The Belmont Stakes is this Saturday.
The Belmont Stakes is arguably the most strategic of the three Triple Crown races, and to win racing's third jewel, a horse needs to be the total package.
Any flaw will be exposed in Belmont Park's long stretch and the true champions will be weeded out from the pretenders. Some of the sport's all-time greats have left their mark on history in the Belmont Stakes, and on Saturday, 14 horses will try to do just that.
Handicapping the Belmont Stakes can be nearly as formidable a task as actually winning the race with the entire field doing something it has never done before—competing at a mile-and-a-half.
Here are some rules to help navigate the field and settle on your winner.
Orb has the stamina to get a mile-and-a-half.
The most demanding part of the Belmont Stakes is the mile-and-a-half distance. Modern thoroughbreds are not bred or built like the warhorses of the old days and often find the distance to be their undoing.
Pedigree matters. A horse’s lineage often dictates how far he is capable of going at top effort and can make or break a horse’s chance in the Belmont Stakes.
Some horses in this field, such as Orb, Palace Malice, Revolutionary and Incognito, have pedigrees with an tremendous amount of stamina and should find the distance ideal. With Orb in particular, his long stride and come-from-behind style should put him in a perfect position.
A horse can overcome many things, but even some great horses cannot get a mile-and-a-half, making this rule the most important.
Eliminate: Overanalyze, Giant Finish, Vyjack, Unlimited Budget, Golden Soul
Will Take Charge has struggled over an off track.
With the forecast looking more and more ominous for Saturday in New York, there is a strong possibility that for the second time in this year’s Triple Crown, the horses will have to compete over a wet track.
As the Kentucky Derby demonstrated, some horses simply do not handle it as well as others. For some, torrential rain would be a blessing and move them up significantly.
It is not as simple as just going through the Kentucky Derby field and eliminating everyone who did not hit the board. Some horses had excuses beyond the track for their poor performance, and that must be taken into consideration.
Golden Soul turned in such a strong performance in Louisville largely because he got over the off track so well. He may not be as effective over a fast track and becomes a much bigger threat with rain. Similarly, Freedom Child proved in his last start that not only does he love a sloppy track, he loves a sloppy track at Belmont Park.
Eliminate: Overanalyze, Giant Finish, Incognito, Will Take Charge
Will Oxbow bounce in the Belmont?
The Triple Crown can be an incredibly demanding five weeks, and it takes a masterful trainer and a special horse to be able to compete successfully in all three legs.
Some horses can thrive on a rigorous schedule, and others are not bred or built to withstand three races in such a short time period. A horse like Orb, even after his disappointing loss in the Preakness, is getting physically stronger with each start. His workouts have been sharp, and it appears the first two jewels took little out of him.
On the other hand, there are horses like Will Take Charge and Oxbow. Will Take Charge has performed worse with each start recently, and his form appears to be on a downslide.
With Oxbow, there is no denying he ran a tremendous race in the Preakness Stakes. However, he earned a staggering 106 Beyer Speed Figure in that race, and this is a horse that has consistently recorded Beyers in the 80s and 90s. While figures are not an end-all, be-all gauge, they do show a pattern; based on his uncharacteristically high number, he will likely regress.
Eliminate: Oxbow, Will Take Charge
Revolutionary could flatten out in the long Belmont Park stretch.
As everyone saw in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, sometimes strategies have to change the moment the gates open.
In the Derby, when Palace Malice shot to the lead, he threw several horses and riders off their plan, eliminating their chances. In the Preakness, Gary Stevens put his decades of experience to good use and capitalized on the fact that he could get an uncontested lead and steal the show.
Both jockeys and horses need to be able to roll with the punches. A horse that only has one sort of run, whether it is from off the pace or a need-the-lead speedball, is at a disadvantage.
The running styles that should be most successful against this field are stalkers and closers that gradually wear down their rivals, not just with one explosive kick.
Eliminate: Freedom Child, Giant Finish, Revolutionary, Unlimited Budget
Unlimited Budget has trained well at Belmont Park.
Home-track advantage can play an integral part in a horse’s success in the Belmont Stakes.
The long stretch at Belmont Park can make things extremely difficult for a jockey who is unfamiliar with it. But it is not only the jockeys that should have a familiarity with the surface. The benefit of training and racing over a track for an extended period of time can extend to the big day.
There are some horses like Unlimited Budget who may have never raced at Belmont, but her recent workout was sharp, and she clearly got over the surface exceptionally well.
Eliminate: Oxbow, Will Take Charge, Golden Soul
Palace Malice has only won one race.
At this point in the season, there have been a plethora of stakes races up for grabs for three-year-olds. To be a real factor in the Belmont Stakes, a horse needs to have proven he can compete and win against top-tier competition, or he will be relegated to the outskirts of an exotic wager if he is considered at all.
Midnight Taboo is making his first start against stakes company, and at this point, this lightly raced colt could be any kind. However, this is a very tough field to make a stakes debut, and it is essentially like jumping into the deep end of the pool when you can barely doggy paddle.
Eliminate: Frac Daddy, Giant Finish, Incognito, Midnight Taboo, Vyjack, Palace Malice, Golden Soul
Even after the debacle in the Preakness, Orb remains the top horse in this crop and will be able to redeem himself on Saturday. Horses, even great ones, are not machines and sometimes simply have bad days.
Though he will need to run a big race, there are few trainers in the business who can prepare a horse as well as Shug McGaughey. In 1989, he campaigned the great Easy Goer and kept him in top form for all three jewels of the Triple Crown, finally winning the Belmont after finishing second in the first two to Sunday Silence.
Orb has won over a fast track and showed in Kentucky that he can excel over a sloppy one as well, so the pending rain should not be an issue. In addition, he has shown he can be tactical and versatile and does not need to come from dead last to be effective.
Though he has not won at Belmont Park, he has spent the bulk of his career training over that famously long stretch. Both he and his rider Joel Rosario should be very familiar with the surface.
Orb is a total package of stamina, class and talent and will get to prove that on Saturday.