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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Monday, June 3, 2019 at 11:02 AM


Notwithstanding the victory in 2018 of Triple Crown winner Justify, the Belmont Stakes has truly is one of the great unheralded graveyards for favorites in all of horseracing. For this reason, it is worth taking a few shots this year to try to beat the likely favorite heading into the Belmont Stakes, War of Will.  This article will focus on a couple of Belmont Stakes trends involving running style and time between races to try to narrow down the contenders and help you come up with the winner.

The main knock against War of Will in terms of the Belmont Stakes will be that he is the only horse in the race who exits outings in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. This makes him a vulnerable favorite in the Belmont because it seems to have 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. No matter how good the favorite might look in the Belmont Stakes, it is still worthwhile – from a handicapping and wagering standpoint – to bet against them.

     Part of the reason favorites are doing badly is because the favorites are usually horses that are coming into the Belmont after having run in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and are already depleted when facing off against fresher horses (California Chrome comes to mind). Additionally, the Preakness, in particular, seems to have become a negative key race in terms of running successfully in the Belmont Stakes.

     Dating back to Commendable in 2000, 10 of the last 19 Belmont Stakes winners had not run a race in the five weeks in-between the Kentucky Derby and Belmont. When you narrow it to four weeks out from the Belmont to accommodate horses exiting the local Belmont prep race in the Peter Pan, then 12 of the 19 Belmont winners had at least a four-week layoff going into the Belmont.

     Recent Belmont winners including Tapwrit, Creator, 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 the Peter Pan. They won the Belmont off four-week layoffs. Lemon Drop Kid, like Tonalist and Drosselmeyer, ran in the G3 Peter Pan Stakes in-between the Derby and Belmont but didn't win. The Peter Pan has proven to be an effective Belmont Stakes prep in recent history and is a good place to look for a longshot.

     Belmont Stakes winners of yore usually were war horses that danced every dance in the Triple Crown series, but that's no longer is the trend to look for in a Belmont winner.  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.

     This year, of the Belmont probables, only Preakness winner War of Will will have raced in all three Triple Crown races. That has to considered a negative in terms of his chances to win. Meanwhile, exiting the Preakness are runner-up Everfast, and eighth-place finisher Bourbon War. I view the outing in the Preakness as a possible knock against those contenders as they tackle fresher runners with more time between races. Finally, the new shooters in terms of this season's Triple Crown races that are headed to the Belmont Stakes include Joevia, Sir Winston, and Intrepid Heart.

     Finally, the perfectly-positioned group of Belmont Stakes-bound horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby and then skipped the Preakness, giving them the experience of running in the Derby and also the benefit of five weeks off between races, includes Tax, Spinoff, Master Fencer, and Tacitus. In a year like this without a true headline performer in the Belmont Stakes, the advantage could go to these horses, not only to win but also in the exactas and trifectas and maybe even the superfecta.


Bet Tactical Speed and Middle Movers Instead of Deep Closers

A common perception in the Belmont Stakes is that because the race is a mile-and-a-half, that closers usually benefit from the added distance in the race, but history has shown this not to be true. Actually it is tactical speed horses and middle movers that have the best results in the Belmont Stakes.

For racing fans and bettors, it may be hard to erase the memory of Victory Gallop's late rally to beat Real Quiet in the1998 Belmont Stakes, and of course who could ever forget Birdstone's late run that denied Smarty Jones a Triple Crown in 2004? Nevertheless, besides these and very few other exceptions, it has been a tough go in recent 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 real estate. This way of thinking has been a misconception for many 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.

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. Justify went wire-to-wire in 2018. Tapwrit won the 2017 Belmont going wire-to-wire, and 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 – not a deep closer. 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. 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 before getting up by a head in the late stages.

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.

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.

True closers do win, but just not very often. Afleet Alex was more of an actual closer and was still four lengths behind the leader at the quarter pole en route to his Belmont win in 2005. Creator was also an exception in 2016. He closed from far back and even though he had made up the majority of his ground before the quarter pole, he was still three lengths behind the lead turning into the stretch. Victory Gallop caught Real Quiet with a sustained closing run through the stretch. While these deep closing horses can win the Belmont Stakes, it happens much less often than speed, pressing, and stalking horses winning the race, and less often than bettors tend to think it happens.

If you do decide to put your money on a closer in the Belmont, try to make sure the late runner will be able to launch his rally on the backstretch and make his way up close to the lead by the time the field reaches the quarter pole. Otherwise bet horses that have tactical speed or who can make middle moves into contention.

See the chart below for a breakdown of the most recent Belmont Stakes winners:

YearBelmont WinnerPostRunning Style4+ Weeks
2015American Pharoah5FrontNo
2013Palace Malice12StalkYes
2012Union Rags3StalkYes
2011Ruler On Ice3PressNo
2009Summer Bird4StalkYes
2008Da' Tara5FrontNo
2007Rags to Riches7PressYes
2005Afleet Alex9CloserNo
2003Empire Maker1PaceYes
2001Point Given9PaceNo

Whether you are approaching this year's Belmont Stakes first and foremost as a racing fan, or as a handicapper and bettor, we hope you enjoy the third jewel in racing's Triple Crown. Use these two trends involving running style and time between races, and you will increase your chances of winning. Enjoy the race and best of luck on Belmont Stakes Day!

By Noel Michaels

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