It's only a couple days until the 143rd Belmont Stakes, and although there is no chance at a Triple Crown, this field is one of the most compelling in years.
For the first time in history, the top seven horses from the Kentucky Derby are all set to run in the Belmont. The previous record, for those interested, was five in 1949 and 1950.
Moreover, both the Derby and Preakness winners are in the field for a grudge match, and both horses have displayed enough so far to make it seem like this is a rivalry that can continue after the Belmont. Both could run in the Haskell and Travers this summer on the way towards a showdown for Horse of the Year at Churchill Downs in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
That latter race, so you know, is at 1 1/4-miles, the Derby distance, over the very same track. If both Animal Kingdom and Shackleford keep improving and make it to the first Saturday in November, we could have one of the greatest showdowns in modern racing history.
But the interest doesn't stop there.
Nehro, the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby, is back to try and exact revenge on Animal Kingdom.
Third place finisher Mucho Macho Man, who ran sixth in the Preakness after showing a shoe, is also back with the well-discussed sentimental story backing him. If he wins, it'll be the first time since 1975 that we've had three different winners in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, each of which ran in all three races. It's a testament to this field and the connections that they're giving their horses a chance to run.
Master of Hounds, Santiva and Brilliant Speed, fifth, sixth and seventh in the 137th Kentucky Derby, all should love the longer distance and were closing fast at the end.
It's shaping up to be a very competitive race both at the betting windows and on the track.
Even though there is no Triple Crown chance, it'll be as exciting as ever.
Profiles of all 12 contenders on the next 12 pages. The post position draw was this morning, so the horses are ordered from inside to outside with the official morning line listed for each horse.
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The European horse showed he could handle the dirt in the Kentucky Derby, but he just wasn't good enough. The added distance for the Belmont could be enough to earn Aidan O'Brien his first U.S. classic win (he has won 25 Irish, 14 English and a pair of French classics).
Master of Hounds has done a lot of travelling, shipping back to Ballydoyle in Ireland the day after the Derby. But he's used to travelling, and I don't think it'll be a concern.
It's a good post position draw and Master of Hounds can drop back and save ground along the rail. He's absolutely a player and worth a bet at 10-1.
The other other other other other other other horse from the Kentucky Derby, Stay Thirsty was a non-factor. But he's used to being the other horse, as he was owner Mike Repole's other horse up until the day before the Kentucky Derby, behind juvenile champion Uncle Mo (who is doing well and set to resume light training within the next couple of weeks).
But the problem with Stay Thirsty is that he just isn't good enough. He had every chance turning for home in the Kentucky Derby, and he came up empty. Same could be said about his Florida Derby run, where he finished sixth.
Stay Thirsty is desperately outclassed here and a good possibility to finish last. He won't finish last, but he's definitely a last-place contender.
A disappointing second as the favorite on Derby day in the Federico Tesio at Pimlico likely cost Ruler on Ice a spot in the Preakness, but he is primed and ready for the Test of Champions.
His pedigree gives no indication that he'll like the Belmont Stakes distance. Heck, it gives no indication that he'd even like the Kentucky Derby distance. He's a miler, and he is one of two horses I'm debating between to pick as the horse who will run last.
Avoid Ruler on Ice at all costs. Based on the strength of the other contenders in this field, this won't be a hard thing to do.
My Kentucky Derby pick ran sixth in the Derby and was fast closing at the end. With Giant's Causeway as a sire and Smarten as a damsire, he should absolutely love the extra quarter-mile to run down Animal Kingdom.
The Derby was his only finish not in the money in four dirt starts, and he's only getting better. Excluding his no-show on the polytrack at Keeneland in the Blue Grass Stakes, he's had an improving Beyer Speed Figure in each start, peaking at 95 in the Derby.
Moreover, he's had his worst trouble around the clubhouse turn in races. Drawing from the four post should benefit Santiva greatly.
All things considered, use Santiva in all wagers.
I've made no secret of my love for Brilliant Speed, even taking him in my last fantasy horse racing auction before the Kentucky Derby for the sole reason that I thought he'd win the Belmont.
He came from out of the clouds to run seventh in the Kentucky Derby despite going eight-wide, marking his seventh consecutive start where his Beyer figure increased. He also answered the question of whether he could handle dirt. His first two starts last summer were both on dirt, and he finished pathetically. However, they were also each sprint races around one turn. He's proven to be a different horse around two turns.
His sire, Dynaformer, has produced runners with incredible stamina. One of his progeny, Americain, who runs mostly in Europe, shipped to Australia last November to win the Melbourne Cup. That race is 3,200 meters, or a few feet shy of two miles. He's out of a Gone West mare, who has produced champions at just about every distance.
Brilliant Speed will win the Belmont Stakes. There's no doubt in my mind. I wish I could get a better price, and I actually rooted against him in the Derby so I could get a better price in the Belmont. Sadly, for me, he ran a respectable seventh.
Here's your Belmont horse. I said it a month ago, and I am not backing down.
Corey Nakatani silenced a lot of critics with his brilliant handling of Nehro in the Kentucky Derby, rating him within a few lengths of the lead throughout despite the fact that he has done his best running from further back. Sensing the slow pace, Nakatani kept Nehro out of trouble, and it took a better horse to deny them a deserved Kentucky Derby win.
Don't expect as much luck in the Belmont.
For starters, the distance may be a bit too long for the Derby runner-up, and Animal Kingdom will only have more time and room to make up ground in the stretch.
Furthermore, I'm still convinced Nehro has a severe case of seconditis. He just doesn't have the will to get his nose up on the wire.
I wouldn't bet Nehro to win, even though I'm counting on him in my fantasy stable, although I would consider him for use further down in exotic wagers.
Although Monzon had a troubled trip in the Peter Pan at Belmont last out, he was much outclassed by the field. Moreover, he'll be coming from just about dead last.
You know who else will be coming from just about dead last?
Brilliant Speed, Master of Hounds and some obscure colt named Animal Kingdom.
Monzon isn't even close to being in the same class as that trio.
Prime Cut has been a good, consistent horse since his first start, finishing in the money all six times and posting consistent Beyer Figures with a slight upward trend.
But his breeding does not convince me that this is his distance. Bernstein has produced consistent and sound horses but most have done their best running at around a mile or less. Damsire Stravinsky was a champion sprinter in Europe, although he did produce Serenade Rose, a Group I winner in Australia at longer than one-and-a-half miles.
Still, this horse doesn't give me any reason to believe he can go 1 1/2-miles. In fact, he gives me a lot of reason to believe there is no way he can. This is my other pick to run last.
I was correct in both the Kentucky Derby (Comma to the Top) and Preakness (Flashpoint) in picking the last-place horse. Not sure yet whether I'm going with Ruler on Ice or Prime Cut, but hopefully I'll select the right horse and sweep the Triple Crown.
The Kentucky Derby winner likely will go off at a very short price in the Belmont. He fell a few yards shy of catching a game and determined Shackleford three weeks ago at Pimlico, and the added distance will make him the stand-out horse on Saturday.
His mare line is loaded with stamina, as both his dam and damsire won at 1 1/2-miles in Germany during their racing careers. The kick he showed turning for home in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness leave a lot to be expected, and he might be the best bred horse for this distance.
The question with Animal Kingdom is not if he can go the distance but rather if you can get him at a price that warrants betting on him. Likely, you won't.
The post position shouldn't be a problem. The longer distance means the pace will be slower and Animal Kingdom will be closer than he was at Pimlico. But he'll still be near or at the back. He shouldn't have much trouble.
He will be the favorite and deserves to be the favorite. Consider any price above 2-1 a good price to get.
Dear me, this horse always has an excuse, but unlike when it's a Bob Baffert horse, these are actually legitimate excuses (not that Baffert never has legitimate excuses). Twice in his last three starts, he's thrown a shoe. The other start, the Kentucky Derby, he finished third despite having more trouble than a college football coach who was caught lying to the NCAA. If he were any more unlucky, they'd call him Tessie Hutchinson.
OK, now that I'm done with obscure cultural references, does Mucho Macho Man have a chance?
No, the distance will prove too long. He may contend for the minor placing, but I expect a mid-pack finish. I would be very surprised if he won. At 10-1, he's not even worth a look.
This horse showed no reason to believe he could contend in the Preakness, and trainer Doodnauth Shivmangal's explanation that he doesn't like travelling seemed a bit, what's the word, stupid.
Travelling to Pimlico from Aqueduct is not travelling. That's four hours tops.
No, Isn't He Perfect was desperately outclassed. That's the only excuse you need.
Shivmangal has a decent horse on his hands, and he's done a good job training him. But Isn't He Perfect would require a miracle to win this race. Or seven or eight tragedies. And I wouldn't count on the first and wouldn't ever root for the latter.
Look for this horse to contend in Grade III races this summer, but this Saturday in the Belmont? Please.
Pass at all costs.
Shackleford's last three starts have all been resolutely impressive, and he has established himself as the second or third-favorite to Animal Kingdom not just for the Belmont, but for the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year.
A lot of people have been questioning Dale Romans' decision to send Shackleford in the Belmont when he's clearly a 1 1/8-mile horse, but I'm not in that camp.
First off, Shackleford is only getting better, and even if he cannot get the distance, he'll be near-unbeatable at 1 1/4-miles, the Kentucky Derby distance that just so happens to be the Travers and Breeders' Cup Classic distance as well going forward. The stamina he will build up training for and running in the Belmont will help him immensely when he cuts back.
Furthermore, if the Kentucky Derby were run today, I think he'd win it. He wasn't yet mature enough to run that far on the first Saturday in May, just as his development was still a few weeks behind schedule when Dialed In caught him just before the wire a month earlier in the Florida Derby.
While there is nothing in his breeding to suggest that he can go 1 1/2-miles, I would not ignore him. He's almost impossible to pass and I would not put it past him to hold on much longer than anyone thinks he can.