Suddenly, everything has changed and the Belmont Stakes just isn’t nearly as interesting anymore. After returning from an early gallop this morning I’ll Have Another had slight swelling in his left front leg. A veterinarian was summoned, and an examination discovered tendonitis. The horse was immediately scratched, and won’t race again this year — and quite likely never again.
The obvious first impact of the scratch is the blow to the sport. For a sport that continues to struggle, this situation — a great horse in a winnable race — was exactly what was needed. This scratch, then, is close to the worst thing that could have happened. Ratings on NBC will fall off a cliff, media coverage will be negative when it could have been impossibly positive, and public interest — and betting money — will vaporize. Personally, I feel like it’s another kick in the gut from a sport that really seems to love kicking me in the gut.
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For handicappers, though, the only thing to do is pick ourselves up off the floor, figure out what this means, and find a way to capitalize on it. Let’s take a look:
The biggest impact of the scratch early on is that the first half mile will be far less strategic. With I’ll Have Another in the field the jockeys would have been playing a waiting game — not committing to anything until someone showed their hand and made the first move. Now the speed horses are much freer to do their thing. The biggest beneficiary of this is Paynter. He’s the classiest speed horse, and now Mike Smith has the luxury of being able to set his pace without worrying about what is pushing him from behind. I still don’t think the horse will be good enough to win, but he stands a much better chance now than he did before. A third-place showing seems reasonable now, whereas I didn’t believe that before.
The other horse that benefits from these changes is Dullahan — the likely post time favorite. A late closer prefers a faster pace up front. With I’ll Have Another lurking the pace was likely to be more tactical since Mike Smith knows well that you can’t wear down I’ll Have Another by outrunning him early on. Now things will open up early on, and we could even see a bit of a speed duel if one of the lesser horses — most likely Unstoppable U — really gets ambitious and tries to steal the race now that it is more wide open. The faster things go early on the better it looks for the closers. That means Street Life and Dullahan are now likely in command of this race. Dullahan is clearly the better of those two. There was only one horse I didn’t think he could chase down. Now he is the horse to beat.
Union Rags is clearly well positioned in this one as well. My biggest concern about him going into this race was that his ideal position was going to find him just behind I’ll Have Another the whole way. That meant he either needed to change his style to avoid that, or try to outkick the favorite when it mattered. He hasn’t shown the versatility to do the former, and I didn’t believe he could do the latter. Now he can run his own race, and he shouldn’t have to fight nearly as hard for positioning heading into the first turn.
Before this change the race broke down as three horses that were of a different caliber of the rest of the Belmont Stakes field. There was a chance that they could have negatively impacted each other — especially I’ll Have Another and Union Rags. It seemed likely, though, that the winner would emerge from that group. Now there are just two horses and the rest. Dullahan and Union Rags can now entirely focus on their own races because their styles don’t conflict at all. The best horses don’t always shine in the Belmont, but if they do here then one of these two should come out on top. They certainly don’t have any excuses not to at this point.
One benefit to this lousy development is that the race has become much easier to bet. I’ll Have Another was 4-5 on the morning line, and was almost certain to be bet down lower than that. When a horse is such a big underlay like that it’s hard to find a way to maximize your bankroll. You can’t really afford to bet him to win because there is no value. You can’t go too deep in your exotic bets if you include him because the payoffs will be minimal. You are in great shape if you don’t like the horse, but if you think he is legitimate you have a tough task. Now, Dullahan and Union Rags should both go off at north of 3/2, and structuring bets won’t be nearly as tough. Unfortunately, this also means that there won’t be nearly as much dumb public money in the pools for savvy bettors to soak up in the Belmont and on the undercard.
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