One of the challenges of handicapping the Belmont Stakes is that the horses are coming off of very different paths to get to the race. There are typically a small handful of thoroughbreds that have run in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and a couple more that ran in the first and skipped the second. There are also usually a few horses that skipped both races and are joining the Triple Crown trail at the last possible moment. There are disadvantages and advantages to all three general types of horses from a betting perspective (there is another possibility – that a horse skips the Derby and then runs in the last two legs – but that is reasonably rare and rarely significant, so I am not going to dwell on that). For handicappers, here’s a look at the benefits and challenges of each of the three major types of Belmont runners from a betting perspective:
Horses that ran in the Derby and the Preakness. - The only horses that make it to the Belmont after running in the first two are horses that have fared well in the first two. In many cases they have either won one of the races or they have consistently been very competitive in each race. If they make it this far then we know a few things about them – they are very good, they are in good form, and they have come out of the previous two races as well as can be hoped. On the other hand, we also know that they are going into the longest, toughest race of their careers after surviving the longest, toughest five week stretch of races they will ever face. As a result we can’t be entirely sure that they are going to be physically capable of performing at their best. Sometimes horses that have run in the two races just don’t show up when the trail comes to New York. The most graphic recent example of this is Big Brown in 2008. He was incredibly impressive in winning the first two legs, and it seemed like a Triple Crown was all but assured. In the Belmont, though, he was shockingly ineffective and was never even remotely a factor in the race. That’s a concern, but it isn’t the most common result. As a general rule the horses that have run in the first two legs are the best horses in the class and as longtime bettors know have to be considered very dangerous in the race – very legitimate threats to win the race.
Horses that ran in the Derby but not the Preakness. - These horses have an advantage over the last group in that they have had an extra couple of weeks of rest and training. The downside, though, is that there is typically a good reason why they skipped the Preakness – they usually didn’t have a very good race in the Derby. These horses were good enough to run in the Derby, though, so they are still impressive horses that are very capable of winning the Belmont – or at least potentially are. It’s important to look back at their Derby for lessons. How did they handle that distance? Did they still have gas in the tank at the end? Did they have good excuses if their Derby performance was disappointing? How have they trained since the Derby?
There is good news to keep in mind for horses that ran in the Derby – whether they ran in the Preakness or not. Despite typically making up less than half of the Belmont field, Derby veterans have been very successful in recent years in the Belmont – both as winners and in the simple exotics. In 2004, 2005, and 2006 Derby vets finished first and second to make up the exacta. In 2009 they not only made up the exacta but the trifecta as well – a trifecta that paid $895.
Horses that ran in neither the Derby nor the Preakness. - Bettors who are experienced know though these horses can certainly win this race. Three of the four winners from 2007 to 2010 – Drosselmeyer, Da’ Tara and Rags To Riches – were making their Triple Crown debut in this race. It’s more common, though, that these horses just aren’t good enough to be serious contenders. While you obviously can’t discount them entirely it’s very important you consider a few key factors. First, can they handle the distance? This is a special concern here because horses that ran in the Derby have been tested over a mile and a quarter while horses that skipped that race haven’t run as far so their stamina has been less tested. Second, can they handle the class of the rest of the field? In a lot of cases this is a huge jump in class for them, so you need to find indications that they are capable of matching up to the tested horses they will meet. Third, you need to seriously assess how strong the rest of the field is. A big part of the reason that Drosselmeyer was able to win in 2010 was because the horses that came from the Derby and the Preakness just weren’t very impressive. Rags to Riches, on the other hand, faced a very impressive group of horses, but she was an extremely talented and well-tested filly who clearly seemed capable of handling the class of the field and the distance.