The Belmont Stakes. The Test of a Champion. The third and final jewel of the American Triple Crown.
This time around, there is a Triple Crown on the line with CALIFORNIA CHROME attempting to pull the triple. And this year, the "Picks and Ponderings" joint alliance is happy to present the return of Point/Counterpoint. For this year's Belmont, joining this Belmont preview will be Nicolle Neullist, fellow "Picks and Ponderings" alliance member (check out the recaps she's been writing) who also can be found at Blinkers Off. We attacked the Derby in "Point/Counterpoint" style below.
A reminder: the "P" and "N" stand for our first names (Paul and Nicolle). For odd numbered program horses, I take the point and she takes the counter-point. For even numbered program horses, she takes the point and I take the counterpoint.
Let's meet the field!
Belmont Park -- G1 Belmont Stakes -- 1 1/2 miles on dirt -- post time 6:52 pm ET (on NBC)
#1 MEDAL COUNT (20/1)
P: The most polarizing horse in the field. You're either anxious to bet him off getting sideswiped in the Derby or you think he should scratch and go to the Belmont Derby (nee Jamaica) and dedicate himself to grass. He can run on dirt, but I'm not warm to him as he might not get the pace he needs. I can't endorse him for a win but I can't put him in the caboose crew, either.
N: It's interesting you say he is so polarizing, because I couldn't be more on the fence about MEDAL COUNT. I was right on the fence with him in the Derby, and I remain so in the Belmont. Surface isn't an issue for him: he has a win each on dirt, turf, and synthetic. He's fine on whatever surface you put him on. He isn't going to be pace-compromised in this race, since he has seen success stalking or midpack. He isn't going to tire out on the early speed, or be left far back. However, there's nothing jumping out saying he's either one of the best or one of the worst in the field. Third or fourth rung on an exotic would be perfectly sensible, but I don't like him to win.
#2 CALIFORNIA CHROME (3/5)
N: I hated CALIFORNIA CHROME in the Cal Cup Derby, and made sure to point out in Blinkers Off why he was the very definition of vulnerable. I liked Lucky Views, who finished last. I liked Aotearoa, who didn’t finish. I liked Tamarando, who won the race for second. CALIFORNIA CHROME ran away with it, and he made me look silly in that Cal-bred stakes. He made me look dumb again when I took such a stand against him in the Derby. CALIFORNIA CHROME won, and I tore up every single Derby ticket I played. I used him in my Preakness tickets, and that worked well for me. Now, we come to the Belmont. There’s very little I can say against him: he has proven himself to be the best and most consistent horse of this three-year-old class. He has passed every test he has faced this year. Still, I do have a reservation. My concern isn’t the breeding: he’s not bred for 1 ½ miles on the dirt, but let’s be honest: what American horse is? The concern is that he has never raced over the Belmont track. I had a similar thought going into the Derby, that it was his first time racing outside California. However, it comes slightly stronger here, since no horse who has won the Triple Crown hasn’t had at least one previous race over Big Sandy, and the 1 ½ mile oval is a new configuration for him. However, with his connections working him at Belmont these last few weeks, and Victor Espinoza riding at Belmont this week, they are doing all they can to get CALIFORNIA CHROME ready. The price on him is going to be short, but he has a chance to do it: and I will be playing at least some tickets with him in the top slot.
P: It’s a matter of...of...timing! Even though Espinoza is doing his due diligence to ride and get familiar with the Belmont oval, it’s a lot different to ride everyday races versus a race with a hundred thousand plus in the stands and millions more watching on NBC. Yes, I went on Chicago Land Sports Radio and picked against him and looked like a dunce. And he won the Derby and established himself as the Most Talented of this group of three-year-olds. He’s going to get the trip, on the inside flanking GENERAL a ROD and SAMRAAT. He’s the favorite -- the line is fine and he’ll likely be 1-5 odds -- for a reason. But timing tripped up Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Real Quiet, and Smarty Jones. Timing will trip up CALIFORNIA CHROME. He’s too talented not to hit the board, but I’m not taking him here.
#3 MATTERHORN (30/1)
P: No, and since NBC operates on a seven-second-delay, no. He hasn’t gotten to the winners’ circle since the fall going a one-turn mile at Aqueduct. He ‘s by Tapit, and that’s a liability going twelve furlongs. He has also not shown any sort of progression from two to three, despite a nice figure in the Peter Pan. I see three strikes, and he’s out.
N: Here we get to the first of the two horses whose names start with M-A-T who don’t belong here. The best thing he’s got going for him is that he is trained by Todd Pletcher, who has seen success at Belmont. However, his only win is still the maiden win at a mile at Aqueduct, where he finished ahead of Harpoon and Woelf Den: one of whom dropped off the Derby trail, the other of whom is squarely an allowance horse. He hasn’t shown enough progression since then. Even if you attribute his mediocre Peter Pan to the slop, his allowance performances at 1 ⅛ miles don’t inspire confidence. MATTERHORN is in over his head.
#4 COMMANDING CURVE (15/1)
N: I like COMMANDING CURVE more for his absence of red flags than I do for anything in particular that he is doing right. He is a closer, which may be a liability if there isn’t a hot pace, but he showed in his maiden win that he can come in from a relatively short distance off the pace. His progression in speed and form leading up to the Derby is good, and it wasn’t such a huge jump from the Louisiana Derby to the Belmont to suggest that he’s going to bounce hard. He is working well leading into the Belmont. COMMANDING CURVE is not likely to win, but he is a legitimate choice to pass everyone who can’t cut it at a mile and a half and hit the board.
P: Even though it was against lesser qualities foes like Thundergram (did nothing at Oaklawn) and Chas’s Legacy (a stuck-in-neutral allowance horse), he at least showed five back at Churchill he can close off a slow pace. He showed he can close off a mild pace in the Kentucky Derby when he blew up the toteboard. He’ll get something to run at, he ran credibly in the Louisiana and Kentucky Derbies. I see him passing tired foes late and possibly hitting the board.
#5 RIDE ON CURLIN (12/1)
P: He’s done before the gates open. Toss. He can’t assert himself on the front end and do what Palace Malice did last year in the Belmont and lead everyone on a merry gallop. SAMRAAT will out sprint him to the front end. He has no acceleration, so him moving from the back of the pack and closing isn't going to work out. He's not a bad horse by any means, and there's a stakes race he can win. It's just that the pace is completely inopportune: he either needs it hot (for a meltdown and to pick off wheezing runners) or cold (to gallop on a loose lead). He'll need a lot of horses to moonwalk like what happened in the Arkansas Derby, and I don't see "Billie Jean" on the turntable this time around..
N: This race kills me. I love RIDE ON CURLIN. He has been my favourite horse on the Triple Crown trail all spring. However, once Social Inclusion dropped in favour of the Woody Stephens, things got grim for him. His best race shape is not on the lead, and I agree with Paul that there’s no way he beats SAMRAAT on the front. He is not a stone closer either, though with the lack of pace that would be a liability anyway. His only real hope is a race from a few lengths off the pace, like he ran in Arkansas, with no one on the front able to stay. The fan in me is dying to see Johnny V make that trip happen. The logical part of my mind realises how unlikely that is, and how much of an underlay he is going to be in exotics anyway after that second-place finish at the Preakness. I may flutter a horse crush bet on him because I'm a fan, but he won’t be part of my serious Belmont play.
#6 MATUSZAK (30/1)
N: Here, we get to the second M-A-T who does not belong here, and the inferior of the two. After breaking his maiden at first asking, he couldn’t win in allowance company. What does he do? Why, flop in the Remsen and the Jerome, of course! He then gets beaten by Kid Cruz three straight times, and trade blows with Joint Custody. Last week, Joint Custody finished second in the Buddy Delp at Delaware Park: the sort of race that MATUSZAK should enter now, assuming his connections have too much pride to drop him to allowance company. MATUSZAK is a slow horse. He is a closer who will have no pace to close into. He is a great bet for last place in the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes.
P: If MATUSZAK wins, "Holy Toledo!", to quote the late radio announcer of the Oakland Raiders. He's not going to get the pace set up to tackle any of the front runners. It would be an upset on par with, if not bigger than, Sarava back in 2002. He looks like the classic Bernardini offspring that wins a maiden special weight with ease and then gets into troubled water against winners. He was beaten on the square by Kid Cruz on three occasions, and you needed a searchlight for Kid Cruz in the Preakness. Caboose crew.
#7 SAMRAAT (20/1)
P: The click-to-pick....to win the Super Derby. The Wood showed that nine furlongs is the upper limit of his distance range, and he'll be going that plus three furlongs. Granted, he's game as heck and he'll do well in some B-level Derby where they soup the track up the night before, he goes out on the front, and he out-games someone on the front. Here in the Belmont, I'm not endorsing him. It's too far and the breeding (out of an Indian Charlie mare) kicked in during the stretch of the Wood and five weeks ago in Louisville. He won't finish last because he won't quit, but he certainly has his work cut out for him to hit the top four. Not today.
N: I really want to like SAMRAAT. He is as game as they come, and he has already far outrun his terrible distance breeding. The problem is, gameness only gets you so far: it won’t get you a mile and a half against horses with actual, raw distance talent. He will almost certainly set the fractions, with GENERAL A ROD stalking off him. He will run his heart out. The finish line won’t come soon enough. If the rest of the field gives out, SAMRAAT could hit the low rung of a tri or super on gameness alone, but it will not win him this race.
#8 COMMISSIONER (20/1)
N: Throw rotten tomatoes at me if you wish, but I’m a big believer in yo-yo form. If a horse looks like he’s alternating good and bad races in a certain way, after a few cycles of that I am going to believe what I see. At first blush, I saw that with COMMISSIONER. But, assuming the Arkansas Derby flop was because he doesn’t like the Oaklawn track, his speed figure from the Peter Pan may not be as anomalously high as it looks. If that is the case, he may not be the bounce risk I initially took him for. His breeding stood out, even when I didn’t want to like him: by A. P. Indy out of a Touch Gold mare, he’s about as close as it gets to being bred for 1 ½ miles in the dirt. He has been working well going into this, and trainer Todd Pletcher does do well in the Belmont. Finally, his style of stalking a few lengths off the pace will serve him well in a race without either blazing speed or tortoise-like fractions. Paul challenged me to talk him off COMMISSIONER. Instead, he did a great job of talking me on.
P: Between the first-level allowance in January where he finished ahead of Top Billing -- a Shug buzz horse before injury -- and the Peter Pan last out, he hasn't run a race that is properly representative of his form. The Fountain of Youth at 1 1/16 miles penalizes closers, and he tried that strategy and failed. He lost a shoe in the Sunland Derby and still managed to make up ground. Oaklawn is a love-or-hate surface, and that might explain the clunker. Make the argument those aren't true to his form, and you've got a Grade Two placed runner with a second in the local prep. His breeding is superb for the distance - look at his twitter handle, @bredforbelmont. He's going to get some pace to attack through SAMRAAT and CALIFORNIA CHROME, and I think Castellano smartly makes the run and wears down the front-runnners. I wanted Nicolle to talk me off, because he’s who I’m backing.
#9 WICKED STRONG (6/1)
P: He was my click-to-pick to win the Kentucky Derby off a strong win in the Wood Memorial over SAMRAAT and Social Inclusion (who goes in the Woody Stephens and was a probable for this race), but that race talked me off him. Being close to a slow pace in the Remsen, closing off a quick pace in the Wood, being mid-pack in the moderate pace Derby (despite the fractions) shows me he's a one-speed plodder. True, Belmont Stakes winners tend to be this type, and I think it's going to make him the steam horse of the early pre-race wagering. I can see him hitting the board if he gets first run on the leaders, but I don't see him as the spoiler winner of the Test of the Champion.
N: As much as I was off the WICKED STRONG train in the Kentucky Derby, I am on it here. Going into the Derby, it was hard to tell whether he just really hated Gulfstream, or he was just an inconsistent horse. After his respectable fourth in the Derby, which was far better than I expected him to do, I am willing to believe that his early-season troubles emerged from being an off-the-pace type at Gulfstream. He has run twice at Belmont, a first-out second and a second-out maiden win; he can handle the surface. He is out of a Charismatic mare, and he was running with some strength at the end of the Derby, so there is a good shot for stamina. With a middling, balanced pace likely, he shouldn’t be pace-compromised here as long as Maragh keeps him just a handful of lengths back like he did in the Wood. He is a more consistent horse than I took him for going into the Derby, and if CALIFORNIA CHROME does not complete the Triple Crown this year, it may well be because he got passed late by WICKED STRONG.
#10 GENERAL a ROD (20/1)
N: GENERAL A ROD comes in here off a troubled run in the Preakness. His move was stymied when the overmatched Ria Antonia dropped like a rock right into his path. However, when he got running again, he ran well. Here, he should get a far better trip. There is very little early speed other than SAMRAAT, and I envision the General stalking just off him. SAMRAAT’s breeding is going to catch up to him, and he’ll drop back. GENERAL A ROD, though? He may not be bred excellently for 1 ½ miles, but who here other than COMMISSIONER is? He has a great chance to stay up near the front, have more stamina that SAMRAAT, and stay in front if the early fractions are slow enough. If, for any reason, CALIFORNIA CHROME can’t get up from his stalking place into a slow-to-reasonable pace, GENERAL A ROD could be ready, willing, and able to stay up for a huge price.
P: I think he goes to the lead from the near outside box, and how long he keeps SAMRAAT and CALIFORNIA CHROME busy - essentially, pace making the race - is the key here. I can see him getting dusted by SAMRAAT at around a mile, as he is game but not as SAMRAAT and he's not as quick on the front end. Even if Rosie sends this one to the front, it won't be a free lunch. Taking back did work, but that was long ago on the polytrack. More likely to happen if he’s taken to the back: when he lost touch with the front end in the Derby, he threw in the towel. I always thought of GENERAL a ROD as a Gulfstream-loving horse, and he has not done anything to convince me otherwise even though he hit the superfecta in the Preakness. I'd rather have the cheesy animated auto insurance pitchman than this product going twelve furlongs.
#11 TONALIST (8/1)
P: For wet conditions, he proved that with aplomb when he aired in the Peter Pan a month ago. For dry conditions, I can't pull the trigger. Pleasant Colony may have been be a nice distance horse in his day and a fine sire of distance horses (Pleasantly Perfect, and so on). Clement's work with grass horses make him popular and logical in this spot. But I can't shake the fact he's a Tapit offspring. And, his best race came in the Peter Pan on a sloppy track. Does this make him Conquistador Cielo (a Horse of the Year of yore) or Freedom Child (went into hiding after getting drubbed in last year's Jim Dandy)? It's not a question worth asking, as you wonder when the Tapit-Pulpit sire line rears it head. It's really not worth asking when his best race was in conditions not likely to reoccur. Taking a stand against.
N: There are two upsides to TONALIST: he is trained by Christophe Clement, and he is out of a Pleasant Colony mare. This suggests good training, and at least some injection of stamina. However, there is far more downside. He is by Tapit, and a Tapit running well for twelve furlongs is about as likely as finding the Aurora Borealis, at this time of year, at this time of day, in this part of the country, localized entirely within my kitchen. Furthermore, the Peter Pan was enough of a jump from his previous performances that he screams “bounce risk” to me. He will almost certainly regress from that last time out, which makes him even less appetizing at any distance. There is one, and only one, situation in which I would even consider putting Tonalist in my tickets: if the track is a wet, nasty mess on Belmont day. In that case, I wouldn’t be happy about using him, but I would have to because he is the only one in this field who is known to handle that track condition well. If the track is halfway decent, though? Toss.
#8 COMMISSIONER (20/1)
#9 WICKED STRONG (6/1)
#2 CALIFORNIA CHROME (3/5)
Longshot: #4 COMMANDING CURVE (15/1)
#9 WICKED STRONG (6/1)
#2 CALIFORNIA CHROME (3/5)
#8 COMMISSIONER (20/1)
Longshot: #10 GENERAL A ROD (20/1)
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