2015 BELMONT STAKES: The BLS Comprehensive Field Guide & Betting Preview
By BLS Horse Racing Handicapper, RED RYDER
Here we go again. This is the 13th time in the past 37 years (35% of the damn time) the Belmont Stakes plays host to a chance at the elusive Triple Crown. American Pharoah enters the Big Sandy starting gate on Saturday as the heavy favorite to do the deed that hasn’t been done since Affirmed in 1978. The deed is nasty. Downright disgusting. Winning three races over a mile and a quarter over a five-week span with the closer requiring the longest distance of them all at 1 ½ miles is brutal. Add to that taking on a bunch of better-rested horses and trainers gunning for your ass, and you’ve got the recipe for a serious drought.
Do I think that American Pharoah is the best horse in the race? Yes. His record speaks for itself. Do I think he will win the race? No. History matters. The crew over at fivethirtyeight.com makes a pretty compelling case to this end. Do I want him to win the race? Honestly? No. As a huge fan of horseracing, I’m surprised that I don’t. But I don’t. There are three reasons for this totally unpopular position. First, I am a masochist. Like most gamblers, this is a necessary condition. If you don’t like the pain, don’t make the wagers. All de-gens remember their bad beats so much more clearly than the huge wins. Like it or not, masochism rules at the betting windows. Second, the “American Pharoah is going to win it, easy” take I hear almost every damn day is beyond annoying. Sure, American Pharoah might go on to be the best horse of all-time. He does not have the best chance since Affirmed like many would have you believe. He may win the race, but a few previous hopefuls had a better chance on paper and on the eye test. Big Brown came into the Belmont undefeated having won the Derby and Preakness by a combined 10 lengths. No horse had come within 4 ¾ lengths of the big boy, ever. Smarty Jones also came into the Belmont undefeated having won the Derby and Preakness by 13 ¼ total lengths. Spectacular Bid was a mortal lock after racking up 12 consecutive stakes races including 7 Grade 1’s. For these three absolute locks for the Belmont and the Triple Crown, each better at that time than American Pharoah, Big Sandy won. Third, I like to win money betting horses more than I care about a Triple Crown. The only exception to this was California Chrome last year. Just a Cal-bred rooting for a Cal-bred thing I guess. If I can hit a decent price on Saturday, Triple Crown be damned. I sadistically hope that Triple Crown runners keep failing and the price gets lower and lower on the favorite every year as more and more people play their $2.00 WIN ticket for the scrapbook. I’ll keep betting the prices and hoping to hit big tickets.
Based on race results to date, American Pharoah is the best horse entering the gate on Saturday. Another bonus is that because of how the Belmont Stakes has been won over the past 15 or so years, his running style is perfect. Because the Belmont Stakes is the first time that any of the runners have tried the 1 ½ mile distance, many inexperienced handicappers make the mistake of thinking that the race should set up better for closers. This is not the case at all. The most overbet angle in the Belmont most every year is going with the horse that was closing best at the end of the Kentucky Derby, skips the Preakness, and comes back in the Belmont. This horse almost never even hits the board in the Belmont unless they dramatically change running style. Late closers rarely hit the Belmont trifecta.
Since 2000, the Belmont has been won by horses that are up front at 1 ¼ miles which is the furthest any of the contenders have ever run. In fact, other than Drosselmeyer in 2010 and Summer Bird in 2009 who were coming on strong and had reached 4th by the ¼ pole, longshot Sarava and last year’s winner Tonalist who were in 3rd at that point (both by less than 1 length), every other Belmont winner since 2000 has been in 1st or 2nd with ¼ mile to go. To emphasize that point a bit more from a handicapping perspective in terms of exacta and trifecta plays, of the 45 horses that have hit the board since 2000 only 6 have been behind the 4th place runner at the ¼ pole. This is more than a trend, it is how the Belmont Stakes is won. Here is the list of horses who hit the board with their running position 1 ¼ miles into the race.
Year-Winner-Runner Up-Third Place
2014 Tonalist (3rd) Constitution (1st) Medal Count (5th)
2013 Palace Malice (1st) Oxbow (2nd) Orb (4th)
2012 Union Rags (2nd) Paynter (1st) Atigun (3rd)
2011 Ruler On Ice (2nd) Stay Thirsty (4th) Brilliant Speed (3rd)
2010 Drosselmeyer (4th) Fly Down (6th) First Dude (1st)
2009 Summer Bird (4th) Dunkirk (3rd) Mine That Bird (1st)
2008 Da’Tara (1st) Denis of Cork (2nd) Anak Nakal (3rd)
2007 Rags to Riches (1st) Curlin (2nd) Tiago (5th)
2006 Jazil (1st) Bluegrass Cat (2nd) Sunriver (3rd)
2005 Afleet Alex (2nd) Andromeda’s Hero (4th) Nolan’s Cat (7th)
2004 Birdstone (2nd) Smarty Jones (1st) Royal Assault (5th)
2003 Empire Maker (1st) Ten Most Wanted (3rd) Funny Cide (2nd)
2002 Sarava (3rd) Medaglia d’Oro (1st) Sunday Break (4th)
2001 Point Given (1st) AP Valentine (2nd) Monarchos (3rd)
2000 Commendable (1st) Aptitude (6th) Unshaded (4th)
So to win the Belmont you need to be up front or already making your move from the back or mid-pack with ¼ mile to go. This winning recipe hits American Pharoah right between the eyes. He can sit in his preferred cat-bird seat in 2nd or 3rd with a target to pass up front, or he can take the field all the way around. Either way, the race sets up perfectly for the Baffert colt, history notwithstanding.
Betting the Race
Betting the Belmont Stakes this year is pretty brutal if American Pharoah wins, so placing a few win bets on potential upsetters or a few smaller vertical wagers without the Pharoah in 1st are the best chance to make money. Trifectas can have value on Saturday, particularly if Pharoah runs 2nd or 3rd, but if he wins, you will need pretty big prices underneath to get any value. If American Pharoah misses the board, all vertical wagers will pay stacks.
I provide a summary here of the horses that my handicapping suggests have the best combination of odds value and probability to either win or hit the board for a trifecta. Another quick note, if you’re playing several trifectas and supers, it doesn’t hurt to throw in a horse or two that I toss out in a few to cover your arse just in case. Oh yeah, and don’t forget your $2.00 WIN ticket on American Pharaoh!
Value-based WIN bets
The horses that I think provide the best value for WIN bets are:
1. Mubtaahij (10-1)
8. Materiality (6-1)
Key Horses for Vertical Exotics (Trifecta and Superfecta)
The horses that I will key on in most exotic wagers are:
1. Mubtaahij (10-1)
3. Madefromlucky (12-1)
5. American Pharoah (3-5) – Keyed in 2nd and 3rd only
6. Frosted (5-1)
8. Materiality (6-1)
Horses That I Tossed
I will not use these horses and if they hit the board it is no bueno:
2. Tale of Verve (15-1)
4. Frammento (30-1)
5. American Pharoah (3-5)
7. Keen Ice (20-1)
Horse by Horse Analysis
1. Mubtaahij (Dubawi (IRE) – Pennegale (IRE), by Pennekamp)
Trainer: Mike De Kock
Jockey: Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Owner: Sheikh Mohd bin Khalifa al Maktoum
M/L Odds: 10-1
Why he can win: Mubtaahij ran an underwhelming 8th in the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps you can write that effort off to it being his first start in the U.S. and, to be honest, running 8th in a field of 19 going 1 ¼ miles in your first start in the U.S. is not that bad all things considered. Occasionally it can take a foreign shipper a race to get into form. European breeding is also based much more on stamina than domestic breeding, so the distance might not be as much of a problem. Versatility might also play in Mutaahij’s favor as he can rate behind leaders or come from well off the pace. Prior to the Derby, his win in the G1 UAE Derby in Dubai was spectacular. He crushed that field in the easiest of ways showing a brilliant turn-of-foot down the stretch. He is 4 for 6 on the dirt in his career and clearly likes the surface more than most foreign-based horses.
Why he can’t win: His Derby effort is the primary reason. On the first Saturday in May, Mubtaahij finished behind Belmont rivals American Pharoah (1st), Frosted (4th), Materiality (6th), and Keen Ice (7th), so he will need to turn the tables on all four of them to hit the wire first in the Belmont. The quality of his competition is also a question mark as he faced a colt named Maftool in 3 of his 4 races prior to the Derby. Since running 2nd behind Mubtaahij in the UAE Derby, Maftool shipped to France and got crushed (14th place) in a Group 1 race, not terribly encouraging.
Overall take: I am going to roll the dice one more time on Mubtaahij. He was my top value win play in the Derby, and I’m going to give him one more shot to get it done stateside. The two primary reasons are his uber-impressive win in the UAE Derby where is turn-of-foot to pull away from the field was unreal looking and the fact that Mike De Kock has had a trip to the U.S. in mind for Mubtaahij all along. I’ll take the shipper and hope his price floats up from the 10-1 morning line.
2. Tale of Verve (Tale of Ekati – Verve, by Unbridled)
Trainer: Dallas Stewart
Jockey: Joel Rosario
Owner: Charles Fipke
M/L Odds: 15-1
Why he can win: Tale of Verve ran 2nd (7 lengths) in Preakness to American Pharoah as he passed a bunch of tiring horse down the stretch in the slop. Prior to the Preakness, he broke his maiden in the previous race which suggests he might be a colt on the improve. His closing style does not generally work in the Belmont, but if they go super fast early and the race breaks down, Tale of Verve might be able to pick up the pieces again.
Why he can’t win: The son of Tale of Ekati is 1 for 7 in his early career. The 2nd in the Preakness is also a bit deceiving as the terrible track conditions and a bunch of gassed opponents looked more important in the result than talent. If you toss the Preakness on those grounds, there is little to support Tale of Verve finding the winner’s circle on Saturday.
Overall take: No chance I’m taking Tale of Verve in the Belmont. I do not put much stock at all in the Preakness result with the utter slop they ran in, and I can’t find anything else to support this colt. Absolute toss.
3. Madefromlucky (Lookin At Lucky – Home From Oz, by Pulpit)
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Jockey: Javier Castellano
Owner: Cheyenne Stables
M/L Odds: 12-1
Why he can win: The son of Lookin at Lucky won the Belmont prep race, the Peter Pan Stakes (G2), by 1 length in early May. The win over the Big Sandy strip might be an advantage in this spot. Prior to the Peter Pan, Madefromlucky ran 4th in the G1 Arkansas Derby (9 lengths) and 2nd to American Pharoah (6 ¼ lengths) in the G2 Rebel Stakes. His past three results have been decent enough to suggest that with a measure of improvement and physical maturity, the Pletcher colt might have a shot.
Why he can’t win: Other than his win in the Peter Pan, Maderfromlucky only has maiden and first-level allowance wins to his name and is 3 for 8 overall. In his one meeting with the Pharoah he was beaten by 6 ¼ lengths and only faced four rivals in the Peter Pan to boot. On back-class and race results, Madefromlucky looks to be up against it in the Belmont.
Overall take: Madefromlucky is a toss for me for win bets. I can see a scenario or two where things go wrong for Pharoah and perhaps another of the favorites and Madefromlucky hits the board. So if his odds increase from the 12-1 M/L and you like him, go for it. I will have him in a few exotics and nothing more.
4. Frammento (Midshipman – Ginger Bay, by Golden Missile)
Trainer: Nick Zito
Jockey: Mike Smith
M/L Odds: 30-1
Why he can win: Connections. With less than impressive race results, the only reason I can offer here is Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. Zito has upset the Triple Crown cart in a major way twice before. Two of the biggest favorites in Belmont history Big Brown (2008) and Smarty Jones (2004) were both beaten by Nick Zito longshots. In 2004, Birdstone (36-1) nipped Smarty Jones at the wire, and Da’Tara won the 2008 Belmont after huge favorite Big Brown was eased out of the race. Mike Smith is also a two-time Belmont winner with Drosselmeyer in 2010 and again in 2013 with Palace Malice. So, Frammento has the connections to pull off the huge upset on Saturday.
Why he can’t win: Pretty much everything other than connections. In his last 3 races, he ran a flaccid 11th in the Kentucky Derby (12 lengths), 4th in the G1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (7 ¼ lengths), and 3rd in the G2 Fountain of Youth Stakes (4 ½ lengths). He owns a lone maiden victory in his 1 for 8 career and has only hit the board 3 times to boot. On the track thus far, Frammento has not gotten it done. He also has been a closer in most of his races which rarely bodes well for the 1 ½ mile Belmont Stakes.
Overall take: Straight toss. Laying $2.00 to win on a Zito longshot in the Belmont is not a bad idea, but for all other purposes Frammento is a no-go for me. Unimpressive race results and the least effective running style for the Belmont make this an easy toss.
5. American Pharoah (Street Boss – Champagne Royale, by French Deputy)
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Jockey: Victor Espinosa
Owner: Zayat Stables
M/L Odds: 3-5
Why he can win: Your Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner has been a beast in his last 6 starts. After finishing 5th in his first career start, American Pharoah has rattled off 6 consecutive wins by 7 (Preakness), 1 (Derby), 4 ¾, 3 ¼, 6 ¼, and 8 lengths. The Pharoah is an obvious morning line favorite in the Belmont. He is the best horse in the field and much like Big Brown and Smarty Jones before him, deserves overwhelming support. His connections are top shelf with Baffert, Espinosa (now a back-to-back Derby and Preakness winner), and the Zayat Stable. There is little to suggest that American Pharoah is not a major contender and deserving favorite on Saturday.
Why he can’t win: History. Zero for thirteen since 1978. Whether it’s the Belmont distance, 3 races in 5 weeks, rested rivals and new shooters, or whatever the case may be, great colts have tried and all have failed since Affirmed. As good as American Pharoah has been, there have been others who have come into the Belmont with a shot at the Triple Crown with better race results, pedigrees, speed figures, and the like, and all have failed. If he does not win, it will simply be history winning again.
Overall take: American Pharoah is talented, proven, and a deserving favorite to capture the Triple Crown. But I don’t bet short-odds favorites. Too much risk for too little reward – particularly in the Belmont. Other than the mandatory $2.00 win ticket for the scrapbook, I will have the Pharoah keyed in 2nd and 3rd in a few vertical exotics and nothing more.
6. Frosted (Tapit – Fast Cookie, by Deputy Minister)
Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin
Jockey: Joel Rosario
Owner: Godolphin Racing
M/L Odds: 5-1
Why he can win: Frosted ran a respectable 4th (3 ¼ lengths) in the Kentucky Derby and was one of the few horses closing any ground on the leaders late. Prior to the Derby, he won the G1 Wood Memorial by 2 lengths with a career best speed figure. The Tapit colt has a nice stalk and close style that tends to work well on Belmont day. He is owned by international powerhouse Godolphin Racing, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, and Joel Rosario keeps the mount – all are good things. The gray colt finished 5th in Derby qualifying points and has been competitive in every race.
Why he can’t win: While Frosted has finished 1st or 2nd in all but two of his eight races, he has only won twice – his maiden breaker and the Wood. Prior to his win in the Wood, he finished 4th (4 ¾ lengths) behind in the G2 Fountain of Youth and 2nd (5 ½ lengths) in the G2 Holy Bull. Thus far he has not had the nose for the wire that you like to see when trying to beat a big favorite.
Overall take: The morning line 2nd choice is not without a chance in the Belmont if it is not American Pharoah’s day. He and Materiality are getting the majority of the wise guy chatter as potential upsetters, so he might be one to use for a win bet if you like him. If he gets a good setup and the Pharoah has the traditional Belmont trouble, Frosted can get it done.
7. Keen Ice (Curlin – Medomak, by Awesome Again)
Trainer: Dale Romans
Jockey: Kent Desormeaux
Owner: Donegal Racing
M/L Odds: 20-1
Why he can win: Keen Ice ran 7th (8 ¾ lengths) in the Kentucky Derby and passed several tiring rivals down the Churchill stretch. Prior to the Derby, the son of two-time horse of the year Curlin ran 4th (6 ¾ lengths) in the G2 Louisiana Derby, 3rd (2 ¾ lengths) in the G2 Risen Star, and 5th (10 ½ lengths) in the G2 Holy Bull Stakes. The Louisiana Derby effort was solid and Keen Ice might be a horse on the improve. He has capable connections with Dale Romans and Kent Desormeaux and a strong pedigree with Curlin on top and Awesome again on the bottom.
Why he can’t win: Keen Ice is 1 for 8 lifetime and has only a maiden victory to his name. Only 3 times has he hit the board and for the most part has been only marginally competitive. His closing style does not generally work well in the Belmont and will need a ton of help with race setup to get to the winners circle.
Overall take: I am not using Keen Ice in the Belmont. Race results have been pretty poor and running style is the type I pay against on the 1 ½ mile Big Sandy strip. Toss.
8. Materiality (Afleet Alex – Wildwood Flower, by Langfuhr)
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Jockey: Javier Castellano
Owner: Alto Racing
M/L Odds: 6-1
Why he can win: Materiality ran 6th (7 ¾ lengths) in the Kentucky Derby and showed some nice late kick after a terrible trip over the first ¾ of a mile. Prior to that he was a perfect 3 for 3 in his short career, and as his competition got better each race, so did his speed figures (96, 100, 105). In his second career race, he stalked and easily put away Stanford and battled Upstart to a 1 ½ length win two back in the G1 Florida Derby. His on or near the lead running style is ideal for the Belmont Stakes if he has the stamina to go the full mile and a half. The Afleet Alex colt is clearly talented and if the improvement pattern continues he could be a real contender to get the Belmont upset.
Why he can’t win: Materiality has also only raced 4 times in 2015 which is incredibly light for a Belmont contender. Saturday will be his second race away from Gulfstream Park and his first (Derby) was his first loss. Most handicappers believe he is the only colt with enough natural speed to go with Pharaoh early which could compromise his chances if they go too hot.
Overall take: The morning line 3rd choice has a shot to win the Belmont if American Pharaoh does not get it done. He has the running style you need and the potential improvement pattern you like. I am hoping that his odds float up due to the huge number of $2.00 win tickets that will be placed on the Pharoah, but at a 3-5 morning line that may be asking a bit too much. He is a play if you you’re looking to pick the upset.