It hardly seems like an entire year since racing witnessed American Pharoah win the first Triple Crown in 37 years, but here we are. And despite a year with no Triple Crown on the line, this year’s 148th running of the Belmont Stakes (GI) isn’t short on talent and excitement. Though the race lost Kentucky Derby (GI) winner Nyquist to illness, Preakness Stakes (GI) hero Exaggerator is in New York and will be joined in the gate by 12 other talented sophomores, some of which we’ve seen before along the Triple Crown trail and a handful of new shooters looking to mix things up a little and capitalize on potentially tired rivals.
Saturday’s weather forecast calls for mostly sunny skies and a high temperature near 80, with a 30 percent chance for afternoon thunderstorms, so it’s a good bet we’ll see a fast track by the time the Belmont breaks from the gate at 6:37 p.m. EDT. The 1 1/2-mile main event has been carded as the day’s 11th on the 13-race card.
Exaggerator, who drew post 11, is attempting to become the first non-Kentucky Derby winner to complete the Preakness-Belmont double since Afleet Alex accomplished the feat in 2005. Other notables of the 18 Preakness-Belmont winners throughout history include Native Dancer (1953), Nashua (1955), Damascus (1967), Little Current (1974), Risen Star (1988), Hansel (1991), Tabasco Cat (1994) and Point Given (2001).
Longtime fans of the Keith Desormeaux-trained Exaggerator were ecstatic after the son of Curlin’s Preakness victory and while some say the off track at Pimlico three weeks ago had a large part in assisting with the victory, others simply believe it was finally his time.
After an outstanding juvenile campaign that saw him win three graded stakes and earn more than $1 million, Exaggerator spent a lot of his sophomore spring as a groomsman and not the groom, winning just the Santa Anita Derby (GI) (also on an off track) in his final prep for the Run for the Roses. He was second best to a champion he’d met and finished behind twice previously under the Twin Spires, but, instead of wallowing in defeat, Team Exaggerator went back to the drawing board and revised his running style a smidge, asking him to sit closer to the early pace and in a more forward position when it was time to make his move in the Preakness.
And the plan worked. Like a charm.
He’s certainly fit for the grueling 12 furlongs of the Belmont, having raced 1 1/4 miles and 1 3/16 miles in the last five weeks, and his connections have done little more than maintenance as he’s only posted one work — five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 on June 7 at Belmont Park — since a week before the Derby and it’s hard to argue that he’s looked anything but happy since arriving in New York a week ago, despite his awkward drifting out in that workout. He has logged nothing but triple-digit speed figures in his last six races and jockey Kent Desormeaux, fresh from a brief two-week stint in rehab for alcohol issues, is nothing if not confident. While the Belmont isn’t typically won by closers it’ll be hard to discount his chances in here, even at a short price.
Fresh off “Ridgling-Gate,” Suddenbreakingnews is back after five weeks’ rest following his late-closing fifth-place finish in the May 7 Kentucky Derby. It’s hard to decipher exactly what happened with the colt’s sex designation. Since his testicles apparently never descended, everyone said he was a gelding and nobody was the wiser at three racetracks and through nine races mostly because of his laid-back attitude and thin frame. That is until his post-Derby blood work revealed hormone levels well above what is normal for a gelding, yet below what is normal for a colt, according to experts. So the Belmont will be the son of Mineshaft’s first start as an official “ridgling.”
Use that info how you choose when handicapping this race.
Suddenbreakingnews began his career humbly in maiden and non-graded stakes at Remington Park before trainer Donnie Von Hemel realized he may be sitting on, proverbially, something big and sent him to the “big leagues,” where he responded with a win in the Southwest Stakes (GIII). A troubled fifth-place Rebel Stakes (GIII) trip followed and, then, a nice second in the Arkansas Derby (GI) to set him up for the Kentucky Derby.
He closed a ton of ground from basically last and was only beaten less than five lengths in Louisville, so it figures that the added distance of the Belmont will only help him. He will have a new rider in Hall of Famer Mike Smith and drew a good post, so all he’ll need is the predicted quick early expected pace in front of him to launch his run. Will he be good enough for the win? We all soon shall see.
Lightly raced Stradivari is getting a lot of attention despite the fact that his only foray into stakes company produced a fourth-place finish in the Preakness Stakes (GI) three weeks ago. Yes, he was rank that day, which may be an excuse; yes, his two career wins in maiden and allowance company by a combined 25 lengths is important; and, yes, he has a pedigree suited to the Belmont distance being by Medaglia d’Oro and out of an American Chance mare.
The Tabor-Magnier/Pletcher/Velazquez connections have visited the Belmont winner’s circle before with Rags to Riches in 2009 and, while he has some catching up to do in the experience department, he has talent and a bright future that could very well begin with a Belmont victory. He drew post five, which is a good spot for him to get in a forward position early and, if he’s good enough, all he’ll need to do is hold off the late charges from his rivals who trail behind him in the early going.
Cherry Wine has spent most of the spring as trainer Dale Romans’ bench warmer, picking up checks in graded stakes without actually having to win. But when the coach finally put the gray son of Paddy O’Prado in the game, he delivered, with a strong runner-up performance in the Preakness. And considering his trip — hitting the gate at the break and closing from the back of the pack along on a rail pooling water from the rains — his effort that day looks even better. He looks to be improving with each start and perhaps the best thing about him is that he missed the Derby and could be peaking at the right time. His post position three is good, but he’s another late runner where early position isn’t as much of a necessity, so expect him to be in the middle of the late cavalry charge down the lane.
Romans stable mate Brody’s Cause has loads of talent, but seems to have a hard time putting it all together more often than not. The Blue Grass Stakes (GI) winner ran an even seventh in the Derby, after which the decision to save the son of Giant’s Causeway for the marathon Belmont distance was made. He’s had three good work since, he appears fit, and will again have jockey Luis Saez aboard, this time breaking from post position 12.
Arkansas Derby winner Creator, now owned in part by celebrity chef Bobby Flay, was a bit of a “wise guy” horse before the Run for the Roses, mostly because the flashy gray looked fantastic while training in Louisville. He was a bit of a handful as well, frequently giving his handlers fits when he acted up both on the track and in the paddock schooling. Sure it made for good photos, but one has to wonder if this sensitive creature might have had issues with the enormous crowd at Churchill Downs judging by his somewhat troubled 13th-place finish that day. Leading New York jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. picks up the mount for the Belmont from previous regular rider Ricardo Santana Jr., which may help his chances considering how well the jockey knows the enormous 1 1/2-mile oval of Belmont Park. The well-bred son of Tapit, who is trained by newest Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, will spring from the far outside, which is fine considering he’s also a later-running type.
Speaking of well-bred sons of Tapit… oh Lani, nobody knows what to make of you. When you decide to do your job and run, you run big. Sometimes it’s a little too late to win, but it’s hard to argue that the talent isn’t there when you do. In 147 previous runnings, nine foreign-bred runners have won the Belmont, the last being Canadian-bred Victory Gallop in 1998.
Lani’s antics of refusing to train and then training through his grueling and unconventional schedule are well documented, as are his aggressiveness, stubbornness and sometimes studdish nature. Trainer Mikio Matsunaga has said Lani has taken to the sandy Belmont surface much better than he did Churchill’s main track and, despite being only one of two horses to make all three jewels of the Triple Crown, has held his weight and fitness level very well, looking the picture of health every day while training. Will he run? Nobody knows, but if he’s ever worth a bet, this is the race.
Destin sure likes time between races. The Sam F. Davis (GIII) winner had an eight-week break after winning the Tampa Bay Derby (GIII) before his fairly respectable sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. The gray son of Giant’s Causeway and the Grade I-winning Siberian Summer mare Dream of Summer is another Pletcher trainee and won’t need much of an improvement to turn in a board-hitting performance from an expected spot up near the pace under jockey Javier Castellano.
Cristophe Clement sent out Tonalist to upset California Chrome in 2014 and will tighten the girth on Peter Pan Stakes (GII) runner-up Governor Malibu. Belmont is home base for the New York-bred son of Malibu moon for a good portion of the year and though he’s never won over the track, he has earned two seconds from three starts on the main track. His best earns him a long look.
Gettysburg is a WinStar Farm-owned son of Pioneerof the Nile, who has shown some strong performances in somewhat softer company. He makes his first start for Asmussen today and picks up the services of jockey Paco Lopez. Tough task, for sure, but as a speed horse in a race often won by frontrunning types, he deserves some extra consideration.
Forever d’Oro and Seeking the Soul are placed awfully ambitiously in their first starts against winners after breaking their maidens in their last starts, but both have good connections and board-hitting performances from either would not be a shock.
Gotta love the confidence of Wood Memorial Stakes (GI) runner-up Trojan Nation, but one has to wonder why, after a 16th-place finish in the Derby, his connections don’t put the well-bred son of Street Cry in an actual maiden race again before returning to Grade I stakes company.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of US Racing.