Belmont Stakes Preview

LADIES AND GENTS, MEET THE 2012 BELMONT STAKES PROBABLES

By Noel Michaels

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness are in the books, and now New York’s Belmont Park becomes the center of the American racing universe thanks to the running of the Belmont Stakes, upcoming on Saturday, June 9.  This is especially true in years when there is a Triple Crown on the line as there is this year.

All eyes this year will be on I’ll Have Another, the surprise winner of the Kentucky Derby and gallant winner of the Preakness at Pimlico.  Will I’ll Have Another succeed where so many others have failed and become Thoroughbred racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner?  Or will he go down to defeat when trying to accomplish one of the rarest and most difficult feats in all of sports?

In the Belmont Stakes, in terms of the odds, it goes without saying that favorites have done poorly in the third jewel of the Triple Crown. After all, no horse since 1978 has swept the Triple Crown, with 11 horses during that stretch losing their historic bids in the Belmont Stakes. The 11 horses since 1979 to lose the Belmont in their bid for the Triple Crown were Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), and most recently Big Brown in 2008.

That list of 11 Belmont Stakes losers is an impressive bunch, but perhaps no horse among those 11 (with the possible exception of Spectacular Bid, who lost in large part to jockey error on the part of unheralded Ronny Franklin) has come up to the third jewel in racing’s Triple Crown looking like as much of a forgone conclusion, and looking quite so invincible as Big Brown did in 2008.  Big Brown, even more than any of the others, proved that no matter how good a horse looks heading into “The Test of the Champion,” he can always lose the Belmont Stakes to a much less heralded challenger.

Other Triple Crown aspirants have come into the Belmont Stakes undefeated before suffering their first loss (Smarty Jones, for example), but none lost with as much flair as Big Brown, who failed to even finish, going down in flames at odds of 30 cents on the dollar.

What this means is that no matter how good a favorite looks in the Belmont Stakes, it may still be worthwhile - and profitable - to throw all sentiment aside to take a shot at beating the favorite.

Of all the factors that are likely to derail the Triple Crown hopeful, the biggest hurdle of all appears to be the three races in five weeks that all Triple Crown aspirants must overcome. The Triple Crown hopefuls always face a field of fresher horses, and that, combined with the Belmont’s distance of 1½-miles, undoubtedly gives you the number one factor accounting for the most Triple Crown disappointments. Some of the notable recent Triple Crown losers, included Charismatic (Lemon Drop Kid), Funny Cide (Empire Maker), and Smarty Jones (Birdstone), who all lost to fresher horses.

And so, let’s meet the prospective field pointing to the 2012 Belmont Stakes, which began to take shape immediately following the finish of the Preakness Stakes.  Bodemeister, the runner-up to I’ll Have Another in both the Derby and Preakness, will not run in the Belmont.  Therefore, the Belmont Stakes rematch scenario will not be in-play.  However, several other live upsetters are lining up for their chance to play spoiler, and the Belmont is still expecting a nearly full field.

BELMONT STAKES PROBABLES

Horse Trainer Last Race Finish
Alpha Kiaran McLaughlin 12th in Kentucky Derby
Atigun Ken McPeek Won Churchill allowance
Dullahan Dale Romans 3rd in Kentucky Derby
Five Sixteen Dominic Schettino 4th in Aqueduct allowance
Guyana Star Dweej D. Shivmangal 2nd in Belmont allowance
I’ll Have Another Doug O’Neill Won Preakness Stakes
Optimizer D. Wayne Lukas 6th in Preakness
Paynter Bob Baffert Won Pimlico allowance
Rousing Sermon Jerry Hollendorfer 8th in Kentucky Derby
Stealcase Mark Casse 3rd in Derby Trial
Street Life Chad Brown 3rd in Peter Pan
Union Rags Michael Matz 7th in Kentucky Derby
Unstoppable U Ken McPeek Won Belmont allowance

The 2012 Belmont field of probables, as it currently stands, contains the first- and third-place finishers from both the Kentucky Derby (I’ll Have Another and Dullahan) plus the Derby’s 7th-place finisher (Union Rags), 8th-place finisher (Rousing Sermon), and 11th-place finisher (Optimizer, also 6th in the Preakness making him likely to be the only other horse besides I’ll Have Another to run in all three races).

The list of challengers to I’ll Have Another includes are a total of two Grade 1 winners (Dullahan, Union Rags), plus other stakes winners Alpha, and Rousing Sermon in addition to a bunch of horses with stakes experience and stakes potential.

Ladies and gents, let’s meet the 2012 Belmont Stakes contenders:

  • ALPHA
    Winner of the G3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct this winter had a tough trip excuse the next time out when finishing a close second behind the then-undefeated Gemologist in the Wood Memorial. Received a lot of support in the Kentucky Derby but had missed some training time leading up to the Run for the Roses from injuries to his leg sustained in the running of the Wood. Now he’s had plenty of time to recover and is rested and ready for a top-notch effort heading into the Belmont Stakes for high percentage trainer Kiaran McLaughlin who is well-adept at getting horses to run a distance. We didn’t get a chance to see the real article in the Derby, but Alpha is rested and ready to rebound in the Belmont Stakes as one of the horses in the field with the best chance to play spoiler.
  • ATIGUN
    No dice in back-to-back spring Derby prep races in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, but will be looking to make amends as a longshot in the Belmont Stakes. Late runner is one of two horses being pointed to the race by trainer Ken McPeek along with rabbit stable-mate Unstoppable U.  Exits a big win in a Churchill allowance race last time out on the Derby undercard. Late runner will be far back but will be flying late. He might not have the best chance to win the Belmont, but he might be a dangerous horse that is worth using in the back slots in exotics.
  • DULLAHAN
    When last seen, Dullahan was a fast-closing third in the Kentucky Derby, finishing narrowly behind runner-up Bodemeister.  Horses that have run well in the Kentucky Derby but then skipped the Preakness have performed very well in recent runnings of the Belmont Stakes, and he along with fellow Preakness drop-out Union Rags seem to be the most serious challengers to I’ll Have Another in the Belmont Stakes.  In the Kentucky Derby, Dullahan finally proved that he could handle a dirt main track with his best effort ever on this surface, Previously, he had also run well on turf and on Polytrack when he won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in impressive fashion over the favored Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Hansen. Based on his terrific effort in the Derby, and the beneficial time between races, Dullahan is likely to be the second-favorite in the Belmont Stakes behind I’ll Have Another.  He will pick up the services of jockey Javier Castellano for the first time in the Belmont.  Looms the one to fear.
  • FIVE SIXTEEN
    Was last seen losing an Aqueduct allowance race in his last start for trainer Dominic Schettino.  The connections are hoping that the 1½-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes will be the great equalizer, but in reality, this horse seems helplessly overmatched in this spot.  Off-the-board finishes in Aqueduct allowance races rarely serve are effective stepping stones to victory in the classics.
  • GUYANA STAR DWEEJ
    Needed 8 tries in order to finally break his maiden in an Aqueduct one-mile allowance race back on April 7. Has been under consideration for this race for quite some time by connections who apparently believe he is likely to love the Belmont Stakes’ marathon 1½-mile distance. He may very well want to go a mile-and-a-half, but he exits an allowance loss behind Unstoppable U last time out, now has a career record of 1 win in 9 starts, and would be a hopeless longshot if entered in the Belmont Stakes.
  • I’LL HAVE ANOTHER
    The Kentucky Derby winner proved that he’s the real deal with his victory in the Preakness, giving him two-thirds of the Triple Crown and four wins in a row overall. He’ll be a tough customer in the Belmont Stakes, too, because he doesn’t appear to have any distance limitations, and he has the handy pace versatility of a horse that can rally from off the pace or stalk the pace close-up if the need arises as it did in the Preakness.  He will enter the Belmont Stakes as a big favorite and has beaten every horse in the field that he has faced on at least one occasion.  In the Kentucky Derby, he overcame post 19 to win and then in the Preakness he was able to pass Bodemeister in spite of that rival’s pace advantage as the lone speed in the race.  What will be his biggest hurdles to overcome in the Belmont Stakes?  Well, like all Triple Crown aspirants, he will be running his third grueling race in five weeks at three different tracks, and will be facing several quality challengers who are all fresher than him.  Another factor that often leads to a horse’s downfall in the Belmont is jockey error.  The 1½-mile Belmont track layout is different than every other track, and it often results in jockeys that are unfamiliar with the track making premature moves on the turn when they misjudge the distance of ground yet to run to the finish.  Unheralded jockey Mario Gutierrez (no experience on the local oval) has not made a mistake so far. Will he again be flawless in the Belmont?
    I’ll Have Another will be facing a set of quality rivals who will be fresher than him He’ll also be trying to buck 34 years of history to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.  While he looks like a very, very tough customer, he will be following the same path as 11 other Derby and Preakness winners since 1978 who all went down to defeat in the Belmont Stakes.
  • OPTIMIZER
    D. Wayne Lukas will be taking his third straight shot at a 2012 Triple Crown race with this horse, who already has finished mid-pack in both the Kentucky Derby (tenth) and Preakness (6th). May prove to be better than most in this race, but in reality he’s still eligible for a non-winners-of-two allowance race, and has yet to do anything else in his career to validate his one promising effort - a close second in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn back on March 17.  Not a complete toss-out, but he’ll need to post another giant upset reminiscent of the D. Wayne Lukas longshot Commendable, who won the 2000 Belmont Stakes and paid $39.60 to win.
  • PAYNTER
    Trainer Bob Baffert will have a contender in the Belmont Stakes - but it won’t be Bodemeister - it will be Paynter, a lightly-raced up-and-coming 3-year-old who has improved so far in every one of his four career starts, including a total demolition of an overmatched allowance field at Pimlico last time out on the Preakness undercard. Before that, Paynter had been fourth in the Santa Anita Derby (3 3/4 lengths behind I’ll Have Another), and second after a tough trip on or with the pace in the Derby Trial. From any other trainer, this horse might be possible to overlook, but with Baffert calling the shots and the horse coming out of a fast two-turn win in his last start, Paynter will be perhaps the newcomer in the field with the best chance at posting the upset.
  • ROUSING SERMON
    His eighth-place finish last time out in the Kentucky Derby was respectable, but he was basically a non-factor in that race at 40-1 odds. Owns zero early speed and is a one-paced plodder who much come from far off the pace. Handicappers and even trainers are often fooled into thinking these kinds of late-running horses are suitable to enter in the Belmont Stakes because they will still be running in deep stretch of the 1½-mile classic. However, in order to win the Belmont, a horse still must show some speed or some turn-of-foot at some point in the race, and Rousing Sermon has failed to demonstrate either in any of his five career dirt starts to date. Finished nearly 7 lengths behind I’ll Have Another in the Robert Lewis Stakes earlier this year at 1 1/16 miles, and was no closer to that rival when beaten 8+ lengths by him in the 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby.
  • STEALCASE
    This horse is slipping under the radar, but if you think Paynter is a contender, you’ve also got to look at this horse - at better odds - after he finished only a neck behind Paynter when closing for third in his most recent start in the shorter Derby Trial stakes at Churchill Downs. Before the Derby Trial effort. however, Stealcase had struggled in graded stakes attempts in the Gotham (6th) and the Spiral Stakes (5th) and posted a mediocre Beyer speed figure (79) when posting his maiden win at Gulfstream.  Might benefit from increased 1½-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes, but looks more like a one-paced plodder than anything else, and those types rarely make an impact in the third jewel of the Triple Crown.
  • STREET LIFE
    Exits a third-place effort in the local prep race for the Belmont - the Peter Pan Stakes. In the Peter Pan, however, Street Life was not a factor until late in the race, and even then could not catch the tiring 40-1 odds pacesetter, who held on for second after setting suicidal early fractions. All of the horses in the Peter Pan, including the winner Mark Valeski and this horse, were stumbling home dead tired in the stretch of the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan. Therefore this guy looks completely unlikely to post the necessary improvement needed to win the Belmont Stakes with the stretchout to the extended distance of 1½ miles.
  • UNION RAGS
    Along with Dullahan, Union Rags ranks as one of the two really big guns lining up to take a shot at denying I’ll Have Another the Triple Crown. Trainer Michael Matz - of Barbaro fame - finally pulled the plug on jockey Julien Leparoux aboard Union Rags after a pair of troubled-trips and tentative rides in losses in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.  A new rider has yet to be named for Union Rags, but one thing for sure is that Union Rags will almost certainly get a better trip in the Belmont than he had in the Kentucky Derby where he was wiped out after the start and at various points of the race while too close to the bad and traffic-laden inside part of the track.  Coming into the Derby, Union Rags was generally considered to be the most talented member of this 3-year-old crop after winning the G1-Champagne Stakes and just missing in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as a 2-year-old, and then winning the G2-Fountain of Youth this winter at Gulfstream under jockey Javier Castellano.  Castellano will be unavailable for the Belmont Stakes (he’s riding Dullahan), but the list of available riders is deep, including possibilities like Belmont leading rider Ramon Dominguez, and Edgar Prado, who rode the ill-fated Barbaro to Derby glory for trainer Michael Matz.
  • UNSTOPPABLE U
    One of two Ken McPeek-trained runners that is being considered for a shot at the Belmont Stakes, which would be only this horse’s third career race. Unstoppable U appears to be being considered for the race to serve as a rabbit for late-running stablemate Atigun. Unstoppable U has begun his career 2-for-2 with a pair of wire-to-wire wins on the New York circuit, including a 6F maiden win at Aqueduct followed by a 1 mile allowance win at Belmont by 6 lengths over Guyana Star Dweej. Earned an 82 Beyer speed figure for that allowance win, which is good but not great, and this move up into Grade 1 competition going a mile-and-a-half would be a monumental and unlikely accomplishment. Looks only like a pace factor, at best.

Stay tuned for more news, information, and handicapping for the Belmont Stakes as the race date gets closer . . .  Will we have our first Triple Crown winner in 34 years, or will I’ll Have Another join a long list of hopefuls to be denied glory in the Belmont Stakes?  The answer won’t be revealed until June 9 at Belmont Park, in the race correctly dubbed “The Test of the Champion.”  Until then, enjoy the lead-up to the race and the excitement of a possible Triple Crown winner.

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