2014 Belmont Stakes Pace Scenarios
by Trevor Whenham - 6/3/2014
You might think that the pace in a race as long as the Belmont Stakes doesn't really matter. After all, there is so much time, and so much room to move, that the race should really be a great equalizer - the best horse should be able to win. The truth, though, is actually surprisingly far from that. In fact, more than the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, the horses that have done well in this race actually fit into a pretty narrow race profile. In a nutshell, the winners of the Belmont neither lead nor close from deep. This is a race for pace stalkers. Stunningly so, in fact.
Need proof? Since 1986 there have been 28 winners of this race. Of that group, only two have been on or right at the lead throughout the race, and just six have been deep closers. The rest have all been just off the pace, stalking patiently. This isn't typically a race for extreme running styles. It rewards patience.
So, with that in mind, how does the 2014 Belmont Stakes pace scenario shape up for this year? Let's take a look:
The pace setters
There are only two horses potentially in the field that have consistently shown that they like to set the pace - Social Inclusion and Tonalist. As I write this Social Inclusion is still aiming for this race, but entries are not in yet, and I would be very surprised if he winds up in this race and not elsewhere. Either way, you are likely to see one of these horses lead the way early, but you can be fairly confident that they won't be doing so aggressively. They are both talented horses, and they aren't going to face dramatic pressure from elsewhere, so they are not likely to set suicidal fractions when they don't have to. Just fast enough will be their goal. If we have learned anything on this Triple Crown trail this year it's that this group of horses is unwilling to test California Chrome early even though they know he is going to be stalking the pace.
There is going to be a whole lot of congestion at the back end of this race, and that means that a lot of these horses aren't going to get the trip they hoped for. As of now there are 12 horses aimed for the race, and seven of them have exhibited strong closer tendencies in recent races. Included in that group is Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin, but he is an interesting case. He has found himself well back early in both Triple Crown races, and he has made solid moves both times - though much more successfully the second time in part because he was much closer to begin with. That is not the race plan his trainer has been aiming for, though, and I expect him to at least try to be closer to the pace early on. Derby runner-up Commanding Curve closed from the clouds on that day, and he is likely to settle well back and attempt much the same again here. Joining him in the back could be long shots Commissioner, Matuszak and Matterhorn, mid-level threat Medal Count, and serious contender Wicked Strong. There is a lot of stretch to move in, and the track is wide, so there is no need for these horses to panic and change their gameplan because of the congestion. The bigger concern, though, is likely that the pace early could be leisurely, and that doesn't serve closers well at all. Given that, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see some of these horses - especially the longer shots - make their moves early to try to steal the race.
We know almost without a doubt that California Chrome will settle just off the pace and wait for just the right time to launch his patented, and so far race-ending, big move. He isn't going to be alone. As I said, I expect Ride On Curlin to try to join that group. Also with him will be the other iron horse, General A Rod. He ran into traffic issues in the Preakness, so Rosie Napravnik should be working to keep him both close and safe. Samraat should also be among this group.
What's going to be most interesting here is how the horses settle into positions. I'm not suggesting that there will be anything shady or illegal, but
there is a good chance that the other riders will be looking to limit the room that Victor Espinoza and California Chrome have to move early on. They know
he is the better horse, so they know that the best way to beat him is to make it hard for him to have the best trip. Races of this caliber are like a chess
match. So far Espinoza has absolutely aced his first two matches, but the attacks are going to come with more ferocity here.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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