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Handicapping the Distance at Belmont Stakes

Whenever you read about handicapping the Belmont Stakes, or you hear someone talking about betting it, you are sure to hear about how important it is to be sure that the horses can handle the distance. The Belmont, at a mile and a half, is by far the longest of the three Triple Crown races. It is also the longest race that most horses in it will ever be in, and longer than many of them are suited to run. Horses in North America are increasingly bred for speed over stamina, and that bias is strongly present in training methods as well. As a result it is a relatively rare horse who can still be moving forward with enthusiasm in the final seconds of this race. Being able to spot those horses, and avoiding bets on the ones who are likely to be moving like turtles at the end, is key to making a long term profit.

The problem, of course, is that for a lot of casual horseplayers being able to tell if a horse can run the distance or not is almost an impossible task. That’s where I come it. Evaluating whether a horse has a good chance of doing it doesn’t have to be very hard if you know what you are looking for. Here is a three step approach for thoroughbred handicapper to use to get at least a decent sense of whether a horse has marathon tendencies or not:

Pedigree

Breeding is crucial in thoroughbred racing because it is where horses get their tendencies and their capabilities from. It doesn’t always work out this way, but as a general rule if the sire of a horse had the ability to run long distances then the horse should be able to handle it as well. What you want to look for, then, is horses that are descended from distance horses. Without spending a lifetime getting to know every sire out there there are a few shortcuts you can take. The sire, grandsire, and the damsire – sire of the horse’s mother – for each horse are all listed in the past performances in the race program.

First, look to see if any of those three horses are past Belmont winners. If a horse in the past has won the Belmont there is a good chance the horse can handle the distance. If not, have any won a Triple Crown race? That means that they were able to beat the best three year olds of their time over long distances with high stakes on the line, so they are very classy horses. That’s not as good as being a Belmont winner, but it is much better than nothing. Next, are any of those horses a winner of a major race run at at least a mile and a quarter other than the Triple Crown? That would include races like the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Dubai World Cup, and a handful of others. Basically you are looking for proof that the horse is descended from runners that have proven to be not just good but exceptional, and that they have proven it over longer distances. If none of those are the case then you finally want to check and see if the sires were horses that ran not on dirt but turf, but who ran major races at bigger distances on that surface. Turf horses tend to have a bit more stamina than dirt horses, so that can be an indicator of some ability to run distance. It’s not ideal, but it will do. For the latter two criteria Wikipedia is a great resource. They have a page for most prominent sires that list their race accomplishments, so you can quickly assess whether the horse has class or not. A horse that doesn’t possess any of these criteria isn’t necessarily unable to handle the distance, bt you need to find another way to prove he can. What you really don’t want to see when you look there is a horse that is descended from very good sprinters. If one or more of the sires listed won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint or other major sprints, for example, then you have a problem – or rather the horse does.

Their longest previous races

Almost no horse in the Belmont has run as far as a mile and a half before, so the best you can do is look back at the furthest they have previously run. You don’t want to focus on results because that is not dependent on the distance as much as it is on the horses they were running against. Instead, what you want to focus on is how well they were running at the end of their three longest races. If they were gaining ground and running great then they probably had a lot left in the tank and could have handled more distance. If they were just holding ground or losing it, though, then they could struggle with extra distance. What you want to look at is their position in the last two places listed in the program and at the wire. If they were gaining ground at the end – say they were 5th then 3rd then second, or they were first by one length, then three, then six at the wire – and they did that consistently over all three races then they can probably handle the distance. If they weren’t able to gain any positions late, or if they just maintained their position but lost ground on the horse in front of them, then they were probably not feeling great later on, and the extra distance isn’t going to help them.

Overall performance

If as a bettor you still don’t have a sense of a thoroughbred’s capabilities after the first two steps then you can resort to getting an overall sense of the horse’s performance. Start by breaking the races the horse has run in the past into three basic groups – races of less than a mile, races from a mile to a mile and an eighth, and longer races. Once you have done look at how they have performed in each group. Have they been unbeatable at shorter distances but had less success as the races stretched out, or have the y been generally consistent, or even better as things got longer? Do they gain more ground at the end of shorter races or longer ones? What you are looking for is an sign you can find that a horse prefers to run longer, or that his results have generally been stronger the longer he has run. This is more art than science at this point, but when a horse is being asked to do something he has never been asked to do before it comes down to a lot of guesswork anyway.

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