THE BELMONT STAKES: The BLS Comprehensive Field Guide & Betting Preview
BY BLS contributing author, RED RYDER
Here we go again race fans. For the 12th time in the past 36 years, the Belmont Stakes plays host to a chance at the elusive Triple Crown. California Chrome enters the Big Sandy starting gate on Saturday as the deserved heavy favorite to do the deed that hasn’t been done since Affirmed in 1978. There are no surprises coming from my handicapping for this leg. I thought California Chrome would win the Kentucky Derby, I thought he would win the Preakness, and I think he wins the Belmont tomorrow. Of course, the first two perspectives were not unique in any way even though a few experts and handicappers did not like the Chrome in the Derby. Most everyone seems to be on board with Chrome winning the Belmont. For our purposes here, I’ll do the same thing as the Derby and the Preakness – try to find a few value horses that have a chance to win should Cali Chrome falter or fill in underneath in trifectas or superfectas to try to create some value with such a heavy favorite.
I expect California Chrome to win the race. Not only because I think he is the best horse entering the gate on Saturday, but also because of how the Belmont Stakes has been won over the past 15 or so years. 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 almost every year is going with the horse that was closing best at the end of the Kentucky Derby and did not get there, 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 and longshot Sarava who was in 3rd at that point, 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 42 horses that have hit the board since 2000 only 5 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||3rd Place|
|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 California Chrome 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 Cal-bred colt.
In terms of the rest of the field, I’ll give a quick summary here but be sure to check the horse-by-horse analysis below if you want any more info on any particular runner. The Belmont field can be broken into three groups; the 3 grinders who are tackling all three legs of the Triple Crown – California Chrome, Ride On Curlin, and General a Rod; The Derby horses that skipped the Preakness – Medal Count, Commanding Curve, Samraat, and Wicked Strong; and the 4 new shooters – Tonalist, Commissioner, Matuszak, and Matterhorn. For starters, other than potentially Tonalist, I do not think any of the other new shooters are good enough to hit the board in the Belmont based on their past performances. Commissioner, Matuszak, and Matterhorn have not done anything in my mind good enough to be considered a real threat to hit the trifecta. If you like one of them, great – throw ‘em in your trifectas and superfectas because they will be the biggest bombs in the field. If any of them runs the best race of their young career and hits the board you may actually still get some betting value even if Chrome wins.
For the rest of the runners, I’m looking at two groups other than California Chrome. Those I expect to be close to the pace and potentially in a front-ish position at the ¼ pole (Samraat, General a Rod, Tonalist) and the closers that will need to either run a bit closer to the pace early or start making their move earlier than usual to get up into the top 4 by the ¼ pole (Medal Count, Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong). There is also Ride On Curlin whose past performances suggest he can stalk and run mid-pack or close from off the pace. Of the closers, all colts I believe are talented and each ran a pretty solid Kentucky Derby. All things considered, my handicapping suggests that only one of the three will hit the board. I do not think that two closers will hit the trifecta based on the recent history of the Belmont. Of the front-runners, I think one or two will show the staying power to get the 1 ½ distance and hit the board depending on the performance of California Chrome. If Chrome hits the board (and I absolutely expect this), my best guess is that one front-runner and one closer hit it with him.
Based on odds-value as of Friday, I’m going with Samraat and Medal Count from those groups although I think there is real value in Ride On Curlin, Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong, and maybe Tonalist depending on how the odds move. If the odds get better (and particularly much better) on any of those horses by post-time, they are all worth vertical play. If the odds get worse on any of them, they get much less interesting in my eyes. For example, in my Preakness preview for buschleaguesports.com I went with Kid Cruz as a potential longshot play based on his 20-1 M/L when the analysis was posted. By post-time his odds were cut in half to 10-1, and I was totally off the horse and didn’t play him. There was no value left at 10-1 on a new shooter in a race I thought California Chrome would win easily.
Betting the Race
Betting the Belmont Stakes this year is pretty brutal if California Chrome hits the board, so I suggest treading lightly with your cabbage or placing a few win bets on potential upsetters or a few smaller vertical wagers without California Chrome just in case it’s not his day. I do not recommend playing California Chrome in any exacta wagers, even in 2nd. It will pay next to nothing if he wins as expected and not much more even if he runs 2nd to a bomb. Trifectas can have value, particularly if Chrome runs 2nd or 3rd, but if he wins, you will need pretty big prices underneath to get any value. If California Chrome 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. If you don’t agree, great! Pick any of ‘em you like however you like to pick ‘em and get some cheddar down tomorrow. 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. If a horse I toss hits the board or the super, obviously most if not all of my bets are toast. Best of luck to y’all on Saturday!
Value-based WIN bets
The horses that I think provide the best value for WIN bets are:
- 1. Medal Count (20-1)
- 7. Samraat (20-1)
Key Horses for Vertical Exotics (Trifecta and Superfecta)
The horses that I will key on in most exotic wagers are:
- 2. California Chrome (3/5)
- 1. Medal Count (20-1)
- 7. Samraat (20-1)
- 5. Ride On Curlin (12-1)
- 11. Tonalist (8-1)
Horses That I Tossed
I will not use these horses and if they hit the board it is no bueno:
- 3. Matterhorn (30-1)
- 4. Commanding Curve (15-1)
- 6. Matuszak (30-1)
- 8. Commissioner (20-1)
- 9. Wicked Strong (6-1)
- 10. General A Rod (20-1)
Horse by Horse Analysis
1. Medal Count (Dynaformer – Brisquette, by Unbridled’s Song)
Trainer: Dale Romans
Jockey: Robby Albarado
M/L Odds: 20-1
Why he can win: Medal Count’s 8th place finish in the Kentucky Derby was sneakily solid. He was only 1 ½ lengths back from 4th place Wicked Strong and 5th place Samraat and had a pretty rough trip as he was steadied sharply in mid-stretch and still finished well after. His best race prior was in the G1 Toyota Blue Grass where the Dynaformer colt also displayed an impressive turn-of-foot down the stretch. His distance pedigree is strong as his sire is the renowned Dynaformer and his broodmare sire is the late Unbridled’s Song who produced the successful classic distance progeny such as Will Take Charge, Eight Belles, and Dunkirk. Medal Count boasts well-respected and successful connections with trainer Dale Romans and jockey Robby Albarado. Medal Count also sports two strong works at Churchill in preparation for the Belmont.
Why he can’t win: The biggest knock against Medal Count before the Derby was the dirt surface. After breaking his maiden impressively on the Ellis Park dirt (albeit against weak competition), he subsequently finished 11th (17 lengths) in the G1 Breeders Cup Juvenile and 5th (9 ½ lengths) in the G2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream on dirt. However, his performance in the Derby didn’t suggest any significant problems with the Churchill surface. His closing style is not always the best recipe for Belmont success, but a surprise pace setup could help Medal Count a bit.
Overall take: Medal Count was one of my value plays in the Kentucky Derby. I was not disappointed with his performance at Churchill and will play him back as a potential threat if the Chrome is off his game. I’m not in love with his running style for the Belmont Stakes, but I’m hoping that he runs the best of the 3 major closers in the race. I think he has a chance to pick up some pieces in vertical wagers at a good price.
2. California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit – Love the Chase, by Not For Love)
Trainer: Art Sherman
Jockey: Victor Espinoza
M/L Odds: 3/5
Why he can win: There’s really no need at this point to get into details here. California Chrome is on fire. He has won six in a row and is clearly the best horse among this group. Nothing in his running style or performance so far suggests that the 1 ½ mile distance will be a problem either. He easily won the Derby and Preakness and is the best horse again this weekend. Anything but a win would be a surprise.
Why he can’t win: The 3 races in 5 weeks grueling schedule is the only thing to go with here. The distance, surface, quality of opponents, jockey, and anything else I can think of are non-issues. It seems that only being tired from a tough schedule or a bad trip could be his undoing.
Overall take: Other than the fact that no horse has completed the Triple Crown in 36 years, it will be a shock to most everyone if Cali Chrome doesn’t get it done. He is not a win wager horse as usual given his brutal 3/5 M/L odds, but is an absolute key horse in vertical and other exotic wagers. I will certainly have a few trifectas and supers that do not include the Chrome in 1st because that is the best chance to made decent money on the race. That said, I expect him to win and will be rooting for it.
3. Matterhorn (Tapit – Winter Garden, by Roy)
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Jockey: Joe Bravo
M/L Odds: 30-1
Why he can win: Like fellow new shooter Tonalist, Matterhorn is very lightly raced with only 4 career starts. He is fresh, so if he runs his career best effort he may have a shot. Unfortunately, there is not much else to go with here on why Matterhorn can win.
Why he can’t win: Since winning his first race at Aqueduct last November, Matterhorn has finished 10th (and last) by 18 ¾ lengths in an allowance race, 3rd by 6 ½ lengths in an allowance race, and 4th by 6 ¼ lengths last time out in the Peter Pan. These are not good results to be sure. His one work prior to the Belmont was unimpressive and the Tapit colt looks to be up against it here.
Overall take: Pass. Nothing in Matterhorn’s past performances makes me think he has any chance to hit the board. He would need a much-improved career-best effort and that might still not be enough against these.
4. Commanding Curve (Master Command – Mother, by Lion Hearted)
Trainer: Dallas Stewart
Jockey: John Bridgmohan
M/L Odds: 15-1
Why he can win: Commanding Curve was my bomb-odds pick in the Derby and his 2nd place finish helped us cash a few nice tickets. He was running well at the end and was the only horse close to Cali Chrome when it was all said and done. His sire Master Command is a son of the legendary A.P. Indy and the dam to his broodmare sire Lion Hearted was a full sister to classic distance hero Easy Goer, so there should not be a distance problem in the Belmont for the Curve. If he gets a hot pace setup or most of the field cannot get the distance, Commanding Curve could play upsetter on Saturday.
Why he can’t win: One of the most overplayed angles in the Belmont most years is betting the horse that was closing best from the clouds in the Derby. A closing style does not always suggest that more distance will help the horse and late running types do not have a ton of success in the Belmont. He still only holds a single maiden victory to his name to go with a two places (including the Derby), show, and twice off the board in 7 career starts.
Overall take: Although his out-of-the-clouds running style is not the traditional best for the Belmont, I think Commanding Curve has enough talent versus this field to hit the board. The only way he wins the race is with a hot pace setup which is generally not the case in the Belmont but it’s not impossible. The odds will play a role in how much I include the Curve. If he stays firm or goes up, I’ll play him on several tickets. If he gets bet and his odds go down (which I sort of expect), I will play him much less or not at all.
5. Ride On Curlin (Curlin – Magical Ride, by Storm Cat)
Trainer: William Gowan
Jockey: John Velsaquez
M/L Odds: 12-1
Why he can win: Ride On Curlin was clearly 2nd best in the Preakness and the only horse to give California Chrome any cause for concern. His 7th place finish in the Derby was not a bad result either considering he was running at the back of the pack early, was still only in 14th coming off the final turn, and had a pretty rough overall trip. The Belmont distance should not be a problem for this well-bred son of Curlin, the all-time North American money earning thoroughbred ($10.5 million), who won a number of classic distance races. The colt has a versatile running style and has shown an ability to stalk, press the pace, and close from off the pace in hitting the board in 9 of his 11 career starts. John Velasquez will be his third jockey in 3 Triple Crown races.
Why he can’t win: Ride On Curlin still only has 2 wins from his 11 starts and those are his maiden breaking effort at Ellis Park last July against a weak field and a first-level Allowance race at Oaklawn Park in January. He has never won a race against stakes company and his highest career Beyer of 102 came in his maiden breaker. He also is enduring the same grueling schedule as Cali Chrome and General a Rod, 3 races in 5 weeks, which can be a problem for any 3-year old.
Overall take: My best guess is that his performances in the Derby and Preakness along with his running style will generate moderate action on Ride On Curlin and slightly bring his odds down below the M/L of 12-1. The horse has a chance to hit the board because of these factors and might be the 2nd best of his group. Like Commanding Curve, the odds will be a factor in my play on Ride On Curlin. He will be included in several vertical wagers if his odds go up rather than down by post-time, but if he gets hit hard at the windows, his value goes down in my mind.
6. Matuszak (Bernardini – Golden Sonata, by Mr. Prospector)
Trainer: Bill Mott
Jockey: Mike Smith
M/L Odds: 30-1
Why he can win: Matuszak finished a solid 2nd (3 ½ lengths) last time out to Preakness runner Kid Cruz in the Federico Tesio. That effort followed 2 consecutive 3rd place finishes where the colt tried hard and ran pretty well late. He sports a fairly regal pedigree on both top and bottom with Bernardini and Mr. Prospector although it hasn’t translated to wins at this point. He has great connections with Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and big-money Mike Smith taking the mount. He also has been working well at his home track in preparation with 2 consecutive bullet works in mid-May.
Why he can’t win: After 8 career races, Matuszak still only has one win when he broke his maiden in his first race last September. In the past 7 races (only 2 of which were graded stakes), his finishes are: 8, 5, 6, 4, 3, 3, 2. Not too bueno for a horse taking on a good group of tested graded stakes horses in the Belmont. In comparison to many in the field, he was not facing the same quality of company in many of those races. So, he has not been beating fields that are not as good as this one.
Overall take: Pass. Similar to Matterhorn, I just don’t see a shot here for Matuszak. He has not won in forever against significantly worse fields that this one, so unless he runs a by-far-career-best and the home track matters a ton, I don’t see any way Matuszak hits the board.
7. Samraat (Noble Causeway – Little Indian Girl, by Indian Charlie)
Trainer: Rick Violette, Jr.
Jockey: Jose Ortiz
M/L Odds: 20-1
Why he can win: Supporters of Samraat need only look at his winning attitude and super consistent speed figures to find rationale to bet the colt. He ran a very respectable 5th in the Derby after pressing the pace for most of the race. He held 5 wins and 1 place from 6 career starts before the Derby and ran a good race at Churchill on Derby Day. He has a nose for the wire and is super consistent which are well-liked factors for many horseplayers. His close to the pace, stalking style can work well in the Belmont.
Why he can’t win: None of Samraat’s 5 wins have been above the Grade 3 level and both of his wins at the G3 level were very close victories over the only other Derby horse he had faced in Uncle Sigh. Trainer Rick Violette has been going with stamina-inducting 1 mile works since the Derby which is a good sign, however, his pedigree is only so-so for the Belmont distance with speed-influencing broodmare sire Indian Charlie and distance help from granddaddy Giant’s Causeway.
Overall take: I have a different opinion on Samraat in the Belmont than I did in the Derby. I tossed him in the Derby thinking that a hot pace would hurt him. When that pace didn’t materialize, the only horse not named California Chrome running up front most of the way to finish above 9th was Samraat. I think this helps him in the Belmont and I really like the 20-1 M/L odds here. I will be playing Samraat in the Belmont and hope his odds get even better by post-time.
8. Commissioner (A.P. Indy – Flaming Heart, by Touch Gold)
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Jockey: Javier Castellano
M/L Odds: 20-1
Why he can win: Commissioner finished 2nd by 4 lengths to Belmont rival Tonalist last time out in the Peter Pan over a sloppy Belmont track. In that effort, he got back to his up-close to the pace running style that was successful in his two career wins (a maiden last August and an allowance in January – both over the Gulfstream dirt) and may help in the Belmont. He has a strong pedigree as dad A.P. Indy won the Belmont in 1992. He also sports very strong connections with the always dangerous Pletcher-Castellano team.
Why he can’t win: After his allowance win at Gulfstream Park in January, Commissioner has finished 6th in the Fountain of Youth, 3rd in the Sunland Derby, 6th in the Arkansas Derby, and 2nd in the Peter Pan. Not the finishes that suggest a good final placing in the Belmont. Many think that the A.P. Indy colt is talented, but that has not translated into good finishes just yet.
Overall take: I’m going to pass on Commissioner in the Belmont. He is facing a tough group of 3-year olds on Saturday, and his recent results suggest that he is not likely to hit the board against these types. I just don’t think he is good enough at this point in his career.
9. Wicked Strong (Hard Spun – Moyne Abbey, by Charismatic)
Trainer: James Jerkens
Jockey: Rajiv Maragh
M/L Odds: 6-1
Why he will win: The second choice on the M/L at 6-1, Wicked Strong’s Derby performance is garnering him some serious attention. He was running well late and finished a respectable 4th. Prior to the Derby, his winning effort in the G1 Wood Memorial by 3 ½ lengths over Derby entrants Samraat and Uncle Sigh was impressive indeed. He earned a career high Beyer of 103 when coming from the middle of the pack off the turn to draw away. The James Jerkens colt boasts a strong distance pedigree as he is by Hard Spun, the 2007 Derby runner-up, and his broodmare sire, Charismatic, won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1999. He will be ridden by the very capable Rajiv Maragh.
Why he can’t win: The primary reason for me here is similar to Commanding Curve. Horses that run well late in the Derby are always overbet and generally underperform in the Belmont. After his maiden score at Belmont Park last October, the Hard Spun colt had finished 3rd in the G2 Remsen (½ length), 9th in the G2 Holy Bull (15 ¾ lengths), and 4th (6 ½ lengths) in an Optional Claiming race at Gulfstream albeit to a strong field that included fellow Belmont runner Tonalist. He has 2 wins, a place, a show, and three times missed the board in 7 career starts. He is not a win machine but he has faced pretty tough company.
Overall take: Just like the Kentucky Derby, there is a big chance that I am big-time wrong on this one, so please tread lightly here and handicap Wicked Strong through your own lens. I am going to toss the horse for a few reasons. While I do not think that he will go off as the 2nd choice and expect his odds to go up a bit, I still don’t see much value in Wicked Strong on Saturday. If you disagree, I encourage you to use the horse as this one is tough. In this case I am going with body of work over the Derby performance. .
10. General A Rod (Roman Ruler – Dynamite Eyes, by Dynaformer)
Trainer: Mike Maker
Jockey: Rosie Napravnik
M/L Odds: 20-1
Why he can win: The General is always a potential contender due to his hard-trying mentality. His performance in Preakness was decent, but he finished 8 lengths behind California Chrome in 4th. His pedigree screams distance with sire Roman Ruler, son of 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, having produced several classic distance winners including 2011 Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice. His broodmare sire Dynaformer is an internationally renowned and immensely successful distance influence. The General is generally a pace-pressing type which can be a solid recipe in the Belmont if the pace is not too hot up front. The very capable Rosie Napravnik takes the mount and will be the General’s third jockey in 3 Triple Crown races.
Why he can’t win: Even with his strong distance pedigree, he did weaken some down the stretch in the Florida Derby, never found his stride and was too far back in the Kentucky Derby, and ran a so-so Preakness. There is a chance that even with his strong distance pedigree, the General might not want the full 1 ½ miles of the Belmont.
Overall take: Prior to the Derby, the General was a pace pressing type that always gave it his all. His performances in the Derby and Preakness were so-so at best, but he in no way embarrassed himself versus those fields. I think his running style is a plus, but I’m just not sure if the General is good enough to hit the board ahead of the likes of Chrome, Samraat, Medal Count, Wicked Strong, etc…Pass.
11. Tonalist (Tapit – Settling Mist, by Pleasant Colony)
Trainer: Christophe Clement
Jockey: Joel Rosario
M/L Odds: 8-1
Why he can win: The M/L third choice is the new shooter with the buzz. His last out win in the G2 Peter Pan over the Belmont strip was impressive as he beat fellow Belmont runners Commissioner (2nd by 4 lengths) and Matterhorn (4th by 6 ¼ lengths) albeit over a sloppy track. In his last two races, he has been up close or on the lead which is a solid running style for the Belmont Stakes historically. His broodmare sire Pleasant Colony is one of the many Triple Crown heartbreak stories over the past 35 years as he finished third after winning the Derby and Preakness. He has also been working well over his home track in preparation for the race.
Why he can’t win: Tonalist is very lightly raced, having only his maiden win and the Peter Pan victory from 4 career starts. His win in the Peter Pan was over a sloppy track which leaves a lot of unknowns with the Tapit colt. He has only gone 1 1/8 miles so far, so the distance is a question to go with the lack of experience. Just a ton of question marks with Tonalist although he does appear talented.
Overall take: Tonalist is perhaps the most difficult runner to predict in the Belmont. I like his running style for sure as I expect those close to the pace to have the best chance at hitting the board; however, the distance questions and lack of racing experience (particularly against top company) cause serious hesitation. His 8-1 M/L Odds are another knock on his betting value in the race. Pass for me unless his odds go way up which I do not expect.