The Belmont Stakes Contenders

LADIES AND GENTS, MEET THE 2014 BELMONT STAKES PROBABLES

By Noel Michaels - OTB LearningLabs.com

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 7.  This is especially true in years when there is a Triple Crown on the line, as there is this year.

All eyes in the horseracing world will be on California Chrome, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, who will be trying to become the first winner of Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown in 36 years.  Will California Chrome succeed where so many others have failed and become Thoroughbred racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner?  Or will he go down to defeat 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.  In 2012, I’ll Have Another swept the Derby and Preakness, but aborted a Belmont Stakes attempt when scratching days before the race.

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 the race, 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 weeksthat 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 1 ½-miles, undoubtedly is 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). They all lost to fresher horses.

If California Chrome becomes the latest Triple Crown hopeful to fall short in the Belmont, he will lose for the same reason they all lose: He will be worn down and depleted from his Derby and Preakness efforts and unable to bring a third world-class effort in five weeks when in against fresher horses that are more able to go the testing 1 ½-mile distance on that particular Saturday at Belmont.

And so, let’s meet the prospective field pointing to the 2014 Belmont Stakes, which began to take shape immediately following the finish of the Preakness Stakes.  The runners-up to California Chrome in both the Derby and Preakness – Commanding Curve and Ride On Curlin – will both challenge again in the Belmont, as will several other live upsetters are lining up for their chance to play spoiler. California Chrome is scaring away nobody. The Belmont is still expecting a nearly full field.

BELMONT STAKES PROBABLES 2014
Horse                          Trainer                       Last Race Finish
California Chrome      Art Shurman               Won Preakness Stakes
Commanding Curve    Dallas Stewart             2nd in Kentucky Derby
Commissioner             Todd Pletcher             2nd in Peter Pan
Intense Holiday          Todd Pletcher             12th in Kentucky Derby
Kid Cruz                     Lind Rice                    8th in Preakness Stakes
Matuszak                     Bill Mott                     2nd in Tesio Stakes
Ride On Curlin           William Gowan           2nd in Preakness Stakes
Samraat                       Rick Violette               5th in Kentucky Derby
Tonalist                       Christophe Clement    Won Peter Pan
Wicked Strong            Jimmy Jerkens             4th in Kentucky Derby

Possible:

Candy Boy                  John Sadler                 13th in Kentucky Derby
Danza                          Todd Pletcher             3rd in Kentucky Derby
Ring Weekend            Graham Motion           5th in Preakness Stakes
Social Inclusion           Manuel Azpurua         3rd in Preakness Stakes

The 2014 Belmont field of probable and possibles, as it currently stands, contains California Chrome, and the second- and third-place finishers from both the Kentucky Derby (Commanding Curve and Danza), and the Preakness (Ride On Curlin and Social Inclusion) plus the first- and second-place finishers from the local prep, the Peter Pan (runaway winner Tonalist and Commissioner), among others.

Ladies and gents, let’s meet the 2014 Belmont Stakes contenders:

CALIFORNIA CHROME
The latest Triple Crown contender in a long line of them since Affirmed in 1978, California Chrome has all the tools to indicate that he’s the real deal and has just as good a chance as any horse has had of completing the feat in the last 36 years. Perhaps the best factor in California Chrome’s corner is that the competition trying to beat him this year looks highly-questionable. Trained by old-school horseman Art Shurman and ridden by Victor Espinoza, who has been down the Triple Crown hype road before aboard War Emblem 12 years ago, California Chrome is as honest and consistent as they come. He was now won 6 races in a row this year including the Cal Cup Derby, the San Felipe, the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness. He has looked good at every step along the way and shows no signs of letting up. The question on Belmont Stakes Day will be, can California Chrome succeed where others have failed in “The Test of the Champion?”  Can he possibly have enough left in the tank to do it one more time? Can he handle the marathon 1 ½-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes after two big efforts back-to-back two weeks apart in the Derby and Preakness? Or will the Triple Crown grind of 3 races in 5 weeks, in conjunction with the 1 ½-mile distance, turn out to be his downfall? One thing is for sure, California Chrome will need to be a truly exceptional horse in order to win. Will he be up to the challenge?  It’s going to be a great race.

COMMANDING CURVE
He was the surprise second-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, outrunning 37-1 odds as the best closer in the race for trainer Dallas Stewart, who has now finished second in the Derby two years in a row with huge longshots. Perhaps this horse should not have been overlooked in Louisville based on his troubled-trip third in the Louisiana Derby the time before, and there is no doubt that he’ll be dangerous in the Belmont with another similar late-closing effort. Wisely skipped the Preakness in order to point directly for the Belmont, and will have a freshness edge on California Chrome along with the other horses in this race who have not competed in all three legs of the Triple Crown. Should not be overlooked like last time.

COMMISSIONER
Has yet to live up to his potential for trainer Todd Pletcher, who tried to regroup with this horse and send him on the Peter Pan path to the Belmont Stakes. Did not run a bad race in the Peter Pan, finishing second in the local prep for the Belmont. However, that result was a very distant second behind Tonalist, and he will definitely have his hands full in the Belmont Stakes not only trying to turn the tables on that rival, but also matching the abilities of California Chrome and some of the other top finishers from the Kentucky Derby.

INTENSE HOLIDAY
Raced six wide into the first turn in the Kentucky Derby while staying close to the pace, but thereafter had no excuse en route to a disappointing 12th-place finish at Churchill Downs. Finished second in this spring’s Louisiana Derby when coming up short chasing a loose lone speed horse, and still seems capable to running well and competing favorably against this kind of competition under the right circumstances. Skipped the Preakness to point for the Belmont for trainer Todd Pletcher. Will lose the services of John Velazquez, but picks up the more-than-capable Javier Castellano.

KID CRUZ
Entered the Preakness the annual “local hope” as the Maryland horse at Pimlico, but fizzled out and finished out of the money. The feeling here is that if he was destined to upset any of these horses in any race, it would have been in the Preakness – not in the Belmont. Seems overmatched and has the look of a longshot also-ran.

MATUSZAK
Trained by Bill Mott and to be ridden by Mike Smith, this horse hails from the same connections that brought us 2012 Belmont Stakes upset winner Drosslemeyer. Finished second behind Kid Cruz in the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico last time out, but we may not see this horse’s best until he stretches out here to 1½ miles.  Big longshot from dangerous jockey/trainer combination.

RIDE ON CURLIN
Came running but was too late when second in the Preakness in a nice rebound effort from his tough-trip also-ran performance in the Derby. Has appeal mainly in the exotics, because it seems that whenever he runs up against a good horse, he loses to that horse while settling for a minor placing. Just like California Chrome, he will have been through the entire Triple Crown grind, and the three races in five weeks are likely to take something out of him and leave him vulnerable for an off-the-board finish.

SAMRAAT
Held on well in the Kentucky Derby for fifth, just a nose out of fourth place in his typical game try hard effort that he brings each and every time out. Trained locally, so he’ll have the home track advantage, and will be rested and ready after bypassing the Preakness in order to enter this race fresh. Expecting yet another game effort in the Belmont, even if the 1 ½ mile distance will be stretching him to the limit.

TONALIST
Looms the primary challenger to California Chrome and most likely horse to play spoiler to this year’s Triple Crown bid after unleashing a powerful performance in his victory last time out in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park.  Eased up nearing the wire in the Peter Pan, and could have won by even more if he’d tried late at the end of that 1 1/8-mile prep. The 1 ½-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes should prove to be absolutely no hurdle whatsoever for this horse, who is trained by Christophe Clement who is as adept as anyone in getting horses to run well and win over a route of ground up to and including a mile and a half. Proven on the track, good connections, no problem with the distance, and pointed to the Belmont Stakes all along from his home base right there at Belmont Park. If there’s a horse California Chrome must fear the most, it’s this one.  

WICKED STRONG
He was the wise guy horse in the Kentucky Derby as his bandwagon grew bigger and bigger every day until he was eventually the 6-1 second-choice at post time. Ran a very solid Derby for fourth when closing too late from far off the pace behind fractions that were much slower than expected at Churchill Downs. Like the other Derby superfecta finishers other than California Chrome, he opted to bypass the Preakness and point directly for the Belmont Stakes. That freshness angle is what makes him and the others so appealing as candidates to turn the tables on California Chrome at Belmont, which happens to be this horse’s home base. The long distance should be no problem, and the last time this horse raced in New York he won the Grade 1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, beating both Samraat and Social Inclusion.

POSSIBLES

CANDY BOY
A million-dollar wager came in late on this horse in the Kentucky Derby, knocking him all the way down to 9-1 as the fourth favorite in the race at post time. Unfortunately, Candy Boy could not deliver and fizzled-out to a 13th-place finish when unable to recover from a tough trip from a distant outside draw.  Things can only go better for Candy Boy in the Belmont if he enters, however, and even though he’d already been beaten by California Chrome before in the Santa Anita Derby, he seems like one of many horses in this race that will be more than capable of earning an in-the-money finish based on his best effort.

DANZA
Questionable for the Belmont Stakes for trainer Todd Pletcher, Danza has come a long way in a little bit of time in his return from a long layoff this season and definitely must be respected if he enters the field. His victory in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn two races ago was arguably the strongest effort turned in by any 3-year-old in any race this season, and he followed that up with a validating third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby with a little trouble in the mix to boot. Rested and ready after bypassing the Preakness.

RING WEEKEND
Tampa Bay Derby winner ran a solid but not spectacular fifth in the Preakness, and trainer Graham Motion claims the colt would have done even better if not for a rough trip. Perhaps a cut below some of the best horses pointing for the Belmont Stakes, but he’s a graded stakes winner from a good stable, so you wouldn’t blame them for taking another shot in the Belmont Stakes.

SOCIAL INCLUSION
Lightly-raced horse with loads of upside crushed the highly-regarded winter book Ky. Derby favorite Honor Code at Gulfstream Park in what was only his second career race, then ran creditably when third in both the Wood Memorial and the Preakness. Still developing into a better racehorse and gaining experience rapidly.  He’ll need to repeat his giant 110 Beyer speed figure from the Gulfstream race if he hopes to win the Belmont, but if he is able to run back to that best race . . . beware.

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 36 years, or will California Chrome join a long list of hopefuls to be denied the honor and glory in the Belmont Stakes?  The answer won’t be revealed until June 7 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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