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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Thursday, May 21, 2015 at 12:00 AM


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 with the running of the Belmont Stakes, upcoming on Saturday, June 6. 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 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, including California Chrome last season? Will he 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 12 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, and California Chrome in 2014. In 2012, a thirteenth horse, I’ll Have Another, swept the Derby and Preakness, but aborted a Belmont Stakes attempt when scratching days before the race.

That list of 12 Belmont Stakes losers is an impressive bunch, but perhaps no horse among that dozen (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. 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. After all, based on what we’ve seen these past 37 years, the odds will be strongly against American Pharoah winning the Triple Crown. Why then would a handicapper bet on him at horrifically low odds in the neighborhood of 3-5?

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 comprised of fresher horses. Who can forget the ignorant no-class post-race meltdown of California Chrome’s owner after he lost the Belmont Stakes in 2014? In buffoon-like fashion, he called Belmont winner Tonalist’s connections cowards for waiting for the Belmont and not running in all three races. The fact is, however, that new challengers and fresh horses always have and still do show-up for the Belmont in order to face a horse that has become run down from the first two legs of the Triple Crown. That is a big part of the reason the feat hasn’t been accomplished in 37 years, and why it may not be accomplished again this year despite American Pharoah’s clear superiority.

The fact that fresher hopefuls can gain an advantage my meeting a run-down horse making his third demanding start in the span of five weeks is part of the challenge that all Triple Crown hopefuls face. It is that, combined with the Belmont’s demanding distance of 1.5-miles, which undoubtedly is the number one factor that has led to most Triple Crown disappointments dating back to the late 1970s. Some of the notable recent Triple Crown losers, included Charismatic (Lemon Drop Kid), Funny Cide (Empire Maker), and Smarty Jones (Birdstone), and California Chrome (Tonalist). They all lost to fresher horses.

If American Pharoah 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 1.5-mile distance on that particular Saturday at Belmont.

This year, American Pharoah will be the only horse in the Belmont Stakes that will be running in all three legs of the Triple Crown - placing him at an immediate disadvantage even before the gates open at Belmont Park on June 6.

And so, let’s meet the prospective field pointing to the 2015 Belmont Stakes, which began to take shape immediately following the finish of the Preakness Stakes.

The runners-up to American Pharoah in the Derby - Firing Line and Dortmund - will both not be present in the Belmont. However, Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve will run in the Belmont, as well as several Kentucky Derby also-rans with excuses who skipped the Preakness in order to point directly to the Belmont Stakes, including most notably fourth-place finisher Frosted and sixth-place finisher Materiality.

There will also be several other live upsetters lining up for their chance to play spoiler, including Carpe Diem, who drew the No. 2-hole death post in the Derby. Also pointing for the Belmont are the first- and second-place finishers from the local prep race, the Peter Pan Stakes, Madefromlucky and Conquest Curlinite. Last year’s Belmont winner Tonliast used the Peter Pan as his springboard to a 2014 Belmont Stakes upset.

Clearly, American Pharoah is scaring away nobody. The Belmont is expecting a nearly full field.


Horse Trainer Last Race Finish
American Pharoah Bob Baffert Won Preakness Stakes
Carpe Diem Todd Pletcher 10th in Kentucky Derby
Conquest Curlinite Mark Casse 2nd in Peter Pan
Frammento Nick Zito 11th in Kentucky Derby
Frosted Kiaran McLaughlin 4th in Kentucky Derby
Keen Ice Dale Romans 7th in Kentucky Derby
Madefromlucky Todd Pletcher Won Peter Pan
Materiality Todd Pletcher 6th in Kentucky Derby
Mubtaahij Mike de Kock 8th in Kentucky Derby
Tale of Verve Dallas Stewart 2nd in Preakness Stakes
War Story Tom Amoss 16th in Kentucky Derby

Besides the Peter Pan, which yielded 2014 winner Tonalist and will be represented this year by first- and second-place finishers from the local prep, Madefromlucky and Conquest Curlinite, most of the rest of the field will be composed of horses than ran in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness to point for the Belmont. This route has been successful in winning the Belmont a lot in recent years, including most recently in 2013 with Palace Malace.

Ladies and gents, let’s meet the 2015 Belmont Stakes contenders and take a closer look at the field:

AMERICAN PHAROAH (Won Kentucky Derby and Preakness)
The latest Triple Crown contender in a long line of them since Affirmed in 1978, American Pharoah 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 37 years. Trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Victor Espinoza, who have been down the Triple Crown hype road together once before aboard War Emblem 13 years ago, American Pharoah is as honest and consistent as they come. He was now won 6 races in a row including the Del Mar Futurity, the Front Runner, the Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas 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 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’ll be a great race.

TALE OF VERVE (2nd in the Preakness)
He was the surprise second-place finisher in the Preakness, outrunning longshot odds as the best closer in the race. Trainer Dallas Stewart is quickly becoming the premier longshot specialist of the Triple Crown, now having finished second in the Derby two years in a row with huge longshots in 2013 and 2014, and second in the 2015 Preakness with this horse, who is still eligible for a non-winners of two allowance condition. One thing about Stewart’s other recent Derby runners-up, was that they never really repeated their big efforts ever again. Perhaps the same fate will befall Tale of Verve this time around.

MATERIALITY (6th in Kentucky Derby)
Todd Pletcher’s Florida Derby winner suffered a terrible trip in the Kentucky Derby from a terrible post position that totally eliminated his chances of winning after he broke slowly to begin the race last in the 18-horse field (normally he’s a pace horse). The fact that he regrouped and rallied late to pass seven horses in the stretch at Churchill Downs shows that he can handle a distance better than most. He also received all the education he needed in the Derby after entering that race with just three races of career experience. The post position, break from the gate, and trip could and should be totally different in the Belmont Stakes, and that gives Materiality a great shot at a positive turnaround.

CARPE DIEM (10th in Kentucky Derby)
Yet another Todd Pletcher Derby loser, his tenth-place finish was a too-bad-to-be-true effort that was caused by his disastrous inside post draw from the two-hole, which wiped-out any chance he had. Besides getting buried down in one of the worst post positions in any race at any time of the year, the bad post also destroyed Carpe Diem’s chances because it forced him to change his running style, hustling up toward the pace in order to stay out of trouble instead of being able to use his running style advantage and stalk the pace form mid-pack. With a better post draw in the Belmont, things should be much different, because the Carpe Diem that we witnessed winning the Tampa Bay Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes is a serious horse that should not be overlooked in the Belmont under any circumstances.

FROSTED (4th in Kentucky Derby)
Lived up to potential when winning the Wood Memorial impressively after a minor throat operation cleared his breathing. Returned to New York immediately after his respectable fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby to point directly for the Belmont for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who has been having a tremendous year so far. Was way too far back in the Derby and that kind of running style really isn’t his game. Here at 1.5 miles, he’ll be stalking the pace within a few lengths, and that kind of run plays much more into his wheelhouse. Fits the profile of a recent Belmont Stakes spoiler.

KEEN ICE (7th in Kentucky Derby)
Always runs respectable efforts but always loses, and his seventh-place finish in the Derby was yet another example of that when he deep-closed to pass 10 horses but still lost his sixth straight race. In some years, this kind of horse could deserve some longshot consideration in the Belmont, at least in the exotics, but this year is such a strong crop, that even an in-the-money finish seems unlikely barring a total collapse up on the pace.

MUBTAAHIJ (8th in Kentucky Derby)
While there is no precedent for foreign invaders running well in the Kentucky Derby, people continue to waste their money. This year it was this horse who sucked-up money to the tune of 14-1 post time odds in the Run for the Roses. Foreign invaders have done a little better on occasion in the Belmont Stakes, but he remains an x-factor here because despite his excellent record as a 3-year-old, he really hasn’t beaten much along the way. Excellent international barn of South African trainer Mike de Kock gives this horse some appeal, but he has yet to prove he belongs in this kind of lofty spot in an American classic race.

FRAMMENTO (11th in Kentucky Derby)
Finished a non-threatening third in the Fountain of Youth and a distant fourth in the Blue Grass thanks to his suck-up-for-a-minor award running style that tends to pass tired horses but not make him a real contender. His top selling-point is his trainer, Nick Zito, who is a multiple winner of the Belmont Stakes. However, anything better than a minor exotics placing would be a shock, and even a finish that high is unlikely unless there is a complete pace meltdown.

WAR STORY (16th in Kentucky Derby)
Really did no running in the Kentucky Derby at 45-1 odds. Lost every Louisiana prep race to International Star, and while he was never embarrassed at any point along the way, he flashed nothing in Louisville that would indicate he’s ready to uncork the kind of career-best effort he would need in order to come close in the Belmont.

Exits a nice come-from-behind win in the local prep race for the Belmont Stakes, the Peter Pan. Last year’s Belmont winner, Tonalist, used that same prep en route to his upset over California Chrome, can it happen twice in a row? Certainly is helps to know that Madefromlucky has already handled the "Big Sandy" racing surface at Belmont Park, and that he’s been pointed to the Belmont by trainer Todd Pletcher, so those facts alone give him more appeal than many of the Kentucky Derby losers. However, in the case of Madefromlucky, he’s already come-up short twice against American Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby and the Rebel Stakes, and probably had a better chance of beating Pharoah back then when Pharoah was still in the process of prepping in his return from a layoff. Madefromlucky is not impossible, but a major improvement and/or a total epic fail by American Pharoah would be necessary for him to turn the tables.

Racking-up runner-up finishes in second-tier 3-year-old races, first with a second in the Illinois Derby and then with a second in the Peter Pan. This horse still has potential for continued improvement, and even though he has yet to break through against top competition, he offers more value and a better chance at winning as opposed to some of the losing Ky. Derby horses like Frammento, War Story, Keen Ice, and Mubtaahij.

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 37 years, or will American Pharoah 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 6 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 newly-crowned Triple Crown winner.

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