ELMONT – Trying to unlock the handicapping puzzle of this year’s Belmont Stakes is not for the faint of heart.
The 149th edition of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes promises to be a terrific betting race, with morning line favorite Irish War Cry listed at 9-2 by NYRA odds maker Eric Donovan. Half of the colts in the field were assigned odds between 4-1 and 12-1, setting the race up as a wide open affair.
A case for the winning horse can be made for three-quarters of the field.
The X-factor, as always with the Belmont, is the 12-furlong distance nicknamed the Test of a Champion.
The 1 1/2-mile trek around the Belmont Park oval is a quarter of a mile longer than the Kentucky Derby. Having the stamina to handle the Triple Crown series’ longest distance is the challenge put forth to the field. Most of the field will never run this distance again. The weather on Long Island looks to be partly sunny with temperatures in the low 80's.
A field of 12 sophomores will tackle the mile-and-a-half oval to finish off the final leg of racing’s Triple Crown (Ch 2, 5 p.m.) Post time for the Belmont Stakes is 6:37 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. Only one horse, Lookin at Lee (5-1), is scheduled to complete all three legs of the Triple Crown series. Likely favorite Classic Empire was removed from the entry box earlier in the week. A foot abscess was discovered upon his arrival here in New York from Louisville.
It will be the second straight year that a different horse captures each of the three legs of the Triple Crown series. Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and the Preakness victor Cloud Computing are both skipping the race and pointing towards the summer.
Irish War Cry, a son of Curlin, will look to rebound from a 10th-place finish in the Derby. He looked like a 6-5 shot turning for home, but flattened in the stretch running in the middle of the sticky, muddy track. It turned out that was not the place to be on the First Saturday in May.
The favorite, through both default and defection, enters the race with the most promising resume, winning the Holy Bull and Wood Memorial on the Derby trail earlier in the year. His sire, Palace Malice, another son of Curlin won the 2013 Belmont, so Irish War Cry certainly has the pedigree to stay the 12-furlong Belmont distance.
I’m willing to give him a pass on the Derby and include him in the mix for the Belmont. He was my Derby pick and looked like a million bucks when he made his move on the far turn. But you can’t start counting your winnings until they cross the wire and his finish was a head-scratcher to many, including his connections.
The fact that trainer Graham Motion decided to ship in for the Belmont, when it’s widely known that the horse’s owner is more interested in winning the Haskell at Monmouth next month, speaks volumes.
A horse that is on the rise is Senior Investment (12-1), a late closing third in the Preakness. His speed numbers have improved with every race in his 3-year-old season. He looks poised to move forward from his effort in the Preakness.
Trainer Kenny McPeek will hope the pace is similar to last year when Creator was able to close late to nip Destin at the wire. His horse has a nice turn of foot that could benefit from tiring horses staggering for the finish. “He’s a horse that needs to be set on, set on, then make a run and you can’t change that. How it sets up is hard to say. He’ll make his run, he’s good and strong,” said McPeek.
He was coming like a locomotive in the late stages in the Preakness behind the two dueling leaders ahead of him. The extra furlong may be the necessary ingredient for victory. McPeek, who won the Belmont in 2002 with Sarava at 70-1, was thinking Belmont Stakes moments after the Preakness finish.
“He’s a really good horse with a huge future and I think we’re just getting started with him,” McPeek said on the track after the Preakness. “A mile and a half and the Belmont is going to be really up his alley.”
The son of Discreetly Mine will have Channing Hill in the irons. Hill spent his days as a bug boy on the New York circuit and McPeek thinks that plays to his advantage. “He’s ridden here before. Very few riders have ridden the full mile-and-a-half anyway, other than maybe Johnny Velazquez, and some others. It’s tricky, but it’s still a two-turn race,” said McPeek.
On the 40th anniversary of Seattle Slew’s Triple Crown triumph in 1977, jockey Jean Cruguet explained on Thursday morning how important knowing the track is for the Belmont. “For the jockey from out of town, the track is so different,” said Cruguet. “People move too soon when the far turn is still a long ways away. I love this track, on Seattle Slew’s Belmont day, I won four races,” said the Frenchman.
A horse that could benefit from a moderate pace and a front running trip is Gormley (8-1). If the race turns out anything like the Santa Anita Derby, he could one who could steal the race. His grandsire, A.P. Indy, was a Belmont winner and his Derby race was much better than the ninth-place finish indicates.
Cruguet made sure to point out that getting out front and controlling the pace can be a recipe for victory. “If you go the first eighth of a mile in front and you have a good horse, the race can be over. I went 24 and change, for me with Seattle Slew, the race was over,” explained Cruguet.
With Hall of Fame-elect jockey Victor Espinoza aboard, he has a veteran rider with valuable Belmont Stakes experience. The question looms whether he is fast enough. He’s no Seattle Slew, but his running style in this field could benefit the son of Malibu Moon.
Another horse that was compromised by the collision at the start of the Derby was Tapwrit (6-1). The Todd Pletcher-trained son of Tapit has been working well and runs off a five week layoff.
I shared with McPeek a dream I had earlier in the week, where Senior Investment drew the No. 8 post and won with a late closing move. He chuckled realizing that half of my premonition had come true already.
Always Dreaming won the Derby, Cloud Computing came from the clouds to win the Preakness, so why shouldn’t my dream decode the Belmont puzzle.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Senior Investment; 2 – Irish War Cry; 3 –Gormley; 4 – Tapwrit
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.