The Big Time

THE BIG TIME

by John Piesen

The big-time jockeys win the big-time races on big-time Saturdays. This has been a handicapping truism since the good old days I was breaking in on the racing beat, and presumably will continue up to and including Belmont Day 2011.

The names change with the years. A generation back, the names were Bailey, Cordero and Day. Go back a little further, and the names were Baeza, Ycaza and Shoemaker.

Fast forward to the present, and the names are Velazquez, Dominguez and Castellano. These are the Big Three of modern-day New York racing, and rarely does a big-time horse fall through the cracks.

Take Saturday for example. They will run four graded stakes (four grade ones and two grade twos) on the 13-race Belmont card that kicks off at 11:35 a.m. and runs through 8 p.m. -- a day not for the faint of heart.

Johnny V. and Castellano have calls in all six graded stakes, and Dominguez has five. And hardly a bummer in the bunch.

When it comes to handicapping these races, which are grouped in a stakes pick six with a $1 million guaranteed payoff, there are
basically two ways to go:

1) consult the John Piesen Hot Line here online, or toll-free (888 612 2283), which will be kicking off its second decade in peak form, and

2) focus your attention on the Big Three of jockeydom.

This does mean to suggest that I'll be picking any combination of the Big Three on my Belmont Stakes phone-service selections. In fact, my top pick will come as a surprise to many.

Hey, even the iconic Angel Cordero Jr. won only one Belmont (and only one Travers). But Junior has parlayed his Hall of Fame riding career into a second highly successful career as Johnny V's mentor and agent.

Cordero will tell you he'd be happy if Johnny V. wins only one race Saturday, as long as it was the Belmont. But Angel knows that his rider is sitting on kegs of dynamite in all the graded stakes.

In order:

Savvy Supreme in the Acorn, which will kick off the stakes pick six at 2:34 p.m.; Trappe Shot in the True North; Travelin Man in the Woody Stephens; Amen Hallelujah in the Just A Game; Prince Will I Am in the Manhattan, and Animal Kingdom (thanks to Robby Albarado's broken nose) in the Belmont.

Needless to say, all have major shots, capped of course by Animal Kingdown, who opened the 2-1 favorite, but will be shorter at post.

This is a horse who, six weeks ago, never got a sniff from the media while he was preparing for the Kentucky Derby, and now he's the next Seattle Slew.

What a game!

All I know is that Animal Kingdom ignited a $329 exacta box for JPHL followers in Louisville, and capped a $112 exacta box for same in Baltimore. If there was another public handicapper alive who performed both feats, please let me know. Otherwise, get on board with me to do it one better at the Belmont--we'll hit the exotics, plus cash the win bet. Click here to be a part of the action.

Meantime, Castellano's Saturday stakes sextet:

Snow Fall in the Acorn; This One's for Phil in the True North; Little Drama in the Woody Stephens; C S Silk in the Just A Game; Straight Story in the Manhattan, and Master of Hounds in the Belmont.

Again, not a tossout in the lot.

And Dominguez, who won six last Sunday?

Ramon will ride Rule by Night in the True North, Justin Phillip in the Woody Stephens, Strike the Bell in the Just A Game; multi-champ Gio Ponti in the Manhattan, and Mucho Macho Man in the Belmont, replacing jockey Maragh.

I'm not looking for a Big Three sweep. I'm just saying they belong on your tickets.

Of the 12 horses entered for the Belmont, eight of them -- including the first seven --competed in the Derby.

They are:

Animal Kingdom (first); Nehro (second); Mucho Macho Man (third); Shackleford (fourth); Master of Hounds (fifth); Santiva (sixth); Brilliant Speed (seventh), and Stay Thirsty (12th).

The four new faces are: Ruler On Ice, Monzon, Prime Cut and Isn't He Perfect, who will be a popular choice in your friendly last-place pool.

Although Animal Kingdown will go at 6-5, at most 7-5, as far as I'm concerned this is the most wide-open Belmont in years. Heck, seven of the eight Derby returnees finished within five lengths (that's one second in real time) at Louisville.

The Belmont will have an an entirely different dynamic than the Derby. I pointed out in this venue before the Preakness that no two races are run alike, and I was right up to a point.

In both cases, Shackleford was in front turning for home, and Animal Kingdown came flying at him down the middle of the track.

With an obvious absence of early speed in the Belmont, Shackleford (and jockey Castanon) surely will want to go right to the top. But post 12 complicates matters. Even trainer Romans acknowledged that at Wednesday's draw.

After all this is the Belmont, and not all of these world-class jocks are going to give Shackleford an EZ pass to the lead and rail by the  first turn.

Furthermore, there is an additional jockey factor. Castanon and Nakatani, the riders of the second and third choices, are not accustomed to riding at Belmont, which beacuse of its mile-and-a-half circumference, is unlike any other racetrack in the world.

An example is Smarty Jones and jockey Elliott. Any other track, Smarty is a winner, but that extra distance done him in, breaking the hearts of everyone from Team Smarty to Time Magazine to Miss Liberty.

It all comes down to the trip.

In the Derby, while several of his rivals were cut off or forced wide, Animal Kingdom enjoyed the perfect trip, particularly at the head of the stretch when he sliced through a narrow opening between two tiring horses.

Moreover, in the Derby, the other riders didn't know Animal Kingdom from Animal Planet. In the Belmont, AK might as well have a target on his rider's back.

Couple of other Belmont points:

1) How strange will it be not hearing Tom Durkin's Belmont call over what has been his home track for 20 years? How awkward will it be for TD stepping aside for protege Colmus?

2) If you plan to watch the festivities on NBC, don't expect to see the Manhattan, live or on tape for that matter. Although the Manhattan will be a major part of the pick six (and pick four), and features a genuine champion in Gio Ponti, the network won't be dropping any of its sobby features to air the race...or even bother giving the result for that matter.

And you won't find the Manhattan at the usual simulcast venues because NBC has an exclusitivity window.

Enjoy the weekend, make sure you're with me here online, and see you back here rockin' and rollin' next week.

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