2013 Belmont Stakes Pace Scenario
by Trevor Whenham - 6/3/2013
Predicting the pace in the Belmont Stakes this year is making my head hurt. That’s what these first two Triple Crown races have done to me. Pace has not just been one important factor in the first two races. It has been the entire reason for the outcome in both cases.
In the Kentucky Derby, it looked like there was some solid speed horses and that Goldencents would likely set a strong-but-honest pace. Instead, partly because of strategy and mostly because of a runaway, Palace Malice set suicidal early fractions. That dragged the speed horses along at a speed they couldn’t possibly sustain. When they inevitably slammed into reverse, the closers had an easy march to the front to claim the Top 5 spots in the race. Orb was the best of the closers, so the pace gave him the race.
In the Preakness there was more consistent speed up front — or at least there should have been. The jockeys on the early speed horses were so scared of again setting the race up for Orb that they practically choked their runners. Gary Stevens and Oxbow were able to establish a glacially slow early pace. They spent so little energy through the first three quarters of a mile that around the final turn and down the stretch they had plenty in reserve to maintain their position. Again, a very good horse was given the race because of the pace.
So, on paper it seems somewhat apparent how the race should set up in the Belmont. By now, though, the trainers and jockeys don’t know what they are scared of. They can’t go too slow, but if they go too fast Orb will win. It could lead to crazy, unpredictable decisions. Hence, I have a headache.
There isn’t a whole lot of early speed in this field. Oxbow obviously showed he can live from the front, but that certainly wasn’t his plan heading into the Preakness, and he is more likely to find a comfortable spot at the pace he wants than to force a pace to be up front. I suspect that the early leader will actually be Freedom Child, a new entrant on the Triple Crown trail, with Oxbow nearby. Neither horse is a true speedball, so the early fractions should be more than reasonable.
It’s the group behind those leaders that makes this race uncertain. There are four horses that I could see settling right behind the leaders and pressing the pace. They are all unpredictable and could be prone to gamble. Palace Malice may again try to run too fast if he can’t get comfortable in another big field. Midnight Taboo, Giant FInish and Incognito are not among the elite horses in the field, so their connections might feel that getting aggressive early to try to make something happen for them could give them their best shot at success. Vyjack and the Unlimited Budget, the filly, could also be in this group. The more horses in the second group, the more congested it is going to be and the better the chance a jockey takes an early risk to try to gain an advantage and avoid trouble. This is especially true if the field is tightly-packed and it seems like a horse could get trapped along the rail.
The back of the field is going to be very crowded, and if there is any drama this is where it is most likely to come from. Orb is the best horse in the field — even considering his dud of a Preakness outing — and he’ll be the one everyone in the back of the race will be watching closely. Will Take Charge is most likely to make the first move from the back and to lead the trailers around the early part of the race. Revolutionary is a very talented horse as well and is likely to get a more balanced ride this time around. In the Derby Calvin Borel was aboard and was fixated, as always, on running along the rail. Golden Soul was a shocking-but-very-solid second in the Derby, and has the stamina to run forever. Overanalyze and Frac Daddy were both lousy in the Derby but are better horses. The only horse from the back of the field that poses little threat is Always in a Tiz.
How the closers act will depend largely on what happens up front. If a horse gets loose on a slow place like Oxbow did in the Preakness, then the closers will be forced to move early to try to make up ground. Then it’s just a fight to see which horse can hold on longest. If the stalkers can push the speed horses around quickly, though, then the closers will be engaged in a game of chicken — not wanting to be the first one to make a move. The biggest thing they will be concerned of in the back of the pack, though, is making sure that when they want to move they have room to do so. That means that we could see horses travelling well off the rail early on — something that is easier to do because the turns are so wide at Belmont.
Put it all together, and I expect to see a pace that is not as fast as what we saw at the Derby (if it was, it might kill a horse over this distance), but not as obscenely slow as it was at the Preakness. In a word, it should be an honest pace. That means that it should set up to show us who the best horse is on the day — exactly what this race should do. That is, of course, unless the jockeys are afraid to run to the plan. Then absolutely anything could happen.
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