For the second year in a row we face a massive challenge in handicapping the Belmont Stakes - a potential Triple Crown winner. American Pharoah, like California Chrome last year and many others before them, will draw a massive amount of public betting attention and will be at the center of all the media coverage of the race. It can be very easy to get swept up in the excitement and back the horse enthusiastically at the betting windows.
Since Affirmed last won a Triple Crown in 1978, though, betting on potential Triple Crown winners in the Belmont hasn't exactly been a profitable venture. That doesn't mean that American Pharoah can't win. It just means that we need to be objective and critical in analyzing his chances. One way to do that is by looking at Belmont trends.
Here are four such trends that are relevant this year:
Triple Crown threats
If American Pharoah stays healthy and is able to start the Belmont then he will become the 12th horse since 1979 to enter the starting gates after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Obviously, none of them have won the Belmont. Some have done well - Real Quiet, Silver Charm (both, like American Pharoah, trained by Bob Baffert) and Smarty Jones all looked to be in good shape in the stretch until they were caught late. Others have not done so well - I think we are still waiting for Big Brown to cross the finish line in the 2008 Belmont. What they all have in common, though, is that they haven't won.
What makes the feat of winning a Triple Crown so challenging is the number of handicaps you have to overcome. These horses enter this race with a massive target on their backs, and the other horses will work hard to make the race difficult for them. They are all tired after running for the third time in five weeks, and they are facing the longest race they are likely to be asked to run in their careers. Other horses haven't had as grueling a schedule. American Pharoah is a great horse, but other great horses have failed to do what he is trying to accomplish.
No love for iron horses
It used to be that the expectation was that if you entered the Kentucky Derby you were, barring a setback, heading to the Preakness and Belmont as well. Now it's increasingly rare to see an iron horse - one that runs in all three legs of the challenge. In fact, the only iron horse we have this year is American Pharoah. Every other horse in the field either skipped one leg of the Triple Crown or is making his Triple Crown debut.
The biggest reason that we aren't seeing a lot of iron horses in the Belmont these days is that these horses just aren't winning the Belmont anymore. Afleet Alex in 2005 was the last iron horse to cross the Belmont finish line first. The last two years have been a mixed bag for iron horses. In 2013 there were two - Derby winner Orb and Preakness winner Oxbow. They both had solid days in the Belmont - Oxbow was second, and Orb was third. Last year, though, the two iron horses had much worse days. California Chrome was a flat fourth, and Ride On Curlin, coming off a strong second in the Preakness, didn't even finish the Belmont.
As a general rule, while we don't want to see a horse that has run in both legs of the Triple Crown, we do like to see one that has run in one previous leg. Fifteen times in the last 21 years the winner of the Belmont has run in at least one other leg of the Triple Crown. One of the exceptions was Rags to Riches, but that filly had previously won the Kentucky Oaks, which is as close to a Triple Crown race as you can get without actually being one.
This trend obviously isn't bulletproof, though. Last year Tonalist won the Belmont but had skipped the previous Triple Crown races, opting instead to run in and win the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont to prep for this race. This year, Madefromlucky will be trying to pull off the same Peter Pan/Belmont double.
Long shots are worth a look
The last two winners have paid reasonable returns - Tonalist was 9/1 and Palace Malice better than 13/1. Those solid returns are nothing compared to what we have seen several times lately, though.
Seven times in the last 18 years we have seen a horse pay off at 25/1 in this race. From a purely statistical basis that is extremely unlikely to have happened, but it has - based on pure math, a 25/1 shot should win more than once every 25 races. On the other hand, favorites typically win about a third of all races, but just two favorites have won over the same 18-year period.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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