The Belmont Stakes are a challenging race to handicap. It’s the longest race most horses in the field will ever run in, and one of the longest dirt races in the country every year. With that, the uniqueness of the track at Belmont, the public scrutiny, and so many other factors in the race finding a winner can be a challenge. If you want to succeed in the long term betting on the race you need to have a strategy you can stick to. Here are five factors that that strategy probably needs to consider and that handicappers need to know:
Can the horse handle the distance? – This is by far the biggest factor to consider before betting on the race. At a mile and a half this race is a quarter mile longer than the Kentucky Derby, and that race already is longer than most horses will ever run again, and longer than most are capable of. A mile and a half is like a marathon in human terms, and for North American horses – which are typically bred for speed over stamina – this is a massive challenge. If a horse isn’t bred for distance then it could be a real challenge. If he hasn’t shown the capability to handle shorter distances with relative ease – and still have something left in the tank at the end – then he probably isn’t going to be up to this challenge, either. It can be easy to fall for a horse in this race because he has looked good in past races without considering his suitability for the unique challenges of this race. If there are questions about the ability of a horse to be running forward at the end of the race then there is no good reason for betting the horse. Period.
Does the jockey know the track? – Belmont is a particularly unique track. The dirt track is a mile and a half long – the longest on the continent. Most other major tracks are a mile long. The longer track offers two significant differences from most tracks – the corners are much wider, and the stretch is much longer than normal. If a jockey doesn’t know the track well from past experience then they can make costly mistakes – the most significant of which is making their move too soon so that they run out of gas before the finish line. It’s obviously not impossible for a jockey with little experience on the track to win, but I am very uneasy about backing one who doesn’t have that experience unless I have a particularly good reason to do so. At the very least I want to see that the jockey has ridden several races in the days leading up to the Belmont and on the undercard so that he is ready for the big race.
Does the pace set up well for the horse? – Pace is a huge issue for bettors handicapping the Belmont. If a horse is a front runner and he is likely to be pushed by other front runners then there is a good chance that he will have to run to fast, and that he will be burned out well before the race is done. Deep closers are also more reliant than ever on a pace that is fast at the beginning so that they are well set up for their late move. You always need to examine the likely pace scenario in a race when you are making your decisions, but it is especially important here.
Where is the public money going to be? – When there is a Triple Crown on the line the public is going to blindly and enthusiastically throw their cash at the horse with a shot at history. That will totally destroy any value on that horse, but that can set up juicy prices on the other horses in the field for the smart bettor. When there is no Triple Crown potential the money isn’t likely to be nearly as focused in one place, but there is still a lot of reasonably dumb money that is going to be put on the best story or the flashiest trainer. In a race like this you really need to think about the public action and the opportunities it can present.
Don’t ignore the longshots – The Belmont is a race that has the ability to produce serious longshot winners – especially when there is a Triple Crown on the line. Sarava ended War Emblem’s bid in 2002, and paid a record 70/1 in doing so. Birdstone crushed the hopes of Smarty Jones in 2004, and paid 36/1. Da’ Tara was 38/1 in 2008 when Big Brown was shooting for all the marbles. This race has the potential to really fall apart and get crazy, and that’s when the prices can be huge. In the Preakness you don’t need to worry about the longshots very much, but in the Belmont as a handicapper you most certainly do.