about it.
Commissioner: Another good New York jockey, Javier Castellano, one of the nation’s best trainers in Todd Pletcher, and another horse who ran well at the Peter Pan, finishing second to Tonalist.
General a Rod: What are the chances anyone named “A Rod” could be cheered in New York these days? He ran third at the Florida Derby, arguably the best Kentucky Derby prep race, though finished 11th at Churchill Downs. A fourth-place finish at the Preakness increases his credibility. Rosie Napravnik will ride him on Saturday, as she continues her quest to be the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race.
THE 30-1 LONGSHOTS
Matterhorn: We know very little about him, though he is trained by Pletcher.
Matuszak: Another horse where there’s not much to go on, although Mike Smith being in the saddle might make him worth a small saver bet if you’re into that (like throw a buck on him in addition to your standard 1-2-3 selections). Smith won the Belmont Stakes aboard Drosselmeyer in 2010 and Palace Malice a year ago.
WILL CALIFORNIA CHROME DO IT?
That’s the million-dollar question—or the $1.5 million question, as that’s the size of the purse at the Belmont Stakes. I’m pulling for him and I’m going to pick him. The main reason I believe California Chrome is different from previous Triple Crown hopefuls is that I was impressed with the way he pulled away from the field at the Kentucky Derby.
As he created separation down the stretch at Churchill Downs, all I could think was “he can win the Belmont”, with its long stretch run. When California Chrome survived the Preakness, the shortest of the three Triple Crown races, there was never a doubt who I would pick to win.
But this is a good field he’s going to have to beat. I’m definitely targeting Ride On Curlin as the best challenger—the record of Velazquez at the Belmont is too good to ignore. I’ll take Wicked Strong third, and throw a small saver bet on Matuszak.
If I were at a betting window, this is how my ticket would look…
Ride On Curlin
*$12 for an exacta box *$12 for a trifecta box
The principle behind “boxing” the horses is that so long is that order of finish does not matter, so long as the top two (in the case of the exacta) are in the box, and if these horses are the top three, I win the trifecta regardless of the order.
California Chrome is 3-5, and I don’t feel that strongly about him winning the race to bet at those odds. That’s why a wagering plan would focus on the exotics and ignore the win bet. But I would follow the suggestion from above and throw a buck on Mike Smith and Matuszak.
The challengers to California Chrome are a strong group. Be ready for a real race, not a coronation, early tomorrow evening.
The Belmont Stakes had a lot of wind taken out its sails this morning by the announcement that I’ll Have Another will not run, due to an injury in his tendons. There will be no Triple Crown winner and this year’s Belmont now has the feel of the 1994 NBA Finals. That was the first of the two-year sabbatical Michael Jordan took to play baseball. It was exciting and I enjoyed it, but you also knew that it took unique circumstances to open the door for the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks in June ’94. Standing in the role of Hakeem Olajuown and Patrick Ewing, are going to be Dullahan and Union Rags, the new favorites on Saturday. The ’94 Finals were also marked by the interruption of Game 5 to see O.J. Simpson driving his White Bronco down the freeway to escape the police. I have no idea who’s going to stand in for that, but surely some celeb can step up and make it happen.
TheSportsNotebook starts its preview with a look at the three horses who are priced at less than 10-1 as of this morning. Keep in mind the odds have not yet moved, so we’re going to be looking at smaller numbers on everybody—at least the contenders, once the books adjust for the loss of I’ll Have Another. In addition to Dullahan and Union Rags, a fresh runner called Paynter is respected by the morning linesmakers.
Dullahan (5-1): After a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby he took the Preakness off. This horse has a strong resume in the prep races, winning the Blue Grass Stakes in finishing second at the Palm Beach Stakes. While the wins have been in Kentucky and Florida, the jockey, Javier Castellano, is a veteran of the New York circuit and quite familiar with Belmont’s track.
Union Rags (6-1): After a second-place finish at the Breeders’ Cup in November and a win in Florida’s Fountain of Youth Stakes early this year, expectations were building. Union Rags ran strong in the prestigious Florida Derby at third, but settled for seventh at the Kentucky Derby. On the flip side, you can say seventh out of twenty horses is still pretty good and jockey John Velazquez is every bit as accomplished in New York as Castellano. And you’d be right. This has been a tough horse to get a read on.
Paynter (8-1): The jockey/trainer team of Mike Smith and Bob Baffert, having narrowly missed with Bodemeister on the first two legs of the Triple Crown, can now take their shot at redemption here. Paynter doesn’t have a long list of races—he ran fourth at the Santa Anita Derby, second in a Churchill stakes one week prior to the Run for the Roses and then won a race at Pimlico over Preakness weekend. He’s nudging up on the big-time and this is set to be his breakout chance. I wish the odds were a little better though, and we can be pretty certain the price is going to get worse rather than better by post time.
THE DARK HORSE
Street Life (12-1): Believe it or not, in an 11-horse field this is the only runner priced over in double-digits, but below 20-1, a good benchmark for a legitimate darkhorse. Street Life knows New York, having never left this circuit. He ran third in a stakes race here earlier this spring, second in the high-caliber Wood Memorial at the Aqueduct track and also won a stakes race on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s not a long resume, but it’s solid and we know he can run here at Belmont.
Four horses are going off at 20-1 or 30-1, and given the absence of the favorite and the lack of quantity with dark horses, this might be a better spot than normal to look, especially if you want to bet a 1-2-3-4 order of finish in some combination and want good-priced horses to fill in the spots.
My Adonis (20-1): Jockey Ramon Dominguez is another New York rider and the horse is having a respectable year, with a 2nd and two 3rds in good stakes races, although a seventh in the Wood races doubts about his ability against the best. But then if there were no doubts, you wouldn’t get 20-1, would you?
Optimizer (20-1): This is the only horse to run all three legs of the Triple Crown and as I said in the Preakness preview, I’m not sure what trainer D. Wayne Lukas is seeing here. Optimizer had a very lengthy resume prior to the Triple Crown and it was hardly dazzling. He ran four Derby Prep races in the first four months of 2012, finishing ninth twice, sixth once and had a second-place finish in Arkansas’ Rebel Stakes. Last November he finished fourth in a Churchill stakes race and eighth in the Breeders’ Cup. Nor has the Triple Crown itself been any better, with an 11th in the Derby and 6th in the Preakness. Optimizer is a known commodity and we know nothing to suggest that a win would be anything but a fluke.
Atigun (30-1): A limited resume, and not one that inspires confidence. He ran in the Arkansas stakes races, going fifth in the Arkansas Derby and 11th in the Rebel. A non-descript win at Churchill is all that recommends him, which is to say nothing does. If you want to give benefit of the doubt here, base it on the trainer, Ken McPeek. He’s a veteran of the New York circuit and this is the ten-year anniversary of his winning the Belmont with the 70-1 longshot Savara.
ON A WING AND A PRAYER
Three horses are going off at 50-1. Like the four above, you can make an argument for looking here on the premise that the race is now wide-open, but it’s a complete leap of faith.
Ravelo’s Boy (50-1): His stakes record in Florida is spotting, with two fifths and a fourth during the prep season. In 2011 he ran 11 races at Calder Racetrack in Florida, only finishing in the money three times and just one was a win.
Five Sixteen (50-1): This horse has run all six of his races in New York, and I’m guessing he has to be named after the (516) New York zip code. This horse has the equal opportunity storyline, with female jockey Rosie Napravnik aboard. And while none of the races have been stakes, he’s been in the money three times with one win. Still, the most recent trip to the post was a fourth-place result, so it’s not as though this is a peaking horse.
Guyana Star Dweej (50-1): Of these bottom three horses, this one’s the most interesting. He’s run nine races and while there’s only one win, he’s got five second-place finishes. And of those six 1-2 finishes, five of them have been his most recent outings. We can definitely say he’s running his best right now, and that as another one who’s never left the state, the team knows how he’ll handle Belmont. What we don’t know is how that will translate against a better class of competition.
The track at Belmont is the most unique of the Triple Crown schedule. It’s not just that the race is longer, but the dirt on the track is a little heavier, giving it the nickname “Big Sandy.” I’d like to tell you I have the foggiest idea what that will mean as far as who wins and loses, but I really don’t. Other than the fact it gives an air of unpredictability to the field. While the Belmont Stakes doesn’t have the payouts the Kentucky Derby has, that’s only because the latter traditionally has double the horses in the field. Over the last three years, Summer Bird (2009) and Ruler On Ice (2011) were surprise winners, and 2010 winner Drosselmeyer modestly so. We might not have a Triple Crown possibility, but like the 1994 NBA playoffs, we’ll have some real intrigue on who’s going to bring it home.
This is normally the spot where I’d give a pick on the race. With the injury situation, I need to wait until the odds are finalized. Please check my Bad Betting Advice section on Saturday morning to find out how you can see some cash get squandered later in the afternoon.