2018 Belmont Stakes Expert Handicapping: Fresh Horses
We hear a lot of talk about fresh horses in the Belmont Stakes and the threat they can potentially be. For the sake of this discussion here, let's define fresh horses simply as horses that have not run in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes - every horse other than Bravazo and Justify, in other words. It's always an interesting discussion to look at fresh horses - and especially so when a Triple Crown is on the line and an inevitably tired horse is trying to summon one more great race from deep within.
American Pharoah obviously wasn't a fresh horse by our definition when he won the Triple Crown in 2015. He is the only horse since Afleet Alex in 2005, though, who won the Belmont after starting in both of the first two legs of the Triple Crown. It's obviously not easy to do. So, let's take a look at the 10 prospective Belmont entrants who are, to some extent at least, fresh horses. How fresh are they? And do they offer any value at their current futures odds at Bovada ?:
Derby horses resting since then
This is a very important group, because it is frequently where the winners come from. The last two Belmont winners, and four of the last six, have won the Belmont after running the Derby, skipping the Preakness, then coming back fresh for the Belmont. There are four horses expected to look to replicate that effort this year:
Free Drop Billy (+5000): He did absolutely nothing right in the Derby, starting poorly and never improving. It was his first time on an off track, though, so that could be a factor. His sire, Union Rags, is one of the four colts in the last six years to win the Belmont after running in the Derby, so maybe this horse will follow in the family hoofprints.
Hofburg (+400): This lightly-raced colt was a disappointing seventh in the Derby, but the public loves him here and he is likely to be the distant second betting choice right up to post time. He has shown flashes of talent, but it's all about breeding - sire Tapit has sired three of the last four Belmont winners, and damsire Touch Gold won the race in 1997.
Noble Indy (+3300): Despite winning a major prep race in the Louisiana Derby, he was a 60/1 afterthought in the Kentucky Derby, and he ran like he was getting too much credit at that price. He hit a wall and finished a flattering 17th. His grandsire, A.P. Indy, though, is a Belmont winner who is a son of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and has Triple Crown winner and still-Belmont Stakes record holder Secretariat as his damsire. The breeding is there.
Vino Rosso (+800): He got shuffled to the back of the field out of the gate and seemed incapable of dealing with it. He went way too wide, showed little initiative, and only improved to ninth by the end because he slowed down less than other runners. It was a poor effort for a nice Wood Memorial winner.
Peter Pan Stakes
This race is interesting because it is run at Belmont Stakes the week after the Derby, so horses who win like the track, and are still rested enough to be a threat. Tonalist won the Peter Pan and the Belmont in 2014 to increase the recent prominence of the race.
Blended Citizen (+3500): I struggle to be objective about a Doug O'Neill horse - especially heading into the Belmont. But it would be tough to argue that this horse is of the same caliber as Tonalist. He made a solid late move after running mid-pack in that race, though, so that strategy could be effective here if Justify doesn't have enough left down the stretch.
Preakness, no Derby
I know that technically these aren't fresh horses because they are coming back in three weeks after running against Derby and Preakness runners. But if, like this colt, they had a good rest before the Preakness, then they are much fresher than the iron horses - the Preakness is a dramatically easier race than the Derby.
Tenfold (+1000): His issue in my eyes isn't freshness but instead quality. He showed a nice late charge to finish third in the Preakness, but that feels more circumstantial than anything. In his prior stakes outing in the Arkansas Derby he just didn't measure up. He's a son of Curlin out of a Tapit mare, though, so the breeding is sound.
Pat Day Mile
This race has been run on the Derby undercard only since 2015. Prior to that it was called the Derby Trial Stakes and run a week before the Derby. As a sign of how much horse racing has changed, both Assault in 1941 and Whirlaway in 1946 ran in this race and then won the Triple Crown. This year it was a truly bizarre, lousy race badly affected by the sloppy conditions and a strange pace.
Restoring Hope (+3500): This is a stablemate to Justify from different owners. He was just awful in the Pat Day, but he has now had a full five weeks to shake that off. I'm willing to give him a mulligan. He has trained well - like all Baffert horses tend to - and could be a part of the early pace here.
Seahenge (+3500): The biggest reason this Irish-based Aidan O'Brien-trained colt is here is likely his breeding - he's a son of Scat Daddy like Justify, and that seems to be a strong bloodline this year. But he hasn't shown much other than that. He was an ugly seventh in the Pat Day. The race before that he was third in the UAE Derby in Dubai, 26 lengths behind Mendelssohn, another son of Scat Daddy, who was disastrously dead last in the Kentucky Derby. If he is good enough to win in this spot then it's so well hidden that I really can't see it.
Euros with layoffs
Aside from Seahenge, we have two other horses who have had European careers potentially coming for the Belmont. Both have odd circumstances.
Badua (+3500): This is the least likely colt on this list to make the field. He has had only two career starts, which is insane. And the first was just on April 15, with the second coming on Derby day - both in Ireland. He won both, though, and both came at a mile and a quarter, so he can obviously handle distance. Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew is his damsire, so the breeding is solid. And trainer Dermot Weld won the Belmont in 1990 with Go and Go - another horse who, like this one, was making both his dirt and North American debuts in the race.
Gronkowski (+2500): This colt, named after and now partially owned by that Gronkowski, was qualified for the Derby but missed it due to a minor injury. Since then his owners moved him from his British barn to New York under the care of Chad Brown. Brown is a truly great trainer but has had little time to make a difference with this colt. He was in far too deep in the Derby, and his lot isn't hugely improved here.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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