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.