2012 Belmont Stakes Handicapping: Lessons from Past Triple Crown Tries
by Trevor Whenham - 5/23/2012
Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978. No horse has done the same since, though 11 horses before this year have gone to the Belmont with their chance at glory. As we sit anxiously awaiting I’ll Have Another’s shot at breaking the long Triple Crown drought, it seems like a good idea to look back at what has happened in those past unsuccessful attempts to see what we can learn about what to expect this year:
There is no such thing as a sure thing
The last time we found ourselves in this place was in 2008 with Big Brown. I was absolutely certain he was going to win. He was bred to handle the distance. The pace scenario was in his favor. He was clearly the best horse in his class — by a wide margin. His trainer was unlikeable but very effective. His jockey had big race experience.
It was all his for the taking. The drought was going to end. I knew it.
Four years later I still can’t explain what happened.
He never fired, looked absolutely terrible, and become the first horse with a Triple Crown on the line to finish dead last in the Belmont. Big Brown was as close to a sure thing as there has been since Secretariat or Seattle Slew — a 3/10 favorite that looked unbeatable. If he could lose and lose badly then anyone can lose.
You have to be able to get the distance
Winning the Belmont is all about being able to handle the Belmont distance. A mile and a half is a massive test for these horses — a distance that no horse has faced and that most aren’t really suited for.
You can never really know if a horse can do it until he does it, but you can have a good sense that a horse isn’t likely to be up to it before the race starts. For example, War Emblem had very little chance of surviving the distance, so it was very hard to get excited about his shot at immortality in 2002.
On this front we are in good shape this year — I’ll Have Another has an impressive amount of stamina influence on his dam side.
Sometimes the best horse doesn’t win
I’ll Have Another is the 12th horse since the last Triple Crown winner in 1978 to have a chance to win all three races. Of the previous 11, at least eight have been clearly and solidly the best horse in their race. Some were the best by a wide margin. Many went on to win major races and big awards after the Triple Crown was over.
None won the Belmont, though.
This unique challenge is a situation in which being the best horse isn’t always enough. In fact, if you look back at the Belmont through the years you could argue that being the best horse often isn’t enough to win the race.
Sometimes a really bad horse wins
When you look at the Belmont Stakes field this year or any year it is easy to discount several horses because they are really not very good. Most of the time that decision to exclude them from your consideration is a good one.
Sometimes, though, that’s not the case.
When Big Brown faltered in 2008 the winner was Da’ Tara, an 38-1 longshot that only won twice in 19 career races and now stands at stud far outside of the spotlight in Venezuela. He was a lousy horse that had one very good day in his life.
Da’ Tara looked like a superstar next to 2002 winner Sarava, though. He went off at 70-1 and seemed to have almost no chance before the race started. Like Da’ Tara, the Belmont was the only day in his life that he was at all relevant.
A horse with Triple Crown experience is more likely to win
Of the last 11 horses that have fallen short in the pursuit of the Triple Crown, seven have been beaten by horses they had previously beaten in an earlier Triple Crown race.
Bodemeister would have been worth watching if he had moved on to the Belmont — only three of the Belmont spoilers had run in both the Derby and Preakness, and all three had finished second in both races before turning the tables in the Belmont.
Horses don’t need to be coming off a strong Triple Crown showing, either — Birdstone was an underwhelming eighth in the 2004 Derby before beating Smarty Jones in the Belmont, and Lemon Drop Kid beat Charismatic in 1999 after finishing a distant ninth in the Derby.
That’s good news for Union Rags and Alpha this year after their disappointing 7th and 12th place showings in Louisville.
Winning it all is very, very hard
Silver Charm was a spectacularly good horse — a Hall of Famer who won the Dubai World Cup and nearly seven million dollars during his career. He could only finish second in the Belmont.
Real Quiet was a special horse who was injured before he could have been the clear favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He lost the Belmont to Victory Gallop by little more than a nose.
Smarty Jones lost only once in his career — in the Belmont.
Alysheba and Sunday Silence won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in consecutive years, and combined to win nearly $12 million. Neither was good enough.
The lesson here is clear — very good horses have tried and failed to win the Triple Crown. There is absolutely no shame in losing out because it is monumentally tough to win. That perspective is very important to keep in mind in fairness to I’ll Have Another — his greatness would be enhanced immeasurably with a win, but it wouldn’t be diminished with a loss.
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