I remember only twice in the last three decades that the Belmont Stakes turned out to be easy to handicap. I was very confident that Point Given was the best horse in his year, and I had no doubt that American Pharoah was the pick in 2015. Every other year has either been much harder to come to a decision, or the easy decision didn't prove to be correct. To help us come to a good decision this year - which isn't going to be easy because this is a very tough field - here are some Belmont trends to hopefully provide some clarity:
We can be seduced by the idea of a fresh horse that hasn't been through a brutal Triple Crown race showing up to steal the Belmont. And there are a couple of potential fresh entrants this year that are at least a little interesting. The truth is, though, that horses that haven't run in at least one Triple Crown race do not do that well in the Belmont. In the last 23 years there have been 17 Belmont winners who were in at least one Triple Crown race. They don't have to have done well in one of those races, either - Creator was a pretty underwhelming 13th in the Derby last year and skipped the Preakness before winning the Belmont. So, experience matters.
There isn't a lot to be learned from the six winners that didn't have Triple Crown experience - or at least there aren't a lot of patterns. Rags to Riches had won the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby, so she had come as close to Triple Crown experience as you can without having any. Drosselmeyer wanted to run in the Derby but didn't have the earnings to get into the field. He went on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, though, so he had serious class. Sarava and Da' Tara and, to a slightly lesser extent, Ruler on Ice, were long shots that benefitted from circumstances. It was very tough to see them coming. And Tonalist was a very classy and talented horse who would have been on the Triple Crown trail sooner if he hadn't been held back by a lung infection.
So three of the fresh winners were very good runners who showed their skill, while three were very underwhelming horses who captured magic on one day. Hard to learn from that. Stick to the experienced horses.
It's tough to be an iron horse
Classic Empire and Lookin at Lee have both run in two Triple Crown races, they both have a second- and a fourth-place finish, and they will both be looking to end the three-race series with a win. History is not on their side. In the last 13 years we have seen just two winners take the Belmont after running in both the Derby and the Preakness. One was obviously Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, and he's a generational talent so he's hard to compare to these two or anyone else. The other is Afleet Alex, who got a truly awful ride in the Derby - for which I will never forgive Jeremy Rose - but then won the last two legs. The other 11 winners in the last 13 years have skipped at least one Triple Crown race.
While the trend is strong here, it's tougher to get excited about this one than others. We have gotten more gentle in our handling of horses, so there just aren't as many iron horses now as there used to be. The sample size is reasonably small, then. This year is a good indicator - there were 20 Derby starters, and only two are still standing. There were also two last year. Exaggerator had won the Preakness but had nothing left to give in the Belmont. And Lani won his best race in his third try at a Triple Crown race but still can't be mistaken for a great horse.
Look for long shots
This has been a good race for people who like big prices. In the last 20 years we have seen seven horses win at 25/1 or more. That's a remarkable rate, with Sarava at 70/1 leading the way. And those aren't the only fat prices - Creator won last year at more than 16/1, for example. On the flipside, just three favorites have won the race in the last 20 years - well under the typical one-third rate of favorites. So, if you like a horse don't let the price scare you off - and don't blindly fall in love with the favorites. This fact alone makes this a very different betting race than the Belmont.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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