Potential Belmont Longshots
by Trevor Whenham - 05/28/2008
People who are passionate and romantic fans of horse racing probably view the word Birdstone as the most vulgar of swear words. I sure do. Birdstone was the 36/1 longshot who won the 2004 Belmont Stakes. The win might have been a feel good story if it weren't for the fact that Birdstone beat the overwhelming favorite, Smarty Jones. Smarty Jones had the lead in the stretch, but Birdstone chased him down in the final furlong for a narrow win. Smarty Jones was wildly popular both in the racing world and among the general public. Like Big Brown, he had been dominant in winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and his win in the Belmont seemed assured.
I firmly believe that Big Brown will win the Belmont, but Birdstone was like a kick in the teeth, and I don't want to go through that again. The only way to avoid that pain if the worst happens is to be prepared for it. Let's look, then, at horses that could fill the ugly role of being this year's Birdstone. I'm not going to include Casino Drive for a couple of big reasons - he's going to be the second choice in betting so he won't be a longshot, and I just don't buy into him.
Behindatthebar - This Todd Pletcher trainee has been flirting with relevance for weeks but we still don't really know what we have. He won the Coolmore Lexington Stakes in April. That win was fairly impressive, and it gave him enough earnings to make the Kentucky Derby field. His connections debated, and they seem to have changed their mind a few times, but they ultimately chose to skip the Derby and point at the usually softer and less-crowded Preakness instead. He would have been viewed as a legitimate option in that race, but an injury forced him to be scratched. That means that he is coming into the Belmont off a break of almost two months. Of more concern, though, is his lack of seasoning. He only started his career in January, and he has just five starts including two in stakes. He's also never run on dirt. That's a lot of questions that must be overcome, but questions and inexperience seem to be the theme of this year's Triple Crown run. He's not at the caliber of Big Brown, but he beat a solid field in the Lexington that included a couple of potential Belmont starters, and he could be a factor here. Behindatthebar was at the back early and picked up the pieces in the stretch when the pace fell apart. If Big Brown doesn't have his best day then there will be pieces to pick up in the Belmont.
Tomcito - This horse is a bit of an enigma, but his history makes him intriguing. He's certainly not your typical Belmont entry. He is American bred, but after he was purchased as a yearling in Kentucky in 2006 he was sent to Peru to start his career. He was a star down there. He won two major stakes races against older horses, and was second in a third. The last of those wins, in the Derby Nacional Peru, came at a distance of a mile and a half. It is virtually unprecedented in the modern era that a horse has already run the Belmont distance, never mind won at it. After that win he was shipped back North with the eventual goal of the Belmont. It looks like he may reach that goal, but the road has been far from smooth. His first stop was in the Florida Derby. Big Brown dominated in that outing, and Tomcito ended up a decent third. That was his last good race. He didn't fire in the Coolmore Lexington and finished a well-beaten sixth behind Behindatthebar. Next time out in the Peter Pan that introduced Casino Drive to North America he was a non-factor, limping home in seventh.
Those are disappointing results, but there are handy excuses. The Lexington was his first exposure to a synthetic surface and he obviously didn't take to it. In the Peter Pan he flipped his soft palate. That's the flap of skin that keeps food out of the windpipe and air out of the esophagus. When it gets flipped, or displaced, the horse can't breathe properly, and he can't run at his best. The problem has been corrected, and it shouldn't happen again. That means that we have a horse with obvious talent and experience at the distance. After his last two outings he'll be largely ignored by the public. That could lead to a dangerous longshot.
Macho Again - This gray horse was late to mature, but he's maturing into a horse i really like. He's regally bred - his sire, Macho Uno, was the two year old champion in 2000, and Macho Uno's sire was the great Holy Bull, the Horse of the Year in 1994. Macho Again was underwhelming as a two year old, and he didn't distinguish himself through the winter and early spring of this year. His first win of note was in the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs the week before the Kentucky Derby. He followed that up with an impressive second place showing in the Preakness. He was nowhere near Big Brown, but he was clearly the second best runner on that day. He won't come from off the radar in the Belmont, but he could be a factor. He keeps getting better, and could improve enough to break some hearts if everything goes well for him.