There may be no Triple Crown winner in 2011, a sad blow considering the performance of Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby and how close he came to repeating it three weeks ago at Pimlico in the Preakness. Nonetheless, the Belmont is shaping up to be the most intriguing of the three legs of the Triple Crown.
Both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners are here to take their run at the final leg of the Triple Crown, while each of the top seven finishers from that first Saturday in May are back. The field in the 2011 Belmont Stakes is as accomplished as any we've seen in years.
Even though Shackleford breaks from the outside gate, he has a good post. With deep closers (horses who will be at or near the rear of the field for most of the race) to his inside, he should be able to clear most of the field pretty easily before they reach the first turn.
Still, Shackleford will be pressed on the front end by newcomer Prime Cut, who ran third in the Peter Pan at Belmont four weeks ago, and possibly also by Ruler on Ice, who last ran on Kentucky Derby day at Pimlico in the Federico Tesio.
Since the race is a 1 1/2-mile marathon, expect a slow pace. And given the slow pace, expect the other contenders to nurse themselves closer to the lead.
The wickedly fast opening quarter in the Preakness left Animal Kingdom far back, which would have been okay if the race had remained fast. But Jesus Castanon was able to slow it down to a 46 4/5-second half mile, a moderate time that allowed him to conserve enough energy to eventually hold off Animal Kingdom.
Animal Kingdom, Brilliant Speed, Santiva, and Mucho Macho Man should all be expected to be near the back, though within six or seven lengths of the lead, like in the Derby. In the Preakness, Animal Kingdom had to come from as many as 18 lengths out of the lead.
Nehro remains a question mark. He was surprisingly close to the lead in the Kentucky Derby under Corey Nakatani, and it was that unexpected tactical speed that enabled him to take the lead in the stretch and hold second. Had he dropped to mid-pack like expected, he would likely have encountered more trouble and finished further back.
Without much pace in this race, I expect Nakatani to position Nehro in about fourth or fifth early, within only a couple lengths of the front. However, I still think the race is a bit too long for him.
None of the other horses should be factors in this race, and I expect Ruler on Ice and Prime Cut to be eased turning for home. They may fade with about half a mile to go because they are sprinters. In effect, they may end up so far out of it while turning for home that there will be no point in racing them under the wire.
I hope I correctly pick which of the two finishes last, as I'm going for a clean sweep of the Triple Crown (Comma to the Top in the Derby, Flashpoint in the Preakness). This is the least sure I've felt about any of the three races.
1. Brilliant Speed, 4 1/2 lengths
2. Animal Kingdom, 5 lengths
3. Master of Hounds, neck
4. Santiva, neck
5. Shackleford, 1 1/2 lengths
6. Monzon, 2 lengths
7. Stay Thirsty, 1 length
8. Nehro, 1/2 length
9. Mucho Macho Man, 6 1/2 lengths
10. Isn't He Perfect, 22 lengths
11. Ruler on Ice, 3 lengths
12. Prime Cut