2015 Belmont Stakes Point/Counterpoint

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 AMERICAN PHAROAH attempting to pull the triple.  The question that was asked last year with California Chrome will be asked again: Is he the one?

Picks and Ponderings is happy to present the return of Point/Counterpoint.  For this year’s Belmont, and joining us as she has through the first two legs of the Triple Crown, will be Nicolle Neulist.  The two of us will go back-and-forth, combing through the Belmont Stakes field to see if there will be a predicted Triple Crown winner for the first time since 1978.  Or not.

Nicolle also has also provided a thorough breakdown of Friday’s G2 New York Stakes, and provides selections for Picks & Ponderings and to Hello Race Fans! for the stakes-laden Belmont Stakes weekend.  Paul has also provided a provided an analysis of the G1 Met Mile from the Saturday program at Belmont.

The NBC family of networks provides television coverage for Saturday at Belmont.  From 2:30 PM ET to 4:30 PM ET coverage of the stakes-rich undercard airs on NBC Sports Network.  At 4:30 PM ET, the coverage continues uninterrupted but flips networks, to NBC. NBC will air the Belmont Stakes live, in a program airing from 4:30 PM to 7:15 PM ET.  The television coverage goes back to NBC Sports Network at 7:15 PM ET for a post-race wrap-up show that airs from 7:15 PM ET to 8:00 PM ET. Horse Racing Radio Network (HRRN) will provide live radio coverage of the stakes-rich undercard in a program airing from 2:00 PM ET to 7:30 PM ET airing on Sirius 92, XM 92, and its website.  The HRRN radio coverage from 5:00 PM onward includes the Belmont Stakes and is done in partnership with Westwood One.

As with all races at Belmont, Saratoga, and Aqueduct, the audio is available for free on the NYRA website, and they offer video of the races for users who have created an account on the NYRA site.

Belmont Park — Race 11 — G1 Belmont Stakes — One and one-half miles on dirt — post time 6:50 PM ET, to air live on NBC.

#1 MUBTAAHIJ

Paul Mazur (PM) – Well, Mike DeKock does not have that record of hitting the trifecta every time with his horses shipping over anymore, now that he and Umgiyo missed the board, so there’s no pressure for him to hit the board.  Still, he’s been working so frequently, that there’s a possibility he is leaving his races on the morning oval, not the afternoon oval.  I know DeKock is a wonderful horseman, but the idea of these short burst works three or four days apart?  Maybe he’s crazy, but I’m not buying it.  Also, his even run in the Derby does not look all that good, especially with the slow come-home time.

Nicolle Neulist (NN) – I was willing to give MUBTAAHIJ the benefit of the doubt coming into the Kentucky Derby.  He looked good at Arlington, and there was a chance that he took his turn of foot across the pond with him.  He did not: his flat finish in the Derby despite slow late fractions was enough to tell that.  As for the works coming into the Belmont?  I am not worried about the frequency of works — I trust DeKock enough to know what works best.  However, what worries me is what I am hearing from observers and clockers, that his works have been less than great.  Glowing reviews of workouts in a graded stakes are nothing to get excited about — they are graded stakes horses, and they are supposed to look sharp.  However, less than stellar workout reviews tell more.  Blah is not going to cut it here, and as good as his distance breeding may be, it is hard to trust that MUBTAAHIJ found his Dubai form again in the five weeks since the Derby, not to mention the lingering question of whether that Dubai form would even be enough.

#2 TALE OF VERVE

NN – TALE OF VERVE was the Dallas Steward Longshot™ in the Preakness, and I was pretty high on him as a long shot there (at least until the rain fell).  He outran his odds.   The problem here is that Dallas Stewart Longshots™ tend to do absolutely nothing when they return in the Belmont.  I still like his late pace, and he may be a better horse than Commanding Curve or Golden Soul.  The problem lies with the connections: I want Dallas Stewart in the Belmont about as much as I want another hole in my head.  I really wish TALE OF VERVE the horse were brought to you by the connections of FRAMMENTO instead.

PM – Horse Racing Cliche Number 37: if you didn’t go to the wedding, don’t go to the funeral.  I did not have TALE OF VERVE at 28 and a half to 1 in the Preakness.  He does appear to be a clunk up closer.  The Belmont probably does not play to his strengths.  The sire line, Tale of Ekati/Tale of the Cat, does not give me warm fuzzies going twelve furlongs.  Neither does the record that Dallas Stewart Longshots™ tend to do nothing the race after they blow up the tote board.  If you want to use him for fourth, that’s okay.  I’m probably not going to use him.

#3 MADEFROMLUCKY

PM – There’s going to be steam on MADEFROMLUCKY, steam that can be found outside of Japanese noodle shops.  This is because he is a Pletcher horse, and because he is the only horse with a win over the Belmont surface.  A lot of people are talking about how you need familiarity with Belmont, but that’s enough.  Lookin At Lucky has never impressed me as a sire whose progeny want more than ten furlongs.  Despite his home court advantage, MADEFROMLUCKY strikes me as distance-challenged.  He may get the pressing trip that Carpe Diem may have gotten, but I think he is going to start backpedaling at the top of the Belmont stretch.

NN – I agree with you: there is nothing to suggest MADEFROMLUCKY is going to get twelve furlongs.  I like the Pletcher factor, I like the win over the course, but there is very little else to get excited about here.  If AMERICAN PHAROAH or MATERIALITY go as fast as either are capable of early, MADEFROMLUCKY will not be able to catch up.  If they go at a pace that MADEFROMLUCKY can run with early, he will certainly be gassed late.  The Peter Pan may be the local Belmont prep, but a win in that 1 1/8 race is not alone enough to suggest that MADEFROMLUCKY can beat better horses going three furlongs more.

#4 FRAMMENTO

PMOn the surface, FRAMMENTO looks outclassed, and/or slow.  He hasn’t won since Keeneland, and hasn’t even hit the board since the Fountain of Youth.  But, look closer.  Nick Zito has spoiled the Belmont twice.  Yes, the Midshipman/Unbridled’s Song suggests middle distance.  But, Golden Missile, his broodmare sire, won the Pimlico Special.  Golden Missile is by A. P. Indy.  There’s some stamina there.  Given his 69/1 odds in the Derby, he ran a darn good race.  He was wide, he was moving well, and he finished relatively evenly despite the issues.  Considering he is getting a move to Mike Smith and taking off the blinkers…if Nick Zito can get Da’ Tara to win a Belmont?  I cannot discourage anyone from taking a flutter on FRAMMENTO here.

NN –  We are on the same wavelength here.  The distance on the bottom side of the pedigree suggests FRAMMENTO will handle twelve panels better than most here — and we all learned from Tonalist last year that stamina on the bottom side of the pedigree helps here.  Even more intriguing are the connections.  Nick Zito has spoiled a pair of Belmonts with long shots, Birdstone in 2004 and Da’ Tara in 2008.  He knows how to win the Belmont.  Mike Smith, who rides FRAMMENTO, has also taken a pair of Belmont Stakes, with Drosselmeyer in 2010 and Palace Malice in 2013.  TALE OF VERVE is still a bit better proven horse than FRAMMENTO.  But, TALE OF VERVE will be a shorter price, coming from a barn that does nothing at the Belmont.  FRAMMENTO will be longer odds, has some pedigree upside, and has connections who know how to win the Belmont Stakes.  Give me FRAMMENTO at boxcar odds any day.

#5 AMERICAN PHAROAH

NN –  AMERICAN PHAROAH is the best horse in this race.  The pace does not worry me hugely.  If he sends, MATERIALITY will rate.  If MATERIALITY sends, AMERICAN PHAROAH can rate.  We learned in the Derby that he can rate off of good horses, and I do not fear a duel.   He also looks to be entering in good form.  His workouts leading into the Belmont have been everything I have wanted to see: it is hard to denote the difference between the main portion of the work and the gallop out, because his stride just keeps getting smoother.  AMERICAN PHAROAH is a freak.  However, will it stay that smooth for a mile and a half with others pursuing him?  We do not know, so the biggest problem I have with AMERICAN PHAROAH is the price.  As good as he is, 2/5, even 3/5 holds no appeal given the questions inherent in going twelve furlongs.  He is a must-cover in multi-race wagers, and should be covered at least some in intra-race tickets.  But, unless you’re interested in a souvenir win ticket, betting him to win is folly.

PM – If AMERICAN PHAROAH wins the Belmont Stakes, he will be named Champion Three-Year-Old.  He will probably be named Champion Older Horse.  He will be a shoo-in for Horse of the Year.  He will also receive the first annual Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.  That’s IF he wins this race.  The key word is “if”, and I don’t think he does.   Neither Seattle Slew nor Affirmed went out on the lead in crazy fractions.  I don’t think if AMERICAN PHAROAH can go as slowly as Seattle Slew or Affirmed did on an uncontested lead, for as long as he will need to.  MATERIALITY can go those fractions.  If AMERICAN PHAROAH can win this off a sub-48 half and still get home?  He will win, and he will win ALL THOSE AWARDS.  Further, consider that Victor Espinoza and Bob Baffert have been on this precipice before, but War Emblem missed the break, and was ruined.  Espinoza was back last year with California Chrome.  He was ruined at the break, and ran an admirable fourth.  Maybe the mind games are too much.  If AMERICAN PHAROAH wins, I’m a part of history.  If AMERICAN PHAROAH loses, I’m calling Brinks.

#6 FROSTED

NN – Meh.  That’s about all I have to say for Frosted…meh.  He and MATERIALITY seem to be the two wise guy horses here, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough going for FROSTED to justify the price.  Pace-wise, he will probably be one of the slew coming from off the pace.  Though he has run some decent races near the lead, Joel Rosario has taken him from off in his last two starts, and that is where he has done better work against classier horses.  The throat procedure did look like it helped him…he ran sharply in the Wood, and did not implode in the Kentucky Derby like he did in the Fountain of Youth.  He has been working well enough in company with Tamarkuz, suggesting he is still feeling well coming into the Belmont.  However, there’s not enough in his pedigree to suggest he’ll like a mile and a half, and he has no pace advantage to compensate.   I doubt he will beat the top two contenders going a mile and a half, and there’s not enough to suggest he will beat the (far longer-priced) horses whose breeding does not suck for this distance.

PM – The pedigree on him appears to be meh.  The only things I see are Tapit, whose son Tonalist won last year, and damsire Deputy Minister begat Better than Honour, who begat Jazil and Rags to Riches.  The throat procedure helped him, and it helped him run off the screen in the Wood Memorial: a mediocre Wood Memorial.  However, he was not exactly making up ground despite the slow late fractions in the Derby.  The pedigree does not get me going at a mile and a half.  There are going to be people who say, “a Tapit won last year.  Tapits are wonderful!”  He scares me a bit because Kieran McLaughlin is having a wonderful Belmont meet, but I’ve got to throw him out.

#7 KEEN ICE

NN – KEEN ICE was my Derby horse, and he did run a good seventh.  He was the Trip Horse in the Derby: the Trakus data shows he ran some good internal fractions, and once he got out from behind a wall of horses, he was closing up ground.  He did nothing in that race to dissuade me from thinking he can run all day.  That will, of course, help him here.  What worries me about KEEN ICE is his running style.  No matter what Kent Desormeaux says about being able to keep him a bit closer to the pace with slower fractions in front of him?  I have a hard time seeing him do his best work from anywhere but well off the pace early, and think he will be left with a bit too much to do late.  Make no mistake about it: KEEN ICE will be rolling late, and he will be a great horse to key in second and third.  However, a speed duel seems thoroughly unlikely here.  Fast early fractions from MATERIALITY and AMERICAN PHAROAH do not seem likely.  KEEN ICE will be galloping like a horse who loves the distance, but hitting the wire first just might be a bridge too far without a pace collapse.

PM – In handicapping explanations, sometimes the terms “pace” and “flow” are used the same way.  For the purposes of this, I’m going to differentiate the terms.  The pace of the Belmont is probably not going to be wickedly quick, but it is not going to be a dawdling 52-half, either.  The flow, in terms of running style, tends to favour gallopers — horses who can run all day.  The horse with the best breeding for the Belmont is Keen Ice.  Curlin was beaten a dirty nose in the Belmont, and his sire Smart Strike is good for distance.  Stamina underneath comes with Awesome Again.  He was one of the few horses closing in the Kentucky Derby, into those slow fractions.  He does come in the trip horse, caught behind a wall of fading horses, and he has not had a clean trip in any of his three year old races.  I’m going to do what NN does not have the onions to do: I’m taking KEEN ICE.  Yes, Desormeaux has been skunked before in this race: Real Quiet.  Romans is like Zito: when it’s at odds, bet.  When he’s short, stay away.  Keen Ice will likely be in the teens, low twenties.  Go big, or go home.

#8 MATERIALITY

NN – One of two things will happen.  MATERIALITY will take the lead and AMERICAN PHAROAH will sit off.  Alternately, AMERICAN PHAROAH will get the lead, and MATERIALITY will stalk off of him and get the first, best chance to run him down.  Could AMERICAN PHAROAH be good enough to win this race?  Sure.  But, MATERIALITY could win it, too.  He has a lot going for him here.  He showed in both the Derby and the Islamorada that he can handle adversity.  He gets a switch back to Todd Pletcher’s A Jockey, John Velazquez.  (Thank you, Carpe Diem!)  Velazquez and MATERIALITY are a perfect three-for-three.  MATERIALITY is not bred as well as KEEN ICE or FRAMMENTO for the mile and a half, but is not bred badly for it: he is sired by Afleet Alex, a Belmont winner, after all, and his dam side has enough two-turn to be complementary.  I see a pace that favours a horse near the front, MATERIALITY has outs whether he ends up setting the fractions or sitting off of them, and the price will be far better than that on AMERICAN PHAROAH.

PM – Every year, horse handicappers in the spring spend more time watching video tape than the NSA.  Sometimes we find our Derby horses.  Sometimes we find our Belmont horses.  My Belmont horse isn’t running, because WinStar doesn’t want to bet against themselves.  (When someone pointed out that they stand Pioneerof The Nile, it all came together.)  I had found my Belmont horse in Carpe Diem, who could close off of a quicker pace, but set a slower pace if need be.  With MATERIALITY, I’m not just jumping from one Pletcher that I like to the other.  On paper, this looks like a two-speed race.  I think MATERIALITY will be an annoyance to AMERICAN PHAROAH.  He probably will flank AMERICAN PHAROAH, and keep him from having an uncontested lead.  If AMERICAN PHAROAH does not break well, it may be over.  However, he is more likely to make sure the pace is contested.  In short, I’m going to use MATERIALITY, but I’m going to use him under.  He is bred for the distance, but a few things stand against him.  He is the Pletcher At Gulfstream, who you can toss in the Derby and later as the Gulfstream form can be suspect.  Also, he could be used as a rabbit.

Nicolle’s Selections:

#8 MATERIALITY (6/1)

#5 AMERICAN PHAROAH (3/5)

#7 KEEN ICE (20/1)

Longshot:  #4 FRAMMENTO (30/1)

Paul’s Selections:

#7 KEEN ICE (20/1)

#8 MATERIALITY (6/1)

#5 AMERICAN PHAROAH (3/5)

Longshot:  #4 FRAMMENTO (30/1)

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