If Saturday’s Belmont Stakes weren’t a classic, part of Triple Crown lore, and “just” another Grade 1 race for three-year-olds not named Kentucky Derby, most fans and players would be whooping it up.
“What a great Florida Derby, or great Arkansas Derby, Santa Anita Derby or Blue Grass…” whatever signature prize would available to sophomore racers campaigning in Florida or Arkansas, California or Kentucky.
The story-line would be a familiar one: Divisional leader and possible superstar versus nine rivals, some very talented with considerable upside.
Would it be a Belmont Stakes, the kind that we know and love? Of course not. But is 2020 America the country we know and love?
I’ve been around sports my whole professional life and can say that horse racing fans are among the most passionate and devoted followers of any pastime. But also the most myopic.
Then what’s the sense of being a follower of horse racing if you can’t bitch about it every once in a while? Today’s race once had the earmarks of a spectacular event, a summit among four of the best young horses of their generation.
And then there was one.
We had some fun writing a headline the other day, tweaking the Belmont tagline with a snarky “Prep of the Champion.” But not many laughed, insisting instead the 2020 Belmont be The Belmont: Damn the pandemic and pass the face masks.
For better or worse, I’ve been a public handicapper for a half-century, since 1970. And I’m saying 48 hours out that selling this Belmont field short is premature at best; flat-out wrong at worse. But that’s horse racing, right?
I believe the truncated Belmont of 2020 can be a terrific horse race. Here’s the field, listed in post order with early line odds:
1-TAP IT TO WIN (6-1): Coastal redux, a “now” upstart against a proven top class budding star? I thought long and hard before Fore Left, a front-running winner of the Group 3 Two Thousand Guineas dropped in at the last minute. If Fore Left repeats those tactics, can Johnny Velazquez break quickly, ease off the fence and place himself in pouncing position? How the race shape develops will be the result of how the riders “play it off the break.” Owns a forward Thoro-Graph pattern but needs to improve and is returning on short rest.
2-SOLE VOLANTE (9-2): If I were an equine female, I’d marry this guy; what a sweetheart. Genuine, tough, professional. He’s a deep closer that demonstrated in Tampa that he doesn’t need a pace meltdown for his best go. He, too, is returning on short rest–10 days–and returned pairing his tops, excellent efforts but might need the help a hot pace and a flat performance by the favorite, which is unlikely. Second best on paper and happy that Luca Panici can get to show he belongs on this kind of stage.
3-MAX PLAYER (15-1): Has had three starts and seemed to come out of nowhere to win the G3 Withers with a strong late kick at Aqueduct this winter, but this is a different ballgame. He’s coming off a 4-1/2 month break, some of it by design, but between layup, class rise and the fact he doesn’t like kick-back in his face, according to trainer Linda Rice, his task is very tough despite on a good tight line on the Thoro-Graph scale. Joel Rosario suits the late kicker perfectly and will try to keep his colt out in the open.
4-MODERNIST (15-1): Two-for-two at today’s distance, this attractive, athletic colt owns push-button speed. Bill Mott has won the Belmont before so you know this race was in the back of his mind. But he played it cautiously, sitting on the fence until the colt worked himself into the race last week. Talented and fresh. he will be a mid-pack racer but needs to get significantly faster if he wants to threaten the best of these. A possible superfecta player if huge odds are available.
5-FARMINGTON ROAD (15-1): Ranked equally on the early line with those immediately to his inside, he is a viable upset threat should the favorites disappoint. Making his first start in two months, he made a wide, sweeping move six to seven wide at Oaklawn Park and sustained that run right to the end despite veering in late, beaten a half-length and galloping out strongly. He was a one-paced fourth in Nadal’s Arkansas Derby but not before making a long, wide and sustained mid-race move. Our preferred price shot should the early line hold.
6-FORE LEFT (30-1): His Tremont here at 2 is among his four lifetime victories, all coming on the engine. A review of race video indicates he was cruising on the lead quite easily in Dubai, teaching his international rivals what American horseplayers learned at on granddaddy’s knee–that speed is always dangerous. Doug O’Neill loves how he’s training and says his colt doesn’t need the lead to win. But don’t all trainers say that? Despite a more favorable draw, we don’t think he can outrun ‘Tapit’ early unless Jose Ortiz quarter-horses him away from the barrier. Added distance doesn’t figure to help.
7-JUNGLE RUNNER (50-1): One of two in here for Steve Asmussen, this entrant is more of an accommodation to the connections and promising, young Reylu Gutierrez, a thank you for working closely with the outfit in mornings throughout the year. A grand gesture but charitably will but be twice his early line quote ante post.
8-TIZ THE LAW (6-5): The fastest on the Thoro-Graph scale by a significant margin and the lone dual Grade 1 winner in this group, including the Champagne here at 2, all of which speaks loudly for his inherent class and talent. To think that these connections are in this position again with a New York-bred does boggle the mind, yet here we are. He’s generally good at the gate but can get a little green through the lane. Manny Franco was aboard for his two Grade 1s and the budding star rides the budding star with supreme confidence. They will be behind the speed in mid-pack then be given his cue.
9-DR. POST (5-1): Believe that the early odds are a bit too high on ‘Farmington’ and a bit too low on the good doctor. Making his third start at 3, he comes up to this off graduating distances with excellent spacing and goes second time for Irad who has to feel confident knowing his mount overcame adversity in the Unbridled Stakes, his two-turn debut at Gulfstream. Working very well for this, Ortiz Jr. will position himself close to the favorite and is likely to shadow his every move. Watching this race within a race adds to the intrigue despite the favorite’s apparent dominance. To win it, he’ll need his late run to be timed perfectly.
10-PNEUMATIC (8-1): Our big takeaway from Churchill’s Matt Winn Stakes was that the excellent show effort, taking pressure throughout and still finding to the finish, eventually yielding to a superior rival in a final-strides dynamics-aided victory. It was a race to build on at nine furlongs, why not take a shot at the Belmont? Not a single hint from Steve Asmussen until the Uncle Mo colt spoke to him in a recent workout. His running style, wide draw, and past performances show he can make winning efforts from on or off the pace, given him a puncher’s chance to trip out. The linemaker makes that a reasonable assessment at fifth choice on the early line. Ricardo Santana Jr. fits like OJ’s glove.
Friday: Possible Belmont Day betting strategies