The 142nd running of the Belmont Stakes, the third and final jewel in the Triple Crown, takes place on Saturday at 6:30 pm ET. It’s not a star-filled event – for the first time since 2006 and only the third time since 1970 neither the Kentucky Derby nor Preakness are in the field – but it is still a very compelling event. In fact, you can make a compelling argument that this is the most intriguing and competitive of this year’s three Triple Crown races.
Handicapping the Belmont is a unique challenge. It’s unlike any other race three year olds run, and unlike all but a few races run in North America each year. If you approach this race like any other race then you are going to make mistakes and end up with a pocket full of worthless tickets. Here’s a look at three things that make this race unique, and what you need to do to deal with them when you are trying to pick a winner:
First time at distance – The Belmont is contested at a mile and a half. That’s at least a quarter mile longer than any horse has run in their careers – and more than that for any horse that wasn’t in the Kentucky Derby. More significantly, it’s just a really, really long way. This distance is called the marathon distance in North America, and the challenge of it can be compared to a marathon for a human runner. Because this is the first time any of these horses has ever tried this distance, and for most of them the only time they ever will, it’s very hard to predict how they are going to react to the challenge. One thing you can do to get a sense of their willingness to keep running well after most races have ended is to look at how they have ended their longest races. If they have been fading, weakening, or losing position down the stretch then they obviously aren’t at their strongest, and it’s unlikely that they will be stronger if they are asked to run further. If they tend to run very fast early times and then get slower and slower as the race progresses – like Super Saver did in the Kentucky Derby – then they also likely aren’t cut out for this challenge. Essentially, you are looking for a horse that still has something left in the tank at the end of their longest previous race. This alone will knock out much of the field, and only rarely will it eliminate the eventual winner.
Horses aren’t bred for distance – We like speed horses here in North America. We want horses to be able to go as fast as they possible can for six furlongs, and we don’t much care what happens for that. We’re consistent in that desire – it’s 0 to 60 time and not fuel efficiency that turns us on in our cars. Since our horses are mostly bred to be sprinters and shorter distance horses, some horses find it almost impossible to overcome their breeding and compete at this level. It’s important, then, to look at the breeding to make sure that a horse has bloodlines to make sure that they are up to this challenge. Pedigree analysis is a very specialized field, but casual bettors can take a shortcut. The program lists the sire, dam, and damsire (mother’s father) of every horse that is entered. Look for sires or dam sires that have won the Belmont or even the long Kentucky Derby. Last year’s Belmont winner, Summer Bird, is a great example. His sire is Birdstone, the 2004 Belmont winner. Birdstone was sired by Grindstone, the 1996 Derby winner. His sire was Unbridled, the winner of the Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1990. Summer Bird was lightly raced, and was stretching out to a whole new experience, but there was little doubt that he could handle it based on his bloodlines. Another great example is A.P. Indy. He was the 1992 Belmont winner. His sire was Seattle Slew and his damsire was Secretariat, so he was as royally bred as a horse can be. A.P. Indy’s daughter Rags to Riches won the Belmont in 2007. There is no doubt that A.P. Indy’s family line can run in this race. First Dude, Fly Down and Ice Box are all Belmont entrants this year, and all are grandsons of A.P. Indy.
Jockeys aren’t used to track and distance – The role of the jockey is at least as important as that of the horse in a race like this. The caliber of the entrants is so high that a horse has to have his energy managed and employed strategically or he won’t be able to overcome his fellow competitors. If you spend a day at the races you won’t have to wait long to see a race in which a horse lost because of jockey error. The jockeys in the Triple Crown races are among the elite, but errors still happen, and they are especially common in the Belmont. The distance is one that many jockeys will only ever run in the Belmont. The track is the only 1.5 mile track in the country, so jockeys who don’t spend time riding on it can be caught off guard by the sweeping turns and endless stretch. Last year we saw what can happen when a talented jockey isn’t used to what this race throws at you – Calvin Borel didn’t try to ride the track to get familiar with it before the Belmont, and as a result he brutally mismanaged Mine That Bird in the race. One of the big problems is the location of the final turn. At one mile tracks there is 3/8 of a mile remaining when horses start the final turn, but at Belmont there is still half a mile left. If the jockey doesn’t compensate for that different and just lets his adrenaline carry him away then he can unleash his horse’s final move far too soon, and the horse will be burnt out well before the wire. That’s what happened to Mine That Bird, and to Smarty Jones in 2004. It’s obviously oversimplified to say that you shouldn’t bet on a jockey in this race unless they have run in the race before or at least spent a lot of time riding at Belmont. You are smart, though, to make sure that you have a particularly good reason to bet on a horse if his jockey lacks experience with this situation. In the race this year Martin Garcia, Joel Rosario, and Jamie Theriot will be making their debuts at Belmont, and only Garcia will have ridden a race on track one race day prior to the Belmont. By contrast, John Velazquez has been riding in New York since 1990 and has won 24 riding titles at New York tracks. If all other things were equal you’d probably want to trust Velazquez over Theriot in the Belmont.