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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


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

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26 Responses

  1. John, I’m really excited to see what Max Player can do. I suspect that he won’t be as far back as most think…assuming he has matured and grown as Linda Rice has said he has. He was far back in his debut because he was literally climbing all over the place….I have to rewatch the Withers to gauge how far back he was then, but if I recall, he was still green as grass and had to be hard ridden the entire race. IF he is a different colt in Saturday, I don’t think he’ll be that far back. He truly is the Mystery horse. I’m not predicting a win or anything like that, but I am excited to see how he stacks up with the time that has helped most Honor Codes.

    One thing – I think it was classless of MP’s primary owner to dump Dylan Davis with only a few days’ notice; there’s no reason it couldn’t have been done before.

    1. Bets, know you love those Honor Codes and now I’ll be on the lookout. Maybe it’s just his gate, or track surface, whatever, but was thrilled with his action in the Withers. But as you say, maybe greenness, but clearly will be in the hands of the game’s strongest finisher.

      Sadly, it’s how the game is played. In a huge race, you choose a truly elite rider if available. If that’s they way you feel about such things, then Sole Volante and Luca Panici is your rooting interest.

      1. John, oh he was still very green in the Withers. Take a look at his debut at Parx on November 12 – I thought he didn’t even want to be out there, lol, but he was just climbing like crazy. Linda seems to think he’s a much different colt now than he was then, so I don’t believe we’ll see that sort of stuff in the Belmont.

        Oh, I didn’t mean that jockey changes shouldn’t be made, especially to superior riders…….just that they should have done so earlier.

  2. I think people have been taking too many unfair swipes at NYRA for shortening The Belmont distance. They were put in a bad spot because of factors beyond their control.

    The only other realistic date for The Belmont was August 8 at Saratoga (which likely would have had The Belmont at 1 3/8 Miles and is) when the Travers is now expected to be run. As that is also Hambletonian Day (biggest event in ALL of Harness Racing) at The Meadowlands, there likely will be SOME blowback from Harness interests if the Travers is indeed that day, but the blowback, if there is any will be relatively minor compared to the blowback there would have been if THE BELMONT had been scheduled for the same day as the Hambletonian (which per Hambletonian Society Charter MUST have the finals of it and it’s filly counterpart The Hambletonian Oaks contested on the first or second Saturday in August). The Hambletonian, while not as big an event in its home country is a MUCH bigger race worldwide and carried MUCH greater interests than ANY of the TB Triple Crown Races outside the US, especially in Nordic countries like Sweden and Norway where Harness Racing is bigger than the TBs. I did a poll in Harness Groups on Facebook on this and if The Belmont or any other TC race were the same day as the Hambletonian, it would have been looked at as a MASSIVE slap in the face to Harness Racing by such and that was by a 15-1 margin. Had NYRA actually scheduled The Belmont for August 8, NYRA would have faced MASSIVE blowback from Harness interests worldwide and political interests in New York and New Jersey. That likely would have included Jeff Gural, who owns The Meadowlands and has major real estate dealings in NYC and IMO would have asked Cuomo to tell NYRA they could not run The Belmont on August 8 due to it being the day of The Hambeltonian.

    THAT was one of several big reasons why The Belmont is what it is this year, the other big one being Notre Dame refusing to change the start time of their game with Western Michigan on September 19 to a 7:00 PM kickoff to accommodate the Preakness being that day, mainly because of wealthy alumni who repeatedly have noted their hatred of going to night games (even the one mandated by NBC each year, this year on October 10 against USC). While contractually NBC could have moved the game to NBCSN, it would have been a very bad optic as for Western Michigan and The Mid-America Conference, it is their ONLY full-national, over-the-air TV game of the entire season and the MAC is having severe financial problems at the moment related to the Pandemic. Mike Golic Jr. and Sr. likely would have blasted Notre Dame if they had changed the start time to accommodate the Preakness on their ESPN2/ESPN Radio show they do each day with Trey Wingo. Had that been done, then the Belmont could have been October 10.

    What NYRA SHOULD now do is run a rescheduled Wood Memorial on October 24 at the traditional Belmont Stakes distance of 1 1/2 Miles, three weeks after the Preakness that some would likely consider the real third leg of the Triple Crown if NYRA did that.

  3. Sadly, Walt, we live an an era when too much is made out of everything. In my role here at HRI, I’m as guilty as anyone who makes mountains from mole hills. I rationalize it by saying that if I shine a light, it will remain a mole hill and not become a mountain.

    Meanwhile, doubt very much Gov, Cuomo is going to adjudicate any “competition” from harness v thoroughbred racing. He has bigger fish. Besides, while it might not be the Belmont, the Hambo goes up “against” the Whitney in normal years. I think it’s a mutually exclusive scenario myself.

    Anyway, enjoy Belmont Say, 2020 style…

    1. Neither the Whitney nor Travers nor West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park (which the Hambo also goes up against in a normal year) carries ANYWHERE NEAR the same weight The Belmont Stakes does as The Belmont is a Triple Crown race:

      Cuomo and NYRA likely would have been hearing it from Jeff Gural and also Joe Faraldo, the head of the Standardbred Owners of New York with the SOA of New Jersey and politicians who deal with both SOAs in New York and New Jersey along with The Hambletonian Society and many other Harness interests worldwide if The Belmont Stakes were on the same day as the Hambletonian (same would have held true if the Derby or Preakness were on that day). NYRA likely knew this and knew the level of blowback they would have gotten from Harness interests worldwide and so forth, something they’d likely never admit to. I know people in Harness Racing who are super-sensitive to stuff like that and they would have screamed to the high heavens if it were The Belmont Stakes and not the Travers on August 8.

      1. Mr Gekko,this Is 2020 not circa 1975 when Roosevelt Raceway, in Westbury,behind Fortunoff s,would be full,both in the stakes and parking lots with multiple international flags being caressed by the Long Island breeze! Even in Sweden,Germany, New Zealand, Norway,Italy and in Australia this dying sports Is not what it once was..Check how many sports sections mention anything about it.Even the once successful Meadowlands track Is almost part time with purses amammerɛ than ever before.Yonkers dropped giving notices on their diminishing attendance.Wonder Why MGM invested some $ 800 mils on it when the racino and other venues have better locations and,Yes,Reputation.It s their $,who cares but to me,it Still looks Like a Lemon,.Future betting there?It Is Still Yonkers,no matter how they dress it and package it. The days of playing Attention to Niatross and other valuant pacers,trotters are gone.Do you think that they profit from these International races with such high purses? Dont think so.,there arent Enough people who care and bet those ( some call them fixed ) races. Had a ” Good day” today,Friday after a 6 race skid hit the cold exacta,Good, in one of the middle races at the joint in Elmont. Ps:Notices the perennial winnings driver at Yonkers cannot win half the % race at the Big M,,,wonder Why,Mr Bartlett. ??( Ahahah !!)

        1. Pps: Just Noticed that the Big M had 16,Yes,16 races today,Friday .The favs,most of them odds on,won 10 of them and placed in 3.Another reasons Why many have left harness,,No Value !! Might as well medɔ the credit care,and Cash in the pocket,or mattress.Why bother ?✌️✌️🤣

        2. Not the point. The Hambletonian is STILL the biggest event in Harness Racing. MANY I know in Harness Racing would have looked at The Belmont Stakes being that day as a MASSIVE slap in the face to them and all the work they did. NYRA knew this and they were not going to risk PO’ing Harness interests when they may need them for certain things later on.

    2. John – Don’t fall into Mr. Gekko’s trap. ( By the way, over the years he’s been known as Wally Horse, Hoops and Horses, Walter Parker and a few other names I can’t think of now). He starts with a ridiculous premise (the Hambletonian is important) and then writes a book defending his viewpoint. He SPRINKLES in CAPS every once in a WHILE just to MAKE it more ANNOYING.

      People then respond, and he writes another book, repeating the same argument.

      He had a classic a few years ago. Belmont would have to cancel their Breeders Cup preps because the Pope was saying a mass in Philadelphia that weekend. Meanwhile, Parx was open with their regular racing a few miles down the road.

      So next time he responds to one of your articles, just ignore him because he just tries to stir up the pot.

      1. I have no knowledge and cannot comment on that, but thanks for the well meant heads up…

  4. John: It only took 5 days, but NYRA finally announced the Saratoga schedule. If we have learned anything this year, its that patience is a virtue. I think that NYRA did the right thing with moving the Travers back to the 8th and keeping it at 10F. In a flashback to “normal” years, we can start the debate about whether or not a horse can run in both the Haskell and Travers. Since its the year of the pandemic, we can now add the Blue Grass to that inevitable argument. Good luck tomorrow.

  5. The Travers vs. the Hambo. Small potatoes.

    You want a conflict that really will roil the sports world. Go to Nov. 15, which as of now will be the final round of the rescheduled Masters on an NFL Sunday.

    The Masters, which steadfastly and atypically refuses to genuflect to TV, will have to start the final round early, which it might have had to do anyway because of fading daylight at that time of year. CBS, to accommodate “a tradition unlike any other,” has no 1 p.m. games scheduled that day and only three in late afternoon.

    CBS executives are already main-lining Maalox out of fear the golf runs a little late. The Masters will not tolerate being “Heidi-ed” but there’s also no way NFL fans (there are numerous times more than golf buffs) will bear their games being joined in progress.

    1. I suspect with the Masters/NFL conflict, we are looking at a 9:00 AM Masters Final Round as was the case last year because in all likelihood if The Masters had last year stuck to a traditional format, the final round would have not finished until Monday and Augusta National likely would have been sued by both the organizers of a big day after The Masters events in South Carolina AND sponsors of Golfers who had events scheduled as part of The Boston Marathon (mainly “meet and greets” of the golfers for clients of such sponsors) the next day. You’ll likely see a 9:00 AM start to Masters coverage again due to this. Other option would have been to bring in lights to August National and play The Masters for this year only as a Wednesday-Saturday event with the third and fourth rounds airing in Friday and Saturday prime time on CBS.

      Other thing the NFL could do is agree to move the CBS Sunday games back to 5:30 PM ET for that week only and maybe in that scenario push the FOX doubleheader back an hour to 2:00 and 5:25 for that week and Sunday Night Football for that week only to a 9:20 PM ET kickoff to compensate for The Masters.

      And BTW, FOX has a similar situation with the US Open Golf Championships on Sept. 20.

  6. I think your hitting on all cylinders today Fram; just shut up and play the hand you’re dealt, right?

    Nitpicking, I would have preferred an AUG 1 Travers, giving those horses and extra week pre-Derby but, hey, it’s supposed to be the Triple Crown when three races would be run in those five weeks, so there’s that.

    And thank God they didn’t alter the Travers distance,

    Monmouth countered by offering a million-dollar bonus for a sweep of the Haskell, Derby and BC Classic. Remember when Garden State Park created the Spend a Buck bonus?

    1. I’m so glad NYRA didn’t change the distance of the Travers. CD left them with no choice but to shorten the Belmont, which by the way is OLDER than the KY Derby (so, thank you very much, Churchill…..hmph), but heck if they were going to adjust their huge races just to make it easy for CD.

      What’s also interesting is that the Peter Pan is now the prep for the Travers, while the Jim Dandy is probably going to be a race that inexperienced and talented horses who weren’t ready for Derby will point to.

      1. Yeah, Bets, the Jim Dandy in the role as the Curlin…

        Heard, haven’t confirmed, that switch to Rosario so late that stewards mandated that both jocks will share in the purse equally—it’s been done before.

        1. I’m glad they were able to accommodate both races – and I think we’ll get good fields for both.

          Yep, the DRF had an article on that …and actually, it goes deeper. When Max Player was supposed to rain in the Matt Winn, Dylan Davis had to give up several mounts at GP so he could quarantine for a week at CD. Of course the colt didn’t end up running there, so Davis lost mounts/purses. These kinds of jockey changes happen all the time – just recently, Drayden Van Dyke was removed from Authentic in favor of Mike Smith (who won’t be taking off HAP anytime soon). The timing just sucked, and Davis does deserve to share the purse money.

  7. John & Tom: What I remember from the Garden State days was that Bob Brennan was the most hated man in thoroughbred racing and that he didn’t care. Also, Tom, for those of us who were young and Jets fans, the Heidi game will always cause agita in one’s stomach. Recently, I was watching an old NFL Films show and on came an old Oakland Raiders film ( I can’t bring myself to call them Las Vegas yet). I mentioned to my daughter that #3 for Oakland ( Daryl Lamonica) was the embodiment of pure evil. Some old grudges die very hard!

    1. I remember that, though Spend A Buck even if he had won the Preakness may not have been in the Belmont anyway because of New York’s ban on Lasix. Apparently, he really needed Lasix and if he had run in The Belmont would likely have run a sub-par race. Many forget he did not run in the Travers either, instead running against older horses in the Monmouth (now Iselin) Handicap instead because of New York’s Lasix ban.

  8. Yes, Fram, and who knew Bob Brennan would only serve as a prep for the most hated man in the world…

  9. Mr. Jicha: Caught your one liner above: ‘CVS executives are already main-lining Maalox ….’.

    Skimmed through the above commentary and I am left wondering why I even ‘pull-up’ this site. Geez, isn’t Thoroughbred racing about gambling, ’bout cashing tickets, ’bout making money. What to hell do I care about discussions on how a few stake races should be held on this date or at that distance? How many of the above commentators bet on a plater today, any day?

    As to jockeys, what jock has the best win record this year? Irad (tied for second); Prat (tied for second); who’s first? J J Hernandez! Who?

    Go west people, there are other racetracks in this country. J. J. wins at a rate of 31% just a tick above my win rate. Irad and Prat’s win percentage is 26%; which means that these so-called ‘super jocks’ lose with seven of ten platers they climb aboard.

    Just thought I would write the above to bring back this site to what it once was: a site for horseplayers.

    1. There are a lot of us who care about the sport beyond betting:

      MANY of us were disgusted with what NYRA did even if as I noted NYRA really had no other choice because if they had flipped the Travers and Belmont and ran the Travers (at either 1 1/4 or 1 1/8 Miles) this weekend and THEN ran The Belmont at most likely 1 3/8 Miles on August 8 (or 1 1/2 Miles starting on the far turn as was done at Aqueduct from 1963-’67) on August 8, the blowback from Harness Racing interests would have been MASSIVE because Hambletonian Society charter requires the Hambletonian and Hambletonian Oaks to be run on the first or second Saturday in August and there is little to no flexibility on that. Harness interests worldwide would have slammed NYRA for running the Belmont August 8 (again, the Travers doesn’t carry ANYWHERE NEAR the weight of The Belmont Stakes though I’m sure some I know in Harness Racing are not happy even with THAT). The only other option would have been to run The Belmont Stakes on October 24 at its traditional distance and you would likely have faced the wrath from Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. because The Belmont likely takes some horses away from BC races and there also are Breeders who consider a BC win more important than a win in the Preakness or Belmont, and many horsemen now don’t know how or don’t want to IMO put in the effort required to have a top horse ready to go what would have if the Belmont were 10/24 three times in five weeks between the Preakness, Belmont and Breeders’ Cup with unless they go in the BC Turf having to cut back in distance from The Belmont Stakes. There also are concerns we could be facing ANOTHER lockdown by 10/24 because of the virus and even the Preakness being on October 3 is pushing it in the eyes of some.

      That said, NYRA should run as noted a rescheduled Wood Memorial on October 24 at 1 1/2 Miles assuming we are not under another lockdown by that time.

      That all said, I do think the Breeders’ Cup needs to be postponed, but not so its easier to run a rescheduled Wood on 10/24 at The Belmont’s traditional distance. Instead it’s because the weekend of November 6-7 could prove for non-COVID-19 reasons to be a very toxic weekend because of the aftermath of the Presidential Election, especially if because of vote-by-mail we won’t know who won until the Friday or Saturday of the BC.

      EVEN BEFORE George Floyd and everything that has happened since, there were predictions regardless of who won the immediate period afterwards would be VERY UGLY, which would be a complete disaster for Keeneland and BC Ltd. and something neither signed up for. I would myself be in discussions with BC Ltd. and Churchill Downs to swap race weeks and have the BC take place at Keeneland Nov. 26-28, expanding to a three-day event with the entire event on NBC from Noon-3:00 PM ET Thanksgiving Day, Noon-3:30 PM ET on “Black Friday” and Noon-4:30 PM on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That to me would work better as it would give people more time to recover from the Election before the BC took place (and this is a long-held opinion as in 2018 I advocated for this BC to be at Del Mar at Thanksgiving).

  10. Good day x New York racing with Tiz running as if without competition,ie,,Nadal, Charlatan..But my medal goes to Oleksandra who reminded me of some excellent female runs of the past..From last to first in a short sprint,that Was Impressive !! In the Tiz walk, that 10 spoiled the gimmick but Sole Volante could have been resting in the barn instead of lazily plodding along.😗😗😗😗Compliments to upstate’ s Funny Cide connections in starting a winning summer without many others sports to distract us from horseracing ‘ s best young equines. 7 races bet,two wins,two placings and a Cold $ 98 exacta with WP tickets on both runners. Humbly..✌️✌️

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