This is not going to be an easy Belmont Stakes to handicap. Some years it's very straightforward - if you were betting against American Pharoah you were just being contrary. But this year we aren't likely to see either the Derby or Preakness winner in the race, and we are left with a prospective field that is large and deep but which lacks a clearly dominant horse. As a result, we need to be very careful when deciding how we are going to be this race. This is when handicappers earn their credibility.
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Here, then, are four things to consider when trying to figure out how to bet the Belmont in 2017:
Take a stand on the favorite: At this point Classic Empire seems to be the likely favorite (neither Always Dreaming nor Cloud Computing have been ruled out as I write this, but neither is likely). He's likely to be a reasonably-priced favorite - 2/1 or better, probably - but you still need to seriously consider whether you are going to go with him or against him. If you are aggressively going to back the favorite then you can't afford to go really deep in the race. Favorites have won just three of the last 20 editions of the race, though, so it's not tough to justify trying to beat him and bet on higher-priced horses instead. This is a tougher situation to figure out than it is some years. There are good arguments in favor of Classic Empire and good arguments against him. I haven't figured out where I stand on him yet, so I don't expect you to have it figured out, either. Just make sure you have it figured out by race day.
Map the race out in your mind: In every race I handicap the most important thing I do is map out how I see the race shaping up. Once I have an idea of what the pace should be then I can figure out which horses have the best shot because of that pace.
The Preakness was a good example of how useful that can be - even if you aren't entirely right. I thought that Conquest Mo Money would lead Always Dreaming, with Classic Empire and Cloud Computing right behind, and I was confident that those four would make up the exacta (at least). It didn't quite turn out that way because Conquest Mo Money had a horrible start and was left behind, so Classic Empire moved up to be part of the pace. But in the end that is where the exacta did come from.
Figuring out the pace is especially important in a race this long and challenging. Last year, for example, the pace scenario made it quite easy to like Creator, and he came through at a nice price.
Watch the 'other' horses: In Triple Crown races it can be easy to be drawn to the favorites and lower-priced horses. That has served us well recently in the Derby and is usually a pretty good idea in the Preakness, too. In the Belmont, though, taking a risk on longer odds is a good idea. In the last 20 years we have seen seven winners of the race at 25/1 or higher and just three winning favorites. So, look beyond the horse or two that the public really likes and see if you can find a longer shot to love. At the very least, you can often go deeper in your bets in this race than others because of the tendency for surprises. This is especially relevant this year because there are a whole lot of 'other' horses who have some upside and you can make a case for. Of the 13 prospective horses in the field at this point there are eight or nine who are at least somewhat feasibly real contenders.
Look beyond this race: The Belmont will be tough, but it is just one race on a very strong card of races that day. There are five other Grade 1 races, two Grade 2s, and a Grade 3. It's like a Breeders' Cup card in June. That allows us to look for the best spots, and perhaps to use multi-race bets like the daily double, pick three or pick four to find better returns and more manageable risk. The Belmont Stakes is obviously the biggest of those races, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it will be the most attractive bet, and it certainly doesn't mean that it will be the only race worth betting on.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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