(Updated, 9:30pm 6/8)
The Belmont Stakes. The third jewel of the American Triple Crown.
Despite the presence of a good sized field, despite the stellar undercard earlier in the day, this year's Belmont Stakes boils down to a simple question.
"Do you think I'LL HAVE ANOTHER (below) can win the Triple Crown?"
It's the question on the minds of handicappers, fans, and the like. The one that discussed at the water cooler. Never mind the presence of anyone else in the gate; the focus is squarely on I'LL HAVE ANOTHER. With the focus on the Derby and Preakness winner, the Belmont Stakes invokes the nickname of The Test of Champions. And the test is in full force this year.
"Do you think I'LL HAVE ANOTHER can win the Triple Crown?"
The question, not surprisingly is wrapped into the Test of Champions. To say yes to the question, and I'LL HAVE ANOTHER becomes the first Triple Crown winner in over thirty years, number twelve overall. To say no is to have twelve horses win the first two legs and not win the Belmont since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978.
Answering that question, unfortunately, raises prickly issues. Take the negative publicity and the CHRB suspension in waiting on the trainer of the focus horse. To say "yes", and you find yourself simultaneously rooting for the connections, but it includes the aforementioned trainer, Doug O' Neill. To say "no", you find yourself rooting against a populace that yearns for a triple crown and potential coronation in earnest.
You'll see this some permutation of these stories ad infintium during the tedious NBC telecast: the jockey, whose Mexico-Vancouver-Los Angeles-Triple Crown journey is fodder for a movie. Mix in the accompanying lead pony, the pony that in a former life was Lava Man, thrice winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup. Mix in the owner, a supporter of California racing who gave the focus horse his name based on a penchant for cookies.
Two answers, each quite different. Two answers, each highlighting highs and lows. And thanks to the players and the high stakes stage, it's difficult to not answer the looming question and look like a hypocrite in some way. Support the questionable trainer, or be a grumpy killjoy.
"Do you think I'LL HAVE ANOTHER can win the Triple Crown?"
Let's answer the question and meet the field.
Belmont Park -- Race 11 -- Belmont Stakes -- 1 1/2 miles on dirt -- post time 5:40 CT (on NBC)
1. STREET LIFE (12/1). His closing style got him a third coming from the parking lot last time in the Peter Pan. Before that, he won the minor Broad Brush two back at Aqueduct on the other side of town as Belmont. The Broad Brush win got him in the gate for the Wood Memorial, where he closed mildly but showed quite little. The Peter Pan was won by Mark Valeski, the same Mark Valeski that got beat by Hero of Order (who you can have for $40,000 at Arlington) in the Louisiana Derby. The last sentence casts his class in a poor light, and typically deep one-run closers are a tough (but not impossible) sell. Not today.
2. UNSTOPPABLE U (30/1). A lightly raced type, his two starts are a maiden win at Aqueduct and a N1X/$75K AOC going a single turn mile dictating the terms at Belmont. His pedigree on his sire side is more sprint-geared, but the second dam is Point Given, the 2001 Belmont winner. Trainer has been down this road before successfully, with Triple Crown spoiler Sarava. He'll likely be close to the pace early, the question is how long he can hang on. Maybe for deeper tickets.
3. UNION RAGS (6/1). The Author had the onions on Twitter to ask "what's the big deal with UNION RAGS?" He was beaten on the square in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in his last start at two. He got a perfect trip in the Fountain of Youth in his first start at three, but against a suspect field. Then he faltered behind wire-to-wire winner Take Charge Indy in the Florida Derby and was seventh last out in the Kentucky Derby. Given stagnating speed figures, the thought would be that this horse just isn't good enough. But the Florida Derby has typically been a race won by a free-wheeling leader taking the rest of field on a carousel ride. There was traffic trouble in the Kentucky Derby. And he's getting a rider upgrade to John Velasquez, who has been in the money in five of the six Belmonts he's ridden. I deserve to be pelted with rocks if he folds like a cheap tent at the church rummage sale. But the rider uprgrade and sneaky bad trips make him worth a look. And if you want a runner with home track experience, all he did was win the Champagne at two. A very logical spoiler.
4. ATIGUN (30/1). The second of two trained by Kenny McPeek, this one won an N2X/$100K AOC on Kentucky Derby Day, rallying into a slow pace and closing through the Churchill stretch. Earlier in the year, he chased Secret Circle and Bodemeister in the Arkansas feeders to the Kentucky Derby. The latter would be a gallant second in the first two Triple Crown legs. On paper, he's appeared to be a cut below as he's won allowance events but disappeared in stakes events. However, the speed figures have ascended all year. If he steps forward one more time, it could get him a check.
5. DULLAHAN (5/1). Lisa still needs braces. He'll get a new pilot this time, as Javier Castellano takes over the Blue Grass winner and Derby third place finisher. I've said often this is a horse who will blossom on grass and synthetics, and his best dirt finish was the Derby. The word from Belmont is he's been one of the better gallopers on the ground, and he does have a fast--perhaps too fast--workout going into the race. He fits on speed figures, and if Castellano gets him involved in the race he has a chance. I wouldn't balk if he were used as a winner, but I think another minor award is in his future.
6. RAVELO'S BOY (50/1). Makes his first start since a fourth and a fifth in the Davis Stakes and the Tampa Bay Derby; the former of which feeds into the latter. He ships north from a deep, tiring Calder surface in Miami. While he's only got an N1X win to his credit, the more concerning issue is his pedigree. His sire couldn't run a step past nine furlongs. Today's twelve furlong distance is a bridge too far.
7. FIVE SIXTEEN (50/1). Two back he graduated on the Inner Dirt Track at Aqueduct and last time out he was fourth in a first-level allowance on the main track at Aqueduct. He ships across town for today's event. Two maiden winners have won the Belmont since 2000 (Commendable, Da Tara) so it isn't entirely impossible. Acquires Napravnik in the saddle, who was done a wonderful job reviving dead form in horses. Believers will get their price, but I am not in the camp of this one.
8. GUYANA STAR DWEEJ (50/1). Two back he graduated at Aqueduct going a single turn mile, then was run off his feet by UNSTOPPABLE U when he took on winners for the first time. Gets a rider upgrade to Kent Desormeaux, but it must be noted that his Belmont history hasn't been pretty whether through timing (Real Quiet) or otherwise (Big Brown). Another horse at enormous odds, another one I am not thinking about.
9. PAYNTER (8/1). His allowance win at Pimlico hours before the Preakness made him one of the instant buzz horses for the Belmont Stakes. Being out of the same connections (Owned by Zayat Stables, trained by Bob Baffert, ridden by Mike Smith) as Derby-Preakness runner-up Bodemeister lends an extra dose of irony. If he flashes the speed he showed at Pimlico, he has a solid chance to dictate the terms all the way around. But if he settles or shows an inability to pass, he may find the long Belmont stretch his undoing. The pedigree will make him a force down the road in races like the Travers. But he won't get a free lunch on the front end. Mixed feelings and slightly possible for the bottom of the trifecta and superfecta.
10. OPTIMIZER (20/1). Pop quiz. Name the other horse, besides I'LL HAVE ANOTHER, to appear in all three legs of the Triple Crown. The answer is OPTIMIZER, who shows up here. You can't fault him for dancing every dance, but he's proven to be a one-run closer and he's run evenly at best, horribly at worst throughout his career and most recently in the Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness. He will be closing, but he's going to need a lot of help up front to get his set-up. He should be on turf, in The Author's opinion. A puncher's chance to land in the bottom of the superfecta.
11. I'LL HAVE ANOTHER (4/5). Scratched earlier today.
The question still looms. The Author answers no.I'LL HAVE ANOTHER hasn't done a thing wrong in the first two legs, winning and reeling in Bodemeister both times. The negative issues are threefold: pace, price, and.....and.......timing. The last three Triple Crown winners (Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed) all won wire-to-wire by manhandling the pace and going wire to wire. I'LL HAVE ANOTHER might not be quick enough to get in front and set the pace going a mile and a half. So he's going to resort to his stalking tactics, which rely on....wait for it.......timing. He's going to have to time his moves right. Exactly right. Add in a depressed price due to the historical element and the public buying two dollar souvenir win tickets. That win ticket buying will make his odds much lower than his perceived chances to win; an underlay in every sense. And of course, there's the issue of timing, which did in Triple Crown triers Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Real Quiet, and Smarty Jones. If he wins, he deserves every laurel associated with winning the Triple Crown. I will certainly celebrate and applaud it. But from a handicapping standpoint, the issue of.....of.......timing! means that the time to stand against is now. Use for second, and find a spoiler.
12. MY ADONIS (20/1). An entrant who made the starting gate by entering at the eleventh hour. The connections brought Ruler On Ice last year, who upset the applecart in last year's Third Jewel. This time, they bring a speedster who is winless as a three year old and whose only wins at two are a maiden race at Monmouth and a Delta Jackpot steppingstone. He showed speed throughout the career, and I think he shows speed again going from the far outside post. He'll give the race an honest pace and make sure Paynter doesn't get a free lunch. The sire side of the pedigree isn't half bad, featuring ten furlong winners and a Triple Crown near miss. Puncher's chance if no one goes with him on the engine early, but more likely to finish in the bottom half of the field at the end of a lap around Belmont.
#3 UNION RAGS (6/1)
#11 I'LL HAVE ANOTHER (4/5)
#5 DULLAHAN (5/1)
#4 ATIGUN (30/1)
Longshot: There are two from Kenny McPeek in the Belmont, the same McPeek that blew up the toteboard in 2002 when Sarava won and spoiled War Emblem's quest ten Belmonts ago. I would go with either of them, but I will give the slight nod to #4 ATIGUN (30/1), who sports ascending speed figures and a sneaky-good workout pattern going into the race (a fast work two works back followed by a slower work more recently). Trainer is 17% turning two.
Second Longshot: With the scratch, let's move up the other McPeek, #2 UNSTOPPABLE U (30/1) into the longshot position, with ATIGUN now 3rd. He's lightly raced, has a favorable pace scenario, and goes out for a trainer versed in Belmont bombs.
Yes, I picked against I'LL HAVE ANOTHER. No amount of Zilda Reddam's cookies will get me to plunk down cash on him on Saturday. I will celebrate him if he wins, sure. But the reasons are nuts-and-bolts handicapping principles and nothing to do with the Reddams, the O'Neills, anyone or anything else. Go ahead and call me a Two-Face, if you wish.
Good luck everyone.