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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

Glorious Belmont Day a welcome respite from all the negative news

Saturday’s Belmont isn’t the most illustrious renewal in the history of the third jewel of the Triple Crown. It shakes out as a two-horse duel between War of Will and Tacitus. But the supporting card is off the charts. The Met Mile might wind up the race of the year and could establish the early leader for Horse of the Year honors. Speaking of that, Bricks and Mortar, No. 1 in the NTRA weekly poll, heads a contentious Manhattan. Pro tem 3-year-old filly leader, Kentucky Oaks champion Serengeti Empress heads the Acorn. It’s gong to be like that all afternoon.

In keeping with everything else that’s happened in 2019, California will not be represented in this year’s Belmont Stakes. Nothing but bad news has come out of the Golden State and it has spilled over onto the entire sport.

Belmont Stakes Day should provide a welcome change of pace. Some of the best racing of the year will be the newsmaker. (Let’s pray for safe trips.)

Every year, several big event days are billed as the best day of racing outside the Breeders’ Cup: Derby Day, for sure, Travers Day, Florida Derby Day and one or two others, depending on the year. Belmont Day is always among them.

This year’s program is truly exceptional. The Eclipse Awards include nine categories not including juveniles (it’s too early for that). Belmont Day could see seven to nine eventual 2019 winners competing. It doesn’t get much better than that.

California will be represented in the down card races, most notably by McKinzie in one of the saltiest Met Miles in memory. It could produce the pro tem leader for Horse of the Year.

But the main event is bereft of Left Coast representatives. Not that SoCal 3-year-olds might not exert themselves later in the season. Who isn’t eagerly awaiting the return of Omaha Beach and although Team Baffert has nothing in the Belmont, it surely will make its presence known in races such as the Haskell, Travers, Pennsylvania Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

I mentioned last week I fully expected my Belmont selection to come down to Tacitus or War of Will. Nothing has happened to change that opinion. 

Major stakes, such as the Belmont, tend to be over-analyzed. Minor wins, trouble calls and track biases (real and imagined) are over-weighted as fans search for the longshot winner, who will make them look a genius for a day.

Bourbon War runs late and has been close to some serious horses. The Japanese are confident Master Fencer will like the distance. Todd Pletcher is competing on his home track. Dale Romans has been third four times and could be due for a Keen Ice over American Pharoah upset. Maybe Mark Casse can pull a Baffert and win with his “other” horse, late-running Sir Winston.

But if Saturday’s race were, say, the Christopher Kay Stakes, all this would be dismissed in recognition that War of Will and Tacitus tower over this bunch. The 9-5 morning line on Tacitus and 2-1 on War of Will translates to about 9-10 that one of the two will win. This strikes me as an overlay.

Without disparaging the others, Casse also sees it this way. “I think (War of Will) is the horse to beat. I think he’s even a better horse than you saw in the Preakness. If he gets beat in the Belmont, it’s not going to be because of a lack of fitness. I promise you that.”

If he does get beat, Tacitus is the one likely to do it, Casse feels. “Absolutely. Bill (Mott) is a great trainer and we’re going to his house to play. (Tacitus) shows up every time, runs hard and Bill will have him ready.”

The fact that Tacitus finished in front of War of Will in the sloppily run Derby is of little consequence, in Casse’s estimation. “We didn’t get beaten very far by Tacitus and we had loads of trouble.”

The Derby wasn’t a walk in the park for Tacitus, either, Mott said. “He had to alter course several times.” Showing his characteristic class, Mott is not using that as an excuse. “He never had to check. He never got stopped. But he ate a lot of mud. He was quite a ways back in the field and had to come through a lot of traffic. It wasn’t the cleanest trip but I can’t give him a lot of excuses off that. He was moving very well at the end of the race.” 

Casual players might think this gives him an edge in the longest race most of these horses will ever run. This is a misconception in most cases. “The Belmont is a funny run race,” Casse said, perhaps tipping his hand to strategy. “It usually helps speed. (War of Will) has plenty of speed. What will decide whether he can go the mile and a half is how willing he is to rate early. He did rate very well in the Preakness but it was an extremely fast pace. I think a lot is going to depend on just how much Tyler (Gaffalione) can get him to relax.”

We’ll know the answer to that when War of Will turns for home with Tacitus bearing down. I wouldn’t bet the exacta because it will be under-valued and long-odds horses have a knack of sneaking in for minor shares. But these two will be the only ones on the top of my tickets.

Double down

A couple of interesting but not overly challenging two-day daily doubles will be offered.

Friday’s New York Handicap will be paired with the Met Mile and the Belmont Gold Cup will be part of a two-race bet with the Belmont.

The former goes through the Chad Brown uncoupled entry of Competitionofideas and Homerique, who finished in a photo in the Beaugay. Homerique’s number went up on the board. I wouldn’t bet against an encore.

The Met Mile, as I’ve said repeatedly, is off the charts. Mitole looks almost unbeatable right now but McKinzie might be tougher at a one-turn mile than he has been in two-turn middle distance races, which is double tough. For a $10 base, you can go two-by-two with a saver double on the Homerique-Coal Front combo.

I’ve said my piece on the Belmont. You need only two. The two-mile Gold Cup is made to order for Euros, who get to run marathons often. I have a strong lean toward Raa Atoll, a winner of three of six and with recency from a two-mile Grade 2 score in Germany last month.

I see red flags with Mostasadir and Amade. Mostasadir is likely to be well supported off his 6-for-9 career. Be wary. All his wins have been on artificial surfaces. He’s 0-3 on turf.

The same mostly applies to Amade. Six of his seven wins have been on fake dirt but he does have a victory at almost two miles on grass.

If you want to have at least one member of the home team on your ticket, Red Knight, who has a two-mile score on his resume, is the one to use.

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