We've reached the Belmont Stakes. The Test of the Champion, the third jewel of our Triple Crown, drew a competitive field of twelve to compete for a $1,500,000. There's no Triple Crown on the line -- but no shortage of glory on the line, and an opportunity to end the first half of the three-year-old season on the highest note.
This piece features a Picks and Ponderings tradition for Triple Crown season: Nicolle Neulist (NN) and Paul Mazur (PM) going toe-to-toe, horse-by-horse, through the entire Belmont field. When the dust settles, our picks and longshots emerge. Below the Belmont discussion, NN shares a grid their selections for all of the stakes races on Belmont's Saturday card.
NBC Sports Network will broadcast undercard action at Belmont from 3:00-5:00pm EDT on Saturday; coverage shift to flagship NBC for the next two hours, 5:00-7:00pm EDT. In addition, live streaming is available on the NYRA website and the NYRA Now mobile app. For radio coverage of the undercard as well as the main event, tune into Horse Racing Radio Network from 2:00-7:00pm EDT. Their coverage will stream on their website, and also broadcast on Sirius 93.
In addition to this preview, we also have a full preview of Friday's Grade 3 Belmont Gold Cup, and selections for all five stakes races at Belmont that day. We also turn our attention to Saturday's stakes race at Arlington, the Isaac Murphy Handicap for Illinois-bred filly and mare sprinters.
Selections for the Jaipur S., Just a Game S., and Manhattan S. are for turf only. Edited Thursday, June 8 in light of reports of Epicharis being treated for lameness in his right front hoof.
Saturday, June 10: Belmont Park
Race 11: Belmont Stakes (G1), three-year-olds, one and one half miles on the dirt, post time 6:37pm EDT
#1 TWISTED TOM (20/1)
NN: TWISTED TOM intrigues me. Yes, the Belmont is a massive class test for him, as the toughest company he's faced has been the local Laurel Preakness "preps", the Private Terms and the Federico Tesio. But, he did win both of those. He gets a rider upgrade to Javier Castellano, and trainer Chad Brown doesn't put horses in Grade 1 races just for an excuse to get dressed up. I like his tactical versatility, especially the fact that he can stalk the pace. That's a style I like in the Belmont -- but he can close if necessary, too. He has won both times he broke from the rail, including once in a field of eleven. Finally, I like his pedigree for stretching out...for a mile and a half, Creative Cause and Thunder Gulch are names I'm happy to see. All in all? You need a price because it's such a class test, but it would not surprise me to see TWISTED TOM hold his own.
PM: I'm going to pick TWISTED TOM. Not because he's first on the page of past performances but because he is bred beautifully for this event and has the right running style for this event. Breeding wise, he's by Creative Cause (a bit of a plodder) whose grandsire was a grinder/plodder and sire of them - Giant's Causeway. The dam won twice at Delaware, at ten panels on dirt and eleven panels on weeds. He has the right running style - he can grind along on the lead and when the distance-challenged types wheeze, he could trip out from the paint.
NN: Oooh, bold.
PM: Everyone wants closing plodders in the Belmont and you're half right: you want a #plodsohard. Look at the two starts at Laurel: as the distance increased but the times didn't he could move closer to the lead and not lose his effectiveness. I like plodders - but they don't have to come from the parking lot, either.
#2 TAPWRIT (6/1)
PM: TAPWRIT did okay over the sloppy dirt of the Derby, but that Tampa Bay race really looks more an aberration going forward. He didn't gain any ground on Always Dreaming, he just passed tired horses. That Blue Grass is forgivable, but he functions as the "A" Pletcher in this field. You can have him as I want no piece of him.
#3 GORMLEY (8/1)
PM: They say "coffee is for closers", and this one comes from Central Casting as he closed to win the Sham, got put too close to the piece in the San Felipe, and won the Santa Anita Derby. But he's not the Starbucks coffee of closers, more like that sludge at the 7-11 that's been sitting there half the day. Trip handicappers will note the bumping last out, clock handicappers will look at the pedestrian splits two back. I'm in the clock camp, and he's a toss.
NN: GORMLEY is the horse I stressed about more than any in this field. He's the wild card. I don't think John Shirreffs would ship him out if he weren't ready to run. And, he has a bit of a "better race, not-so-good race" pattern going -- a yo-yo which looks ready to pop upward again. He also proved two back in the Santa Anita Derby that he can rate. But, I'm also a bit wary of Shirreffs's form with shippers. There are horses I like better than GORMLEY here...you can't use them all. But for spread tickets or bigger exotics, GORMLEY makes a modicum of sense.
#4 J BOYS ECHO (15/1)
NN: I like the move back to Robby Albarado, but that's about all I like. Sure, the Preakness franked that big-fig Gotham win three starts back, as second-place Cloud Computing proved his mettle. But, nothing J BOYS ECHO has done since has proven that the Gotham was anything more than an aberration. His distance pedigree suggests that midpack is realistic, should he get enough pace in front of him. But, that's about it.
PM: Well, apparently Bobby Flay wanted to get involved in the Belmont Stakes so he took a giant sack of cash and bought into J BOYS ECHO. Good for him. I look forward to NBC cameras poised on him and someone asking softball questions to him during the live coverage. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to wipe up the cynicism I just splattered all over the page. I shall then throw that rag in the trash, along with J BOYS ECHO, who won't get the quick pace he got in the Gotham and shows distance limitations on both sides of the gene pool.
NN: Yeah, I think Bobby Flay's gamble worked out better for him last year than it will this year.
#5 HOLLYWOOD HANDSOME (30/1)
PM: The pedigree is questionable - even by the questionable standards of North American dirt pedigrees, but he's shown to be a better closer, in my eyes than GORMLEY or TAPWRIT. He might need the face to fall apart in front of him - which didn't happen in the Louisiana or Illinois Derbies - but Geroux can squeeze inherit gears out of no pass types and perhaps he can time the ride right. Add that to trainer Dallas Stewart, who has a penchant for blowing up tickets. I can't see him as a win candidate, but the third and fourth slot of trifectas and superfectas - and being my longshot to watch - seem right.
NN: HOLLYWOOD HANDSOME fits the Dallas Stewart Longshot profile in that he's a closer. He does not fit the Dallas Stewart Longshot profile in that he has already cleared his N1X. All jokes aside, I think he's in a bit tough here. In that N1X win at Keeneland last out, he gets points for closing into a pace that wasn't furious, and for not having to drop back into the clouds before doing so. But, I'm not sure he's fast enough here, and I don't exactly trust HOLLYWOOD HANDSOME at nine furlongs much less twelve. At the price, I can't dissuade anyone who wants to sprinkle HOLLYWOOD HANDSOME on the undersides of their tickets, but he's not for me.
#6 LOOKIN AT LEE (5/1)
NN: What you see with LOOKIN AT LEE is what you get: a perennial undersides sort. He drops a million lengths out, always fires, and never gets quite there. This is not a running style that often wins the Belmont, especially with a pace collapse unlikely. And, for those undersides of exotics, he will be underlaid in the exacta combinations given the reputation he's gained for finishing underneath. LOOKIN AT LEE fires consistently enough to make sense in a spread-out fourth rung of a superfecta...but in low-roller tickets (hello!) or in multi-race wagers? I'm lookin' elsewhere.
PM: With Classic Empire nursing a foot abscess, we come to the only horse who will contest all three legs of the Triple Crown this year. In the absence of a Triple Crown that merits a Slow Clap. I thought he was distance challenged in the Derby, and he rode a golden rail to the silver medal. On a drying out track in the Preakness he cracked the superfecta. He's a dependable closer, but 5/1 is too low a price to swallow on a horse to key second/third.
#7 IRISH WAR CRY (7/2)
NN: I'm not excited about the price -- thanks to Classic Empire's fickle foot, IRISH WAR CRY will be the favourite -- but I am expecting to see him bounce right back from his disappointing Derby and make better account of himself here. He's got a bit of a good race-bad race pattern going, which sets up for a good race here. More concretely, IRISH WAR CRY has tactical versatility, and proved two back in the Wood that he could rate against class horses. He won't get the lead here, but should be forward enough. His trainer, Graham Motion, has a good reputation for not rushing horses into things -- if IRISH WAR CRY were not ready, he wouldn't be here. Period. Finally, he is by Curlin, a sire whose progeny have done well in the Belmont -- in four crops to have run in the Belmont, he has two babies who have hit the board. I ate crow after picking him in the Derby...but for better or worse, I've got to go right back to him here.
PM: His effort in the Wood Memorial two back where be bested Preakness winner Cloud Computing was a proper IRISH WAR CRY. His effort in the Kentucky Derby was more like when Bart Simpson stumbled around drunk on St. Patrick's Day. He threw out the anchor after taking an early lead. Perhaps he hated the sloppy surface or perhaps ten furlongs isn't his game. He's got a yo-yo form pattern going on figures, but the Derby was explained and three back he got caught wide on the unfriendly to wide pressing types Gulfstream. I can see using him defensively, but that's about it given he's the de facto favorite with Classic Empire on the shelf.
#8 SENIOR INVESTMENT (12/1)
NN: SENIOR INVESTMENT made an eye-popping late run in the Preakness. But, I have similar reservations with him as I have with the likes of LOOKIN AT LEE: particularly with Channing Hill aboard, he has dropped to the back of the pack and made a late run. With a pace collapse unlikely here, SENIOR INVESTMENT's late rally looks to come too little, too late. Pass.
PM: If you're the type who is playing LOOKIN AT LEE, then SENIOR INVESTMENT has to get some love given he's the same type: he comes from the food trucks and makes his run. It worked in the Lexington, it worked in the Preakness to a bronze medal, but twelve furlongs is a whole new ball of wax considering the pedigree says nine is his ceiling. I get using him if you think IRISH WAR CRY and PATCH are going to duel on the front end. But if I'm not keen on using LOOKIN AT LEE, then why use this one?
#9 MEANTIME (15/1)
PM: Well, we've had a sloppy Derby and a drying-out Preakness. Maybe this is the Year of Wet Tracks in the Triple Crown and if so, that suits MEANTIME who graduated in the slop three back. Advanced to the G3 Peter Pan he was second in that affair over slop as well. I see him a pace player and one that's not equipped for twelve panels - Shackleford being a miler and the female side about that way too. But given IRISH WAR CRY and PATCH want the lead, he's not getting a free lunch on the engine. Toss.
NN: MEANTIME is the one-way speed in this race, and forward is a good place to be in the Belmont. And, it's never a bad thing to see Mike Smith aboard on a big race day. But, he has class to prove, after folding for second in a lackluster Peter Pan (G3) last out. Though he's the only one in the Belmont who has run over the course, that came over a sloppy track. Though he will be a pace factor, he won't get a lonely lead, as EPICHARIS and IRISH WAR CRY should keep him in their sights. I also question his breeding going twelve panels. Too many questions, too little to like.
#10 MULTIPLIER (15/1)
NN: As much as I'd love to score one for the home team with Illinois Derby winner MULTIPLIER, I can't. He's another closer...I'm not keen on SENIOR INVESTMENT or LOOKIN AT LEE, and if it doesn't set up for them, it doesn't set up for MULTIPLIER either. Yes, he probably dropped too far back in the Preakness -- if there's one of the closers who should be able to come up at least a little closer to the pace, perhaps MULTIPLIER is that horse. But, with Rosario in the irons, will that happen? And, will a son of The Factor out of a Trippi mare (even one who got a mile okay) go twelve furlongs? MULTIPLIER just doesn't add up here.
PM: Always have to give some to the Illinois Derby winner given this is ChicagoNow. But while he closed well on West 35th to win the G3 Illinois Derby, that was a B-level Derby and he was midpack in the A-level Preakness. While he gets the cheater blinkers to wear for the first time, I think the connections need them more than the horse. I totally agree with NN on the pedigree being a huge issue. He adds up in the West Virginia Derby or a similar affair. In the here and now, I'm not interested.
#11 EPICHARIS (4/1)
PM: Every year, people play premature games of Good Crop/Bad Crop with three-year-olds during the Triple Crown season. Apparently, everyone thinks this is the Worst Crop Ever because the 4/1 second choice on the morning line is from Japan, a country whose turf horses are of a higher cut than their dirt horses. He was second last time to Thunder Snow - him of the memes and cowboy antics - in the UAE Derby. The pedigree is fine because it's an outlier - and Sunday Silence is a fine distance sire regardless of where he stands. There's just a metric ton of steam on EPICHARIS because he'd make a good story: the foreign raider who clowns the Americans. Because he took an enormous amount of kickback in the Hyacinth. But he isn't worth 4/1 given that Lani - another Japanese based Triple Crown raider - took advantage of a division last year that was at is lowest. If he were 10/1 I'd look harder as a "new face in the crowd", but his price turns me from an offensive position to a defensive position.
NN: I'm always afraid of international shippers in Triple Crown races, but I can't bring myself to dismiss EPICHARIS. I like his running style -- he can take the initiative like he did in the UAE Derby, but also showed in Japan that he can come from off the pace. With MEANTIME's one-way speed, expect an off-pace trip for EPICHARIS. On pedigree, he has as good a stamina pedigree as anyone in the field, and all his experience at nine, nine and a half furlongs already should have built his bottom. Yes, he has been off since the UAE Derby on March 25. But, he has come of similar breaks earlier in his career and run well -- EPICHARIS is a horse proven to fire fresh. And, though the horse who beat him in the UAE Derby put on a bucking bronco show on the first Saturday in May, Thunder Snow proved his class well enough next out by finishing second behind the excellent Churchill in the Irish 2000 Guineas. Yes, EPICHARIS's morning line of 4/1 is a little short -- but I doubt that holds. Yes, the Japanese money may fall on him, but I foresee more of a 6/1 than a 4/1 given many American bettors' anxiety about betting the international shippers.
NN - Appendix, June 8: EPICHARIS looked worth overlooking the anxieties over international Belmont shippers for the reasons discussed above: his breeding, his ability to ship, his tactical versatility. However, as credible reports of some lameness in EPICHARIS's right front hoof came to light, playing him (particularly as one of the shorter few betting prices in the field) became rather less attractive. Should he scratch, this becomes a non-issue. Should he run, this shifts him from a horse to consider to a horse to play against.
#12 PATCH (12/1)
PM: Remember how I said TWISTED TOM was bred well for this race? I stand by that given that when Union Rags won his Belmont, it was a weakened, diluted race run days after I'll Have Another went into the witness protection program. I stand by Union Rags as more fortunate than able to get twelve panels. PATCH is the "B" Pletcher and post positons are less meaningful going twelve furlongs than ten, but no amount of one-eyed jokes can save him from being a pace casualty with IRISH WAR CRY and MEANTIME all wanting the lead. Plus his one-eyed antics are going to pull in casual money - and my two fists are going to shovel the cash on other horses.
NN: As a lover of a good story, as someone with faith that good stories could help horse racing thrive, I think the fan frenzy around PATCH is fantastic. But, from the perspective of putting money through the windows, I'm disappointed that PATCH is such a fan favourite, because I'd get a bit better price on him if he had one more eye and fewer fans. Be that as it may, he'll still be a bit of a price, and he'll still have a place on my tickets. Todd Pletcher knows how to hit the board in the Belmont...and this is the horse to whom I alluded when we were talking TAPWRIT who I trust a bit more at the distance. Not only am I a bit less down than PM is on Union Rags babies going long, but the underneath on his pedigree strengthens my confidence in PATCH stretching out. I also have more faith than PM does in PATCH's ability to stay off the front -- yes, he had a bit of trouble early in the Louisiana Derby, but the way he ran on late there makes me think he can stay interested form a bit off, and rally from a few lengths off.
PM: I never said Union Rags babies can't route. Just that ten furlongs seems too far.
NN: Fair enough. I should have been more specific -- I'm less down on Union Rags babies' ability to get a Classic distance. Given how early he is in his stud career, the fact that his AWD is already over seven furlongs says something.
PM: That just means he wins enough nine furlong races to counter the ones at six. I see him as an Any Given Saturday type more than an infuser of classic distance stamina.
#7 IRISH WAR CRY (7/2)
#12 PATCH (12/1)
#3 GORMLEY (8/1)
Nicolle's Longshot: #1 TWISTED TOM (20/1)
#1 TWISTED TOM (20/1)
#11 EPICHARIS (4/1)
#7 IRISH WAR CRY (7/2)
Paul's Longshot: #5 HOLLYWOOD HANDSOME (30/1)
Below are all of Nicolle Neulist's picks for Friday's stakes races at Belmont Park. This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!
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