Submitted by Noel Michaels on Monday, June 1, 2015 at 12:00 AM
USE ANGLES AND TRENDS TO CRUSH THE BELMONT STAKES
By Noel Michaels
After the Kentucky Derby and Preakness are in the books, New York’s Belmont Park again becomes the center of the racing universe thanks to the running of the third jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes. This is especially true in years when there is a Triple Crown on the line, and that’s a big deal because this year’s Crown aspirant, American Pharoah, appears to have a better chance to accomplish the feat than most of the recent losers that have come before him.
All eyes in the horseracing world - and sports world - will be on American Pharoah, 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 37 years. Will American Pharoah succeed where so many others have failed to 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?
Of all the factors that are likely to derail American Pharoah, the biggest hurdle against his success appears to be the grind of running three races in five weeks that all Triple Crown aspirants must overcome. Belmont Stakes hopefuls who ran in both the Derby and Preakness always face a field of fresher horses. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and ask Calfiornia Chrome’s owner who became the world’s most famous buffoon last year after his ranting temper tantrum because of this following his horse’s loss in 2014.
Facing a field of fresher horses, combined with the Belmont’s distance of 1 1/2-miles, undoubtedly gives you the number one factor accounting for the most Belmont Stakes disappointments. Some recent Triple Crown losers, including Charismatic (Lemon Drop Kid), Funny Cide (Empire Maker), Smarty Jones (Birdstone), and California Chrome (Tonalist) all lost to fresher horses.
As a matter of fact, this year American Pharoah will be the only horse in the Belmont Stakes field that will be running in all three Triple Crown races . . . a distinct disadvantage according to recent history.
Belmont Park, a.k.a. "Big Sandy" is a dramatically different surface from both Churchill Downs and Pimlico. In terms of the Belmont Stakes itself, it is difficult to use general and traditional handicapping axioms to try to handicap the race because Belmont runs almost no other two-turn races due to its 1 1/2-mile circumference. Therefore, besides the Brooklyn Handicap, run earlier in the day on the Belmont Stakes undercard, you have almost nothing else at Belmont to compare the Belmont Stakes, except for the other past runnings of the race.
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 12 horses during that stretch losing their historic bids in the Belmont Stakes. The 12 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), Big Brown (2008), and California Chrome (2014). Another candidate, I’ll Have Another in 2012, was scratched before the race and never even made it into the starting gate at Belmont.
That list of 12 Belmont Stakes losers is an impressive bunch, but perhaps no horse among those 12 (with the possible exception of Spectacular Bid, who lost in large part to jockey error on the part of 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. 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 is still worthwhile - from a handicapping and wagering standpoint - to take a shot at betting against there being a Triple Crown winner, even if you are rooting for the horse. The opposite of the Preakness, the Belmont is a graveyard for favorites of all shapes and sizes. As a matter of fact, when Union Rags won the Belmont Stakes three years ago as the second-choice, he came about as close to being a winning favorite as there’s been in the Belmont in recent memory. Union Rags paid $7.50 to win as the close second-choice behind that year’s favorite, Dullahan.
At least when California Chrome went for the Triple Crown in 2014, he was going against a sub-par field that included Tonalist but not much else. This year, the competition trying to KO American Pharoah looks strong and deep, including the winners of the Florida Derby (Materiality), the Wood Memorial (Frosted), the Blue Grass (Carpe Diem), the UAE Derby (Mubtaahij), and the Peter Pan (Madefromlucky), plus the runner-up from the Preakness, Tale of Verve.
In American Pharoah’s favor, he is trained by Bob Baffert, winner of four Kentucky Derbies with a ton of Triple Crown experience who has been there before and knows what this spotlight is all about. Speaking of being there before, jockey Victor Espinoza, has been down the Triple Crown hype road before along with Baffert aboard War Emblem 13 years ago. This will actually be Espinoza’s third Triple Crown attempt, and twice in two years after his failed bid aboard California Chrome in 2014. Will the third time be the charm for Espinoza?
As for the horse himself, American Pharoah is the real deal. Including the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he has now won six races in a row with a perfect 4-for-4 record as a 3-year-old. His win on demanding fractions in the Preakness was perhaps his most impressive yet. However, did that demanding take too much out of him for the Belmont Stakes? We’ll have to wait and see.
The question on Belmont Stakes Day will be, can American Pharoah 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 1.5-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 1.5 mile distance, turn out to be his downfall? One thing is for sure, American Pharoah 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.
USING TRENDS TO BET THE BELMONT STAKES
One way of looking at the Belmont Stakes from a handicapping perspective will be for players to look at certain recent trends and angles to try to lead them down the road to picking the winner, and/or cashing exotics tickets in the race.
Depending on what angles you find to be the most important, there is probably an angle out there that is nearly tailor-made for you, based on the results we’ve seen in recent years in the Belmont Stakes.
Please see the chart below for a breakdown of the most recent Belmont Stakes winners:
|Year||Belmont Winner||Post||Running Style||Classic Breeding||Fresh?|
|2011||Ruler On Ice||3||Press||No||No|
|2007||Rags to Riches||7||Press||A. P. Indy||Yes|
|2001||Point Given||9||Pace||Thunder Gulch||No|
Let’s take a closer look at some of the recent trends and angles in the Belmont Stakes that are alluded to in the above chart, so that we might gain a clearer picture of what is likely to transpire in this year’s race, both in terms of who to bet, and how to bet in Saturday’s third jewel of racing’s Triple Crown.
BELMONT STAKES ANGLE #1
Box the Outside Posts in Exactas
Most handicappers completely disregard post positions as having any impact whatsoever in the outcome of the Belmont Stakes. After all, the Belmont Stakes is such a long race at a mile and a half, and what happens at the start would logically have very little impact on the running of the race, right? Well, not so fast. As it turns out, very few factors seemingly have had as much to do with winning and losing in recent runnings of the Belmont Stakes as post positions have had.
So why are post positions so important in the Belmont, you ask? Well, for starters, the Belmont Stakes features the shortest run into the first turn of any of the three Triple Crown races, and secondly, the horses breaking from inside posts run much more of a risk of getting squeezed back early than the outside horses do. With a shorter run to the first turn and more of a benefit to horses with tactical speed in the Belmont than in other races, early trouble can cost a horse his best chance in the Belmont much more readily than it can hurt a horse’s chances in most other races.
Just ask Big Brown, who had tons of early trouble before the first turn of the 2008 Belmont Stakes and then was never able to recover thereafter before being pulled up and out of the race.
The recent post position numbers for the Belmont Stakes are telling, and they all favor horses breaking from outside posts. Eight of the 14 Belmont Stakes winners from 2001 to 2014 broke from posts 7 and outward - not to mention that one of the years that a horse from an outside post didn’t win was in 2006 when there were only 6 horses in the race, meaning there were no outside horses! (That means 8 of the last 13 relevant Belmont Stakes have been won by outside horses).
In fact, counting last year’s Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, who broke from post 11, four of the 14 most recent Belmont winners broke from the widest post in the field, including Rags to Riches in 2007, Sarava at 70-1 odds in 2002, and Point Given in 2001. The 2013 winner, Palace Malice, broke from post 12 in a 14-horse field.
Besides just the winners, the numbers and stats are good in the exacta, too. Out of the last 26 exacta finishers in the Belmont Stakes between 2001 and 2014 (excluding 2003 when there was only six horses), much more than half of those broke from the outside half of the gate. This includes 2014 when horses 11 (Tonalist) and 8 (Commissioner) broke from the outside half of the gate and completed a $2 exacta paying $348.
And so, dating back to 2001, there were 12 Belmonts where you could have bet an exacta box of all horses from posts 7 and higher (2003 and 2007 are excluded due to small field size). A $2 exacta box on every combination of horses breaking from post 7 and higher in the applicable recent Belmont Stakes would have paid a combined rate of return of 8X your original investment!
Wagering Strategy: Box the outside horses in exactas, and expect a bomb to come in first and/or second.
BELMONT STAKES ANGLE #2
Horses With "Classic" Breeding and Classic Credentials Win the Belmont
For the purposes of this angle, let’s consider "classic breeding" to mean any horse that was sired by a winner of any of a Triple Crown race(s) and/or the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
At a mile and a half, the Belmont Stakes has long been considered a breeder’s race, and the recent results of the Belmont certainly have done nothing to dissuade that notion. Nearly every Belmont Stakes winner in recent years was sired by a winner either of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, or the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Picking the winner of the Belmont Stakes won’t always be quite this easy from a breeding perspective, but with only a few exceptions, most recent Belmont winners were sired by stallions proven during their own racing careers to be adept at distances of 1 1/4 miles or longer. Moreover, three fairly recent Belmont winners, Summer Bird in 2009 (Birdstone), Rags to Riches in 2007 (A. P. Indy) and Point Given in 2001 (Thunder Gulch) were sired by past winners of the Belmont Stakes.
The 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malace, was sired by Curlin, who fits this angle as a winner of the Preakness.
And so, recent Belmont winners Summer Bird (2009) Da’ Tara (2008), Rags to Riches (2007), Birdstone (2004), Empire Maker (2003), Sarava (2002), and Point Given (2001) were all sired by classic winners of either the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Breeders’ Cup Classic, or the Belmont Stakes itself. Look for horses in this year’s field fitting this angle to narrow down your choices to win. If you can’t find horses like this, at least look for horses fitting this angle with a classic-winning sire’s sire or dam sire. The 2014 Belmont winner, Tonalist, was out of a mare sired by Pleasant Colony, the winner of the 1981 Derby and Preakness.
With only a few exceptions, nearly all recent winners of the Belmont Stakes were sired by stallions that were well adept at 1 1/4 mile or 1 1/2 miles during their racing careers.
Please see the chart illustrating this point below:
Breeding Credentials of Belmont Stakes winners (2001-2014)
|Year||Belmont winner||Sire||Sire Derby/Belmont/Preakness/Classic win?|
|2012||Union Rags||Dixie Union||none|
|2011||Ruler On Ice||Roman Ruler||none|
|2009||Summer Bird||Birdstone||Belmont Stakes|
|2008||Da’ Tara||Tiznow||Breeders’ Cup Classic (twice)|
|2007||Rags to Riches||A. P. Indy||Belmont / Breeders’ Cup Classic|
|2003||Empire Maker||Unbridled||Derby / Breeders’ Cup Classic|
|2002||Sarava||Wild Again||Breeders’ Cup Classic|
|2001||Point Given||Thunder Gulch||Derby / Belmont|
Wagering Strategy: Favor Belmont contenders with classic breeding (i.e. from a sire who won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, or Breeders’ Cup Classic), preferably with a classic win from the sire, or at least the sire’s sire or the dam’s sire.
BELMONT STAKES ANGLE #3
Fresh horses have an edge
It has become increasingly more difficult for a horse to win the Belmont Stakes who has already competed in both of the first two legs of the Triple Crown. As a matter of fact, it has even become a disadvantage in the Belmont for a contender to have run in almost any race in-between the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont. In 2009, for example, Mine That Bird was not a fresh horse, but the Belmont Stakes winner, Summer Bird, was.
Dating back to Commendable in 2000, nine of the last 15 Belmont Stakes winners had not run a race in the five weeks in-between the Kentucky Derby and Belmont. Recent Belmont winners including Palace Malace, Union Rags, Summer Bird, Jazil, Birdstone, Empire Maker, and Commendable had all run in the Kentucky Derby but skipped the Preakness in favor of other methods of readying for the Belmont Stakes. Filly Rags to Riches had no race between the Kentucky Oaks and the Belmont. The 2014 Belmont winner Tonalist, and 2010 Belmont winner Drosselmeyer, hadn’t run in either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness, but did have a race in-between, in Belmont Park’s own local prep the Peter Pan. They won the Belmont off four-week layoffs, which were close to ideal.
Belmont Stakes winners of yore usually were war horses that danced every dance in the Triple Crown series, but that no longer is the trend to look for when handicappers sit down to try to smoke out the next Belmont Stakes winner. Dating back to Lemon Drop Kid in 1999, only two Belmont winners between then and 2008 were horses who had competed in all three races of the Triple Crown series (Afleet Alex in 2005 and Point Given in 2001). The other eight Belmont winners during that span had skipped either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness, or were Triple Crown newcomers, altogether.
Skipping the Preakness seems to be an especially effective way to bring a horse up to the Belmont Stakes in order to optimize its chances of winning.
Lemon Drop Kid, like Tonalist and Drosselmeyer, ran in the G3-Peter Pan Stakes in-between the Derby and Belmont. That local Belmont Park prep race has often served as an effective Belmont Stakes prep in recent history and is a good place to look for a longshot winner of the Belmont Stakes.
A quintet of recent winners of the Belmont Stakes were making their Triple Crown debuts in the Belmont Stakes, including Tonalist in 2014, Drosselmeyer in 2010, Da’ Tara in 2008, Rags to Riches in 2007 and Sarava in 2002.
Some kind of race in-between the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes does not seem to hurt a horse’s Belmont Stakes chances, unless that race happens to be the Preakness. The aforementioned Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont has proven to be a good prep race. There seems to be something about the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes, however, three weeks before the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, that really takes its toll on a horse’s stamina. Perhaps that’s why it’s been 37 years since a horse has swept the Triple Crown, making it one of the most difficult accomplishments in all of sports.
Wagering Strategy: Bet horses who skipped the Preakness.
BELMONT STAKES ANGLE #4
Speed Horses and Middle Movers Do Better Than Deep Closers
It may be hard to erase the memory of Victory Gallop’s late rally to beat Real Quiet in the1998 Belmont Stakes, and who could ever forget Birdstone’s late run that denied Smarty Jones a Triple Crown in 2004? Nevertheless, besides these and a few other notable exceptions, it has been tough sledding through the years for deep closers in the Belmont Stakes, contrary to what most people might think.
When handicappers consider the Belmont Stakes’ 1 1/2-mile distance, most assume that deep-closing horses that had come up short at lesser distances in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness would be at an advantage in the Belmont Stakes thanks to the race’s extra furlong worth of real estate. This way of thinking has been a misconception in recent years. In truth, pace horses, stalkers, and late runners who can middle move themselves into striking distance by the quarter pole have a big edge over the one-run deep closers that must come from far back in the field to make up the necessary ground in the stretch.
People often consider horses like Jazil, Sarava, Lemon Drop Kid, and Editor’s Note to be horses that won the Belmont Stakes thanks to deep closing late runs through the stretch. A closer look at all of those winners, however, reveals something different. All four of those Belmont winners, and several other closing winners down through the history of the Belmont Stakes, had already made up the majority of their ground before the stretchrun, and were already within 1 1/2-lengths of the lead at the quarter pole on their way to victory. Afleet Alex was still four lengths behind the leader en route to his Belmont win in 2005, but in his case he was already a known commodity that had already won a Triple Crown race in late-running fashion.
When evaluating Belmont Stakes contenders based on their running styles, keep in mind that there have been many more on-or-near-the-pace winners of the Belmont than far-from-behind winners of the Belmont down through the years, and that axiom remains true today in spite of a few high-profile exceptions in recent years.
The recent trend strongly favors horses that are able to stay close to the pace in the Belmont Stakes, or at least run in the front half of the field. Da’ Tara won the 2008 Belmont going wire-to-wire. The 2011 Belmont winner, Ruler On Ice, pressed Shackleford in second all the way before taking charge in the stretch. In 2010, Drosselmeyer came from mid-pack. Two years ago, Union Rags raced in the front-half of the field throughout, laying no more than four lengths off the pace at any point in the race. Two years ago, Palace Malice laid close to the pace early, running fifth at the first call and fourth at the second call en route to victory. Tonalist had a similar running style in 2014, laying sixth but only three lengths back in the early stages of the race, and then pressing from third, just a length behind, the rest of the way before getting up by a head in the late stages.
If you do decide to put your money on a closer in the Belmont, try to make sure of two things, 1) the horse should have already won either the Kentucky Derby and/or Preakness with a late rally; or 2) the late runner should be able launch his rally on the backstretch and make his way up close to the lead by the time the field reaches the quarter pole.
Wagering Strategy: Bet a horse with tactical speed that can stay within the front half of the field throughout the running of the Belmont Stakes.
Use each of these angles and betting strategies when handicapping and betting on the Belmont Stakes, and you will increase your chances of winning. You might not win every year, but you will win more than you lose and show a profit over the long haul. Enjoy the third jewel of the Triple Crown, and best of luck on Belmont Stakes Day!