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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM

WHY THE BELMONT STAKES IS SO TOUGH

Over the years we’ve watched every type of scenario define the running of the Belmont Stakes. Unlike the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, for which there are at least a few hints prior to the race, the Belmont is a tabula rasa.

Obviously the slate is clean on distance. While it is true that no 3-year old will have run beyond a mile and an eight prior to adding an additional furlong in the Kentucky Derby and that once a number of horses who did run in the Derby run back in the Preakness along with a number of newcomers who themselves might have run a mile and an eight in one or more previous tries before adding the extra sixteenth of a mile at Pimlico, the mile and a half (another quarter mile) is indeed an entirely different circumstance.

That in itself is daunting. But there are other, more subtle factors involved. Whether they wind up being served by the knowledge or not, handicappers can at least make judgments prior to both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes as to "how the track is playing" in two turn dirt races. Has speed been holding up, are pressers and stalkers doing well, are trackers and/or deep closers given an edge? This might prove a small bit of information, but it is information that is totally unavailable at Belmont because races run at a mile and an eight or even a mile and a sixteenth, which are run around two turns at Churchill Downs and Pimlico are run out of the straight away back stretch chute and around one turn at Belmont.

Think what you will of the "perceived" general unpredictability of the Kentucky Derby, as I’ll show in a moment, the actual running of the race has developed many patterns that can be at least judged relevant when applied to the Run-For-The-Roses field. More than anything else, the number of "surprises" and high returns are a product more of the size of the field than anything else. As for the Preakness Stakes, decent prices notwithstanding in recent years, you can do a lot worse than building your handicapping foundation by looking to the three-year olds that are veterans of the Kentucky Derby (click here to see my archived article regarding the dominance of Derby runners in the recent Preakness’s) which was rather demonstrable this year as those "vets" ran 1-2-3-4-5.

But for now let me give you a few "for instances" as to those defining and consistent Kentucky Derby patterns.

Since 1991 only War Emblem (2002) has "technically gone gate-to-wire to win the Kentucky Derby. I say "technically because in 1994 Go For Gin was a head behind Ulises a quarter mile into the race before taking the lead and never looking back. That is it.

So does that mean that deep closers win the Kentucky Derby on a "regular" basis? The answer to that is no. In fact take as look at where every winner since 1991 was positioned at the quarter pole in the Kentucky Derby.

2013 - Orb - 5th...4 ½ lengths back
2012 - I’ll Have Another - 4th...3 ½ lengths back
2011 - Animal Kingdom - 5th...2 ½ lengths back
2010 - Super Saver - 2nd...1 lengths back
2009 - Mine That Bird - 12th...7 lengths back
2008 - Big Brown - First
2007 - Street Sense - 3rd...3 ½ lengths back
2006 - Barbaro - First
2005 - Giacomo - 11th...4 ½ lengths back
2004 - Smarty Jones - 2nd...a head back
2003 - Funny Cide - 2nd...1/2 length back
2002 - War Emblem - First
2001 - Monarchos - 6th...2 ½ lengths back
2000 - Fusaichi Pegasus - 6th...2 ½ lengths back
1999 - Charismatic - 3rd...1 ¾ lengths back
1998 - Real Quiet - First
1997 - Silver Charm - 3rd...3/4 lengths back
1996 - Grindstone - 8th...9 lengths back
1995 - Thunder Gulch - 2nd...1 length back
1994 - Go For Gin - First
1993 - Sea Hero - 8th...7 ½ lengths back
1992 - Lil E. Tee - 5th...5 lengths back
1991 - Strike The Gold - 6th...2 lengths back

In the last 23 Kentucky Derbies only 3 horses were as far off the pace at the quarter mile as 7-9 lengths and the overall off-the-pace margin at the quarter pole (including those that had already struck the lead) was 2.42 lengths.

Yet there is an even more defining standard. 16 of the past 23 winners of the Kentucky Derby have taken the lead at or just inside the eighth pole. 4 more were second by the furlong marker with I’ll Have Another 3 lengths back of Bodemeister in 2012 and three others ½ lengths off the pace in second at the eighth pole before taking over deeper in the stretch. In 2011 Animal Kingdom was in third, but only 1 ½ lengths back. Even Giacomo, who in most people’s re-telling came from "out of the clouds" was only 2 ¾ lengths off the pace in 6th when he got up in the finals strides in 2005 while Grindstone is the sole "outside the box" Derby winner since 1991 virtue of closing 3 ½ lengths from 4th in 1996.

Over the last 8-10 years a number of standards have fallen. You no longer have to win as a two year old, you can get by without running as many as three preps as a sophomore and even the "conditioning" standard which precluded horses that haven’t had a final prep within 3 or 4 weeks prior to the Derby has been sent to the delete file along with the once unimpeachable Dosage Factor (remember that?) But one thing that has become solid is the ability to draw into contention by the quarter pole and have good cruising speed through the final two furlongs. And by and large this is something that can be ascertained by analyzing the 9 furlong two turn races the contenders have run.

Trust me when I tell you that there are other sensible "standards" that significantly place Derby contenders on the "short list" each year. One that is very live is the average winning distance of the horse’s sire and dam sire. If "both" the male and female side do not produce a winning average in their offspring that is beyond 7 furlongs, a winning Kentucky Derby performance is all but unlikely to happen.
As I said, these are just a few of the things one can count on in calculating potential Kentucky Derby performances. But when it comes to the Belmont Stakes...well, there just aren’t too many.

Last year Union Rags returned after a dismal Kentucky derby performance and a 5 week freshening and battled Paynter who won on the Preakness undercard three weeks earlier from off the far turn and throughout the stretch, with a head and neck separating the two throughout the final quarter mile.

In 2011 tactical speed also held sway as Ruler On Ice, who hadn’t run since finishing second in an allowance race at Pimlico on Kentucky Derby day outlasted Stay Thirsty who had taken a break after finishing 12th in the Derby. They traveled in second and third from first call and after putting away pace-setter Shackleford, who faded to 5th held off a late rally from Brilliant Speed.

In 2010 it was quite a different scenario as longshot Drosslemeyer, who was soundly beaten 6 lengths as the 7-10 favorite in the Dwyer Stakes in his previous start 4 weeks earlier, came from off the pace along with Fly Down, who had beaten him in the Dwyer and reversed the outcome as they ran one-two after running down pace setters First Dude and Game On Dude.

In 2009 the runners were all over the track as Summer Bird rallied from 9th of 10 in the final half mile to catch Dunkirk, who had made all the pace, been himself passed by Derby longshot winner and Preakness runner-up Mine That Bird, who took a brief lead before being re-passed by Dunkirk and in the final stages by the winner.

In 2008 longshot Da’ Tara ran a race he never ran before or after as he wired the field after dueling his completion into defeat through relatively quick early fractions of :48 1/5 and 1:12 4/5 and inexplicably held and widened that margin despite completing the final 6 furlongs in 1:16 4/5.

In 2006 Jazil jumped from 7th to the lead between the half mile and quarter mile marker and coasted home ahead of Bluegrass Cat who grabbed 2nd at the half mile pole and ran second right to the wire.

By now you get the idea. There is little in the way of standard running style to isolate the key contenders in the Mile-And-A-Half Test Of The Champion. What is necessary is a keen understanding of how "this year’s race" will shape up based on breeding, how the horses are training, which horses returning from one or both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness had an excuse or help in either under or over performing in those races, which of the non-combatants from the Triple Crown are finally ready to mature and which outfits have actually targeted the Belmont Stakes above all else.

To sum up...the Belmont Stakes is each year a race unto its own. And if you check out the results and prices over the course of the last 10 years you’ll see why it is well worth the in depth analysis that it takes to understand all the challenges it presents.

The 2013 Belmont is just 9 days away, so make sure you return to these pages for the latest updates.

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