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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 at 2:13 PM


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 11.

With Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist sidelined with a fever, all eyes in the horseracing world will be on Preakness winner Exaggerator, who will be going for two-thirds of the Triple Crown.  This year's Belmont Stakes will certainly be a letdown after last year's run at history for American Pharoah, and it is also unfortunate that the Belmont Stakes will also miss out on the second-best scenario - a third and deciding rubber match between the Derby and Preakness winners in the Belmont.  What that leaves us with, however, will be an excellent wide-open betting race tailor-made for handicappers.

Also, it is worth mentioning that the Belmont Stakes is now not just a stand-alone event. The race tops a sensational weekend at Belmont Park from Thursday through Saturday. The three-day Belmont Stakes Festival will include 19 stakes races - 11 Graded - with purses in excess of $9 million on Friday and Saturday alone. There will be four million-dollar races, with the Belmont Stakes, the Met Mile, the Ogden Phipps, and the Woodford Reserve Manhattan all sporting seven-figure purses.

Even with all the attractions upcoming for Belmont Park, however, the festivities really are all about the Belmont Stakes. Let's take a closer look at the third jewel of the Triple Crown.

In the Belmont Stakes, in terms of the odds, it goes without saying that favorites have done poorly in recent years. The exception to this, of course, was Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015.  Before Pharoah came along, however, no horse since 1978 had swept the Triple Crown, with 12 horses during that time 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 most recently 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 38 years, the odds will be strongly against the favorite winning the Belmont Stakes. What does that mean in terms of this year's race? For handicappers, it means betting against the favorite - in this case Exaggerator - and looking for value amongst the many challengers.

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. Horses like Exaggerator who run in all three Triple Crown races 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 shown-up for the Belmont in order to face horses that may become tired and run-down from competing in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. That is a big part of the reason the feat we went 37 years, between Triple Crown winners until American Pharoah came along.

The fact that fresher hopefuls can gain an advantage by meeting a fatigued 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 ½-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).  Those runners all lost to fresher horses.

If Exaggerator becomes the latest Belmont Stakes favorite 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 handle the demanding 1 ½-mile distance on that particular Saturday at Belmont.

And so, let's meet the prospective field pointing to the 2016 Belmont Stakes, which began to take shape immediately following the finish of the Preakness Stakes.

Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine, not surprisingly, will take another shot in the Belmont. He will take on the only two horses that will be running in all three legs of the 2016 Triple Crown, Preakness winner and Preakness fifth-place finisher Exaggerator and Lani.

Besides those horses, the Belmont Stakes will be made up mostly of challengers that ran decent losing efforts in the Kentucky Derby and then skipped the Preakness in order to freshen-up and prepare for the Belmont. This group of Kentucky Derby also-rans includes the fifth- through eighth-place finishers from Louisville, Suddenbreakingnews, Destin, Brody's Cause, and Mo TomCreator, who was 13th in the Derby, is also possible.

Another live challenger who is currently considered "possible" for the Belmont Stakes will be Preakness fourth-place finisher Stradivari.  The remaining probable for the 2016 Belmont is Governor Malibu, the runner-up from the local Belmont Park prep for the Belmont Stakes, the Peter Pan. That horse is interesting because he is trained by Christophe Clement, who won the 2014 Belmont Stakes with another graduate of the Peter Pan, Tonalist.



HorseTrainerLast Race Finish
ExaggeratorKeith DesormeauxWon Preakness Stakes
Cherry WineDale Romans2nd in Preakness Stakes
Governor MalibuChristophe Clement2nd in Peter Pan
SuddenbreakingnewsDonnie Von Hemel5th in Kentucky Derby
DestinTodd Pletcher6th in Kentucky Derby
Brody's CauseDale Romans7th in Kentucky Derby
LaniMikio Matsunaga5th in Preakness Stakes
Mo TomTom Amoss8th in Kentucky Derby
Creator (possible)Steve Asmussen13th in Kentucky Derby
Stradivari (possible)Todd Pletcher4th in Preakness Stakes

Ladies and gents, let's meet the 2016 Belmont Stakes contenders and take a closer look at the field:

EXAGGERATOR (2nd in Kentucky Derby, won Preakness)
Finally beat his nemesis Nyquist to win the Preakness Stakes after a solid second-place finish two week earlier in the Kentucky Derby. Let's face it, he's just plain better and faster than most of the 3-year-olds this year, and he'll deserve to be the heavy favorite in the Belmont Stakes.  Does that mean that handicappers shouldn't take a shot at betting against him?  Heck no! Of course we're going to try to beat him in the Belmont Stakes at low odds!  Exaggerator is a very good horse that will have handicapping factors stacked-up against him in the Belmont Stakes. First, he is a closer who will need to come from further off the pace than you want when trying to pick the Belmont winner. Second, he will be racing in all three legs of the Triple Crown and facing fresher horses that have been waiting for him at Belmont. Unless your name is American Pharoah, that's a serious problem, because fresh horses have the edge at 1 ½ miles at Belmont Park. All of the biggest wins of Exaggerator's career, including the Delta Jackpot, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Preakness, all came on wet tracks. On fast tracks. He's vulnerable, and even on a wet track he's already been defeated by Brody's Cause. If it rains on Belmont Day, maybe he'll win. Otherwise, he's an obvious bet-against in the Belmont, which will be a race ripe for big prices in 2016.

CHERRY WINE (2nd in the Preakness)
He was the surprise second-place finisher in the Preakness, outrunning longshot odds to beat-out Nyquist at the wire for the second spot. Prior to the Preakness, Cherry Wine was only an allowance/optional claiming winner who had never reached a 90 Beyer speed figure. What was the difference in the Preakness?  Cherry Wine loved the wet track at Pimlico, as many handicappers predicted he would. On a fast track, this horse lost to barnmate Brody's Cause in the Blue Grass, and lost to Creator when off the board in the Rebel. He'll need another downpour and a wet track to have a chance to repeat his heroics in the Belmont Stakes. On a fast track, we're looking elsewhere.

GOVERNOR MALIBU (2nd in Peter Pan)
Lost to the unbeaten Unified in the local Belmont Stakes prep race - the Peter Pan.  That prep race has had a productive history in terms of getting new shooters ready for the Belmont Stakes, with great champions like Lemon Drop Kid using the Peter Pan as their final prep race for the Belmont Stakes. Most recently, Peter Pan Stakes winner Tonalist came back to win the Belmont Stakes in 2014. This is where it gets interesting, because Tonalist's trainer, Christophe Clement, is at it again this year with Governor Malibu, who exits a solid second in the Peter Pan.  Can Clement pull it off again this year?  There are sure no killers in this year's Belmont Stakes line-up, so I certainly would say that anything is possible, especially from a Belmont Stakes winning barn that know how to get a horse ready to run 1 ½ miles. 

SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS (5th in Kentucky Derby)
Would people be taking this horse more seriously if he'd come in third in the Kentucky Derby instead of fifth?  Well, keep in mind that he finished just a head behind Gun Runner for third in the Derby, and he was past that horse one stride past the wire. So perhaps he should not be overlooked at Belmont. He's a deep closer who managed to rally from 19th to 5th in the Kentucky Derby, and while that running style is difficult to win with in the Belmont Stakes, his effort from the Kentucky Derby does indeed stamp him as a serious contender in the Belmont. Perhaps the best thing about his fifth-place finish in Louisville is the fact that he had to overcome the No. 2 death post at Churchill Downs, which seriously compromised his chances in the Derby. The fact that he got up for fifth, just a head and a nose out of third, is a testament to how good this horse might actually be. Not to mention the fact that he looked so good this winter making a last-to-first winning move in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. If any deep closer is going to break through and win this year's Belmont Stakes, it will probably be this guy.

DESTIN (6th in Kentucky Derby)
Todd Pletcher's Tampa Bay Derby winner had an eight-week break leading-up to the Kentucky Derby, and maybe he needed the race. After all, his Tampa Bay Derby win started to look awfully good when the horse he beat, Outwork, came back to win the Wood Memorial. Owns a 100 Beyer speed figure, which is superior to most of this year's 3-year-olds, and will most likely have Javier Castellano aboard.

BRODY'S CAUSE (7th in Kentucky Derby)
A lot of people liked him in the Kentucky Derby, but he did not deliver and settled for seventh. His big win so far was an impressive-looking score in Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes, but that win came-up with a slow speed figure, and let's face it, that race absolutely fell apart up front due to a blazing fast pace that set the race up perfectly for this horse's late run. On the positive side, he does own a victory over Exaggerator last year in the Breeder's Futurity at Keeneland over a muddy track, so perhaps he can surprise some people if the track comes up muddy again on Belmont Stakes Day.

MO TOM (8th in Kentucky Derby)
Strange things can happen in the Belmont Stakes, so you can't blame anybody for taking a shot. However, that is about the best thing that can be said for Mo Tom's chances of winning. He's a deep closer who sucked-up for eighth in the Kentucky Derby, and also finished off the board in his prior race when fourth in the Louisiana Derby. Claim to fame so far is his win in the G3 Lecomte Stakes, which is a prep for a prep for the Louisiana Derby, and I'm not sure if that makes him a legitimate threat at Belmont. Probably not.

CREATOR (13th in Kentucky Derby)
Come from behind winner of the Arkansas Derby for trainer Steve Asmussen did not make a dent in the Kentucky Derby, but you can give him an excuse for that race, perhaps, based on his inside post position (post 3), which is nearly impossible to win from in a 20-horse gate at Churchill Downs. On the negative side, he is a late runner that needs to come from far, far back, and that running style generally does not fare well in the Belmont Stakes.

LANI (9th in Kentucky Derby, 5th in Preakness)
Ran a respectable fifth in the Preakness after getting wiped-out at in the early stages of the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps this winner of the UAE Derby deserves another chance. His breeding, with Tapit on top and Sunday Silence on the bottom, suggests that classic distances will be no problem for this Japanese-based horse. As a horse running in all three legs of the Triple Crown, he will not have the freshness factor in his favor. However, perhaps a switch to a locally-based jockey will be enough to give this horse. Third time's the charm?

STRADIVARI (4th in Preakness)
Todd Pletcher is a Belmont Stakes-winning trainer, but he had trained many more Belmont losers than winners down through the years. You can't blame him, however, if he takes a shot at the 2016 Belmont with Preakness also-ran Stradivari, a lightly-raced horse who was making only his fourth career start at Pimlico. Certainly was not embarrassed in the Preakness, and still has loads of upside at this stage of his career, especially for this barn. Maiden and allowance victories came by a combined 25 lengths, and his top speed figure of 100 points him out as a horse with a shot if he tries again in the Belmont.


Stay tuned for more news, information, and handicapping for the Belmont Stakes as the race date gets closer . . .  Will we have another winning Belmont Stakes favorite like we did last year, or will the trend of upsets prior to American Pharoah reappear in this year's running of the race?  The answer won't be revealed until June 11 at Belmont Park in the race correctly dubbed "The Test of the Champion."  Until then, enjoy the lead-up to the race, and all of the excitement of a looking forward to one of the best weekends of the entire year in Thoroughbred racing.

By Noel Michaels

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