by Mike Hayes - 06/06/2006
If history repeats itself this weekend, the winner of Saturday's Belmont Stakes will be at or near the lead with about a half-mile to go, a closer will come charging late to finish the exacta and a couple of plodders will pass tired horses to round out the exotics.
The life threatening injury to Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and the defection of Preakness champ Bernardini has taken the luster from the third jewel of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, but the race is shaping up to be a tremendous betting opportunity as the key to landing the big bucks is figuring out who will run third and fourth.
Of course you need to figure out who is going to win the race as well, and, contrary to popular belief, history shows that closers don't have a big edge in spite of the mile-and-a-half distance as the race winner is usually up close to the pace, leaving the closers to pick up the consolation prizes that round out the exotic bets.
Last year's runaway winner, Afleet Alex, is a prime example of the running style best suited to the race. At about the mile mark last year Alex was sitting in second, just two lengths off the lead, when jockey Jeremy Rose asked Alex to go. The result was a seven-length win, with Andromeda's Hero closing for second, six lengths ahead of maiden Nolan's Cat, who passed tired horses like they weren't moving to get grab show.
What makes the Belmont unique and so difficult to handicap is the mile-and-a-half distance, a route which outside of the Belmont Stakes these horses will likely never be asked to navigate again. Figuring out which horses can make the distance and which will be gasping for air at the wire can involve more guess work than handicapping savvy.
Derby runner-up Bluegrass Cat is likely to be the post time favorite, with Peter Pan Stakes winner Sunriver, who did not have enough earnings to qualify for the Derby field, and the late running Steppenwolfer battling out it for second choice among the public. Regardless of who is made the favorite, it is unlikely that the price will be much less than 4/1 come race day.
Others confirmed are Jazil, fourth in the Derby; Bob and John, 17th in the Derby; Deputy Glitters, eighth in the Derby; Hemingway's Key, third in the Preakness; High Finance, an easy allowance winner in his last; Oh So Awesome, who has done most of his racing on the lawn in Europe; Platinum Couple, a distant sixth in the Preakness; Sacred Light, second to the aforementioned Nolan's Cat in a recent allowance race at Churchill Downs and Double Galore, who only broke his maiden two weeks ago.
What this adds up to is a great betting race with huge prices virtually guaranteed.
Look no further than last year's Belmont when Alex and 12/1 third choice Andromeda's Hero resulted in a $44 exacta. Nolan's Cat was 20/1, capping a $1,200 triple and Indy Storm ran fourth for at 17/1 for a $14,219 superfecta.
Second choice Giacomo ran seventh at 5/1, but every other horse was a double-digit choice to win.
So the key to a lottery-like payout in a race like the Belmont are the horses that will run third and fourth, horses that using last year's race as an example were more than 13 lengths behind the winner, a finish not so easily anticipated or handicapped. In fact there is really nothing extraordinary about such a performance which is more akin to plodding than racing.
Bluegrass Cat, Bob and John, Deputy Glitters and High Finance have done their best running at or near the lead, which could bode well for one if they can make the distance and shake clear. Sunriver likes to close, but figures to be much closer to the pace than deep closers Steppenwolfer and Jazil, who showed in the Derby they do their best running from far back. In fact, in a race like the Derby Steppenwolfer and Jazil were logical horses to use in the three and four spots as closers are generally better able to run their race in the Derby because the bumping and traffic problems out of the gate tend to have more of an impact on front runners.
It's tough to get a read on Oh So Awesome because the line shows a bunch of turf races overseas, but it appears this horse is capable of the distance and might have a shot at one of the minor spots. Hemingway's Key might be another that can plod home past tired horses for third or fourth, as trainer Nick Zito insists the horse is bred to run all day.
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