Belmont Stakes 2015: 10 Bold Predictions for the Triple Crown's Last Leg
American Pharoah’s date with destiny is rapidly approaching, and he will try to become only the 12th horse in history to win horse racing’s elusive Triple Crown. Heading into the grueling,
1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes, only one thing is certain—absolutely anything is possible.
It has been 37 years since Affirmed won the Triple Crown, and with each year that passes and with each failed attempt, the possibility seems even more remote. Last year, California Chrome seemed like the horse, but he ultimately fell short and finished fourth. American Pharoah has all of the goods—the pedigree, the connections and the brilliance to get the job done. Now, he just has to deliver.
American Pharoah will not get his spot among horse racing’s immortals easily. With several new shooters ready to take him on as well as some familiar rivals, he will have to run the race of his life in the Belmont Stakes.
Let’s consult our crystal ball and look at some bold predictions for the 2015 edition of the Belmont Stakes.
10. Mubtaahij Will Excel Going 1 1/2 Miles
Mubtaahij was the ultimate dark horse in the Kentucky Derby. After a brilliant victory in the UAE Derby (G1), he wound up eighth in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and at that point, the decision was made to play to the colt's potential strengths and point toward the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes.
The American Thoroughbred is no longer bred with distance in mind. With an emphasis on precocity and speed, the modern-day Thoroughbred is not engineered to excel at the grueling distance. The Irish-bred Mubtaahij, however, is bred with enough stamina to be hitting his best stride when many of his rivals are praying for the wire.
Though his regular rider Christophe Soumillon is regarded as one of the best jockeys in the world, he will get a jockey change to rising star Irad Ortiz Jr. for the Belmont Stakes. Ortiz is a regular leader on the New York circuit and is extremely familiar with Belmont Park's uniquely long stretch.
In addition to Mubtaahij's pedigree, trainer Mike De Kock has taken an aggressive approach to his training, and he has had six recorded breezes since the Kentucky Derby. There is no doubt this colt will be fit.
9. Todd Pletcher Is Back with a Loaded Hand
After a disappointing day at the Kentucky Derby, Todd Pletcher opted to skip the Preakness Stakes and regroup for the Belmont Stakes. The powerhouse trainer saddled three horses in the Kentucky Derby, and the best he managed was sixth place with Materiality. Itsaknockout finished ninth and the regally bred Carpe Diem was 10th.
With Carpe Diem and Materiality both fresh from their Kentucky Derby performances, Pletcher will also add Madefromlucky to the mix. Madefromlucky, winner of the Peter Pan Stakes (G2) last time out, will be trying to follow the same trajectory as 2014 Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist.
Can any of these three colts play the spoiler to American Pharoah? The Pletcher arsenal will all need move forward to be top threats, but there is strength in numbers.
8. Victor Espinoza Will Make a Mistake
Victor Espinoza is no stranger to the pressure that comes with being aboard a horse with a chance at the Triple Crown. He was the rider aboard War Emblem in 2002 and California Chrome in 2014, and both colts came up empty.
In the Belmont Stakes, Espinoza will be doing everything in his power to give his colt every possible chance to win the race. and if he makes even one error, the other riders will be waiting to capitalize on that and seize the opportunity.
With two failed Triple Crown bids under his belt, Espinoza does have an experience edge. But, should anything not go as planned, he will be the first to shoulder the blame. Being a jockey is one of the most difficult professions in sports—they are aboard 1,200-pound animals with minds of their own who sometimes trip, spook or simply don't feel like participating to their fullest extent that particular day.
In a race, decisions are made in less than a split second, and the wrong one can be the difference between winning or losing. Espinoza has never been particularly successful at Belmont Park, and there will be no room for error.
7. Secretariat's Record Could Be in Jeopardy
Secretariat made history in many ways by winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes and claiming the Triple Crown. The big red colt won by 31-lengths and completed the 1 ½-mile test in 2:24, two records that still remain.
American Pharoah is certainly a special colt, but it is a long way between special and Secretariat—just about 31 lengths. Though the chance of him breaking Secretariat's margin of victory record is slim, there is a chance that the record time could fall.
This is an exceptionally talented and extremely fast group of horses. For the first time in many years, Secretariat's stakes-record time could be touched.
6. The Margin of Victory Will Be Short
With a potential field for the Belmont Stakes as deep and competitive as one can remember, the odds of a blowout victory seem unlikely. In the past 20 years, only one horse—Point Given in 2001—has won by double-digit lengths. Last year, Tonalist prevailed by only a head.
While American Pharoah has proven to be the type of horse that can quickly open up daylight on his rivals, there will likely be several talented and powerful closers who will be rapidly cutting into his lead. The demanding distance of the race combined with the long, tiring stretch of Belmont Park lends itself to close, exciting finishes.
If—and it is a big if—American Pharoah pulls off the victory, it may be the closest one of his career.
5. The Real Carpe Diem Will Show Up
Carpe Diem may be the strongest of Todd Pletcher's Belmont Stakes trio. Prior to the Kentucky Derby, the colt was regarded as one of the best of this crop and had done everything right leading up to the Run for the Roses.
Instead of looming as American Pharoah's big threat, he finished an uninspiring 10th with no obvious excuses. Everyone gets one bad day, and perhaps the Kentucky Derby was his. I was in the paddock for the Kentucky Derby and witnessed him getting more visibly worked up with each lap around. Unable to relax, he seemed to leave his race in the paddock.
With attendance limited to 90,000 at Belmont Park, he will still have to contest with a large, energetic crowd, but it will be nowhere near the scope of the Kentucky Derby masses.
3. Tale of Verve Will Prove Dallas Stewart Right
Tale of Verve had to sit out the Kentucky Derby when he lacked the credentials to get in the race. Despite his colt's dubious resume, trainer Dallas Stewart believed he had a shot. Instead, he refocused and pointed his horse at the final two jewels of the Triple Crown—the Preakness and Belmont.
Overlooked at odds of 28-1, Tale of Verve ran second in the Preakness Stakes. While he was nowhere near American Pharoah, he galloped out like a horse who could benefit from more distance. Stewart, as he noted via the NYRA Press Office, still believes his colt can continue to improve: "We want to get the win for him. With his breeding, the way he eats, the way he handles himself, I think he can do it."
2. Frosted Will Be the Horse for American Pharoah to Beat
Kiaran McLaughlin is not the type of trainer to make big, bold statements. In a recent tweet from the Courier-Journal's Jonathan Lintner, McLaughlin was quoted as saying that Frosted was "the second-best horse" in the Kentucky Derby, despite his fourth-place finish.
Watching the replay of the Kentucky Derby, there is definitely some validity to his statement. The gray colt had a terrible trip and was finishing possibly the strongest of all. With the benefit of skipping the Preakness and coming in fresh to take on American Pharoah, he looms as the biggest threat to the Triple Crown.
McLaughlin, however, is a true sportsman and regarded as one of the genuine good guys in the sport, as evidenced by this tweet from Ron Flatter:
2. The Winner Will Have Raced in the Kentucky Derby
California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn (in)famously blasted the connections of horses that skip the Kentucky Derby and come to the Belmont not having competed in either of the first two legs of the Triple Crown, going so far as to call them "cowards" after California Chrome was defeated last year.
Well, he won't find any cowards in the winner's circle this year. The winner of the Belmont Stakes will be a horse that competed in at least the Kentucky Derby this year and potentially the Preakness as well. Does that mean American Pharoah? Not necessarily. There will be several horses rejoining the group that finished behind the champion in the Kentucky Derby but skipped the Preakness and will be fresh and ready for revenge.
The field that assembled for the 2015 Kentucky Derby was one of the strongest in recent memory. While there are some interesting new shooters like Madefromlucky, the real strength is in the horses that competed on the first Saturday in May.
1. There Will Be Not Be a Triple Crown This Year
American Pharoah is absolutely the total package. However, there have been horses before him who have appeared to be the total package as well, and they have not been able to complete the Triple Crown sweep. The question remains—what does American Pharoah have that Silver Charm did not have, or that Smarty Jones or Sunday Silence lacked?
At the Kentucky Derby, the champion colt showed vulnerability for the first time. Jockey Victor Espinoza went to the whip aggressively and did not seem to receive the explosive response he expected. In the Preakness, over a very sloppy track, American Pharoah redeemed himself with a devastating, impressive performance. Which American Pharoah will show up at Belmont Park?
There is a reason only 11 horses before him have been able to complete the Triple Crown, and it remains one of the most coveted and difficult challenges in all of sports.