There is no bigger factor in handicapping the Belmont Stakes every year than the distance of the race. At a mile and a half the race is at least a quarter mile further than any of these horses have run before, longer than most will ever run again, and longer than most are bred to reasonably run. For North American horses this is a very long, very challenging race. More than anything else, the distance of the race determines who wins and who loses. If we had a dollar for every time we have seen a horse struggle down the endless stretch at Belmont we would be rich. So, when we are handicapping this race we need to spend more time looking at distance factors than anything else. Here are four of the biggest factors to keep in mind:
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Does the breeding match the task?: You don't have to be a pedigree expert to figure this one out. You could study for a lifetime and not know all there is to know. What you do need to do, though, is give yourself a sense of how well a horse is bred for this challenge. The easiest way to be confident that a horse will handle the distance is if he is bred to do so.
There are two good ways to do this. The first is to seek out experts - not the 'experts' who come out of the woodwork at this time of year, but instead the true experts who study and write about pedigrees for a living. If you don't want to do that for some reason then you can figure things out for yourself to some extent. There are three horses you want to focus on in the pedigree to get a quick sense of how suited a horse is to this race. You want to look at the sire, or the father of the horse. Next is the grandsire, or the sire of the sire. And finally the damsire, or the father of the dam, or mother. You don't need to go in depth. Just look for horses that have big performances - wins in Triple Crown races, high placings in those races, and wins in major races at a classic distance like the Breeders' Cup Classic or the Dubai World Cup. If a horse has bloodlines that have triumphed in events like that then there is a decent chance that they also will be able to. You can also look for prominent examples of horses in the pedigreed that sired other successful horses.
For example, Classic Empire's grandsire Empire Maker won the Belmont, and his sire Pioneerof the Nile was second in the Derby and sired Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. It's easy, then, to be reasonably confident that Classic Empire can handle this distance. And he's not alone. Epicharis' grandsire, Sunday Silence, won the Derby and Preakness. Gormley's grandsire, A.P. Indy, won the Belmont. J Boys Echo is also a grandson of A.P. Indy, and so is Patch on the dam side. Senior Investment is an A.P. Indy great-grandson, too. Irap is a son of two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow. Twisted Tom is a son of Giant's Causeway, a European superstar who was a narrow second to Tiznow in the Classic in his only start on dirt. Lookin at Lee's sire, Lookin at Lucky, won the Preakness. Lookin at Lee is also a grandson of Smart Strike, who also sired the great Curlin and was damsire of Derby winner Mine That Bird. Meantime is a son of Preakness winner Shackleford. And Tapwrit is a son of Tapit, who sired Belmont winners Tonalist and Creator.
So, this might not be the most distinguished and inspiring group of horses ever assembled for this race, but there is a lot of solid breeding for the task.
How does he look late in races?: Since horses will be asked to run at least a quarter mile than they ever have before - and more than that if they didn't run in the Derby - we can learn a lot from how the horses have run late in their last few races. You can look at the past performances or watch the stretch drives of races on YouTube. Has the horse been moving forward and looking strong late, or have they been running out of gas. If the last furlong of a nine-furlong race looked like a struggle then the last furlong of a 12-furlong race is a real concern.
What's the race going to look like?: I sound like a broken record every time I talk about figuring out what you expect the pace of a race to look like, but it's just so important. If you expect a well-contested early pace then that will be bad news for the horses up front because they could burn too much fuel early on and have too little left for the stretch. If the pace, on the other hand, is slow early on then that's bad news for the closers because they'll find it hard to pass the leaders in the stretch. Therefore, even if a horse has the breeding to handle the distance, the race might not set up to let him show it.
How does the horse handle adversity?: Even the best-bred horse is going to really feel the last furlong or two. Horses that have faced a lot of adversity in the past and dealt with it well are going to be easier to trust, then, than those that haven't really had to overcome tests. In the Derby, for example, Classic Empire got crushed a few strides out of the gate. It was a collision that would have ended the day for a lot of horses. This colt fought back very well, though, and wound up fourth. We don't have any reason to question his toughness.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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