The horses in the Belmont may not be the most compelling collection we have seen - though we have been spoiled the last two years with strong Triple Crown contenders. The collection of jockeys this year, though, is as good as you can get for this race. It's like an all-star contest for guys with strong New York ties. As I break the field of riders down, there are six guys who give their mounts significantly better chances to win than they would have under other guys, three guys who I am fine with but don't quite put in the same group as the top six, and four guys who are liabilities - at least in relative terms.
Here is how this excellent field of riders breaks down.
The big assets
Kent Desormeaux, Exaggerator: He is on by far the best horse, so that never hurts. Desormeaux rides the Belmont very well, though. We have to look past the Big Brown ride - I will never understand what happened on that horribly frustrating day. I'll also ignore Guyana Star Dweej in 2012 - the horse had no business being in the race, and Desormeaux did the right thing by pulling up. Those two mulligans aside, Desormeaux has a first, two seconds and two thirds in seven other appearances in the race. His win aboard Summer Bird featured some of the best riding you can ever hope to see. Desormeaux has been doing an odd bout of alcohol rehab between the Preakness and the Belmont. I have no way of knowing what that means or what impact it will have, though, so I'll just ignore it and hope for the best.
Javier Castellano, Destin: Castellano has not won this race yet and has only a Preakness win to his Triple Crown credit so far. He's on a six-year heater, though, and is the best and hottest jockey riding right now. He also rides in New York, so he knows this track very well. He's sitting on a live one in this race and will get the most out of the horse.
John Velazquez, Stradivari: Velazquez has won this race twice with Rags to Riches and Union Rags. The first of those in 2007 was one of the best races I have ever seen. After decent early fractions Velazquez locked up with Curlin down the stretch and the two horses posted an almost impossible fast last quarter mile. It was equine greatness in full display. Velazquez was good enough to get the most out that filly, and he gets the most out of a lot of horses at his home track of Belmont.
Mike Smith, Suddenbreakingnews: Smith takes over Luis Quinonez on this horse, and I couldn't be happier. Quinonez is just fine, but nothing better than that, and he isn't ready for the top levels of these races. Smith is a master at pacing a horse, and he was once based in New York so he knows this track and how to handle it very well. He has won this race twice since 2010, and this horse has a much better chance to win it now that he is aboard.
Irad Ortiz Jr., Creator: This is another truly fantastic rider change for this race. Previous rider Ricardo Santana Jr. is a decent rider, but not one I love. Ortiz is one of the best jockeys in the country, and he is based in New York. He's young so he doesn't have piles of Triple Crown experience, but this isn't his first rodeo, either. I liked this horse as a potential long shot that could earn a piece before the rider change. After it I really see value.
Jose Ortiz, Forever d'Oro: Like his brother Irad, Jose is an exceptional jockey who really shines in New York and who is red hot now. He has not ridden much in Triple Crown action yet, but he'll have multiple wins before he is done. Not likely on this hugely misplaced runner, but that's not his fault. It's his first time on the horse, and three others in this race have ridden him already, but the horse is certainly better with him aboard than with a lesser jockey. Not good enough, but better.
I'm neutral about...
Joel Rosario, Governor Malibu: Rosario won the Belmont just two years ago with Tonalist, so he obviously isn't a liability in the race. He's riding in New York now, so he will have home-court advantage, too. I just don't feel like he is riding as well the last year or more as he was before that. Not quite as sharp. I like him better than everyone below him on the list. However, compared to the guys above, he's not quite there.
Luis Saez, Brody's Cause: Saez is putting together a solid year and he does have New York experience. He has yet to win a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup race, and I question whether he can measure up to the top five if it comes down to a head-to-head duel. He also has a horse that will need a great ride to have a chance.
Florent Geroux, Seeking the Soul: Like Jose Ortiz, Geroux is on the longest of long shots from the Dallas Stewart barn in this race. Far from ideal, but unlike Ortiz at least he has ridden the horse once before - and piloted him to his only win. I have high hopes for Geroux down the road - he is a very talented rider. The reason he's on this list and not the one above, though, is that not only is he fairly short on Triple Crown experience, but he doesn't ride regularly at Belmont. This track is so uniquely challenging that it's a big concern.
Corey Lanerie, Cherry Wine: I'm not crazy about Lanerie. He can ride a great race from time to time, but then he comes back with a total head scratcher. I don't think he makes great decisions under pressure. A guy riding a closer in the Belmont has to make really great decisions to have a chance. I just don't trust Lanerie.
Yutaka Take, Lani: I feel bad putting Take here because he is such a legend in Japan. He's older and short of American experience, though, and I just haven't been at all impressed by his rides in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. He's been passive when his horse has clearly needed more. At this stage in his career I'm not convinced he's ready for the war that this race will be.
Paco Lopez, Gettysburg: I'm not a big Paco Lopez guy at the best of times. Of course, in this race he is almost irrelevant. He's riding a rabbit, so all he has to do is ride fast and stay in front until he can't anymore. Anyone can do that.
Aaron Gryder, Trojan Nation: It is pretty much indefensible to have a horse like Trojan Nation - a maiden who was horrifically bad in the Derby - entered in this race at all. If you are going to send a massive long shot, though, at least do it a favor and get it a real rider. Gryder has been really lousy in recent years - and was never particularly great. I can't think of too many riders I would less like to back in a spot like this.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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