Even without a Triple Crown possibility on the line, race fans should be in for an exciting edition of the Belmont Stakes this Saturday, as the 1 ½-mile test of the champion has been set up as a bout between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, Animal Kingdom and Shackleford. Not only will these two classic winners duke it out for a possible Eclipse title, but the first seven finishers of the Kentucky Derby will run in the Belmont-something that’s never happened in the history of the race.
It’s a rare treat to see the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners meet for a rubber match in the Belmont Stakes. More often than not, the Belmont is seen as the pin that pops the bubble of today’s modern-day Thoroughbred, deflating his campaign for the rest of the year thanks to the grueling distance. But this year’s crop is rampant with unpredictability, and it’s that what makes this year’s Belmont so intriguing.
Many a trainer has said there is no way to train for the Grade I Belmont Stakes. A dirt race over 1 ½-miles didn’t used to be such an oddity, but for today’s more delicate race horse, the enormous oval in Elmont, New York is viewed as the ultimate test of endurance and tenacity. Special tactics must be employed to win the last jewel of the Triple Crown; speed and energy must be conserved and the move must be made at precisely the right moment. But the key to a Thoroughbred being able to last for that daunting distance lies beyond the control of the trainer or jockey—it resides in the bloodlines.
Looking back at a contender’s sire and dam will provide vital clues on how he will stay over long distances, and our Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, has plenty of upside when it comes to pedigree. While his sire, the Brazilian-bred Leroidesanimaux, was more well-known for winning races at 1 mile or 1 1/16-miles, Animal Kingdom’s dam’s side is rife with long-distance runners; his damsire, Acatenango, even won races over 1 ½-miles. A replay of the Kentucky Derby will show Animal Kingdom sailing past the rest of the field in the final furlongs, proving he will happily take on the extra distance in the Belmont. If the final leg of the Triple Crown plays out just like the Derby, Animal Kingdom should win by daylight.
But Shackleford’s connections aren’t afraid of Animal Kingdom, and think their horse has every shot of winning the Belmont. After watching Shackleford have his way with such easy fractions in the Derby, only to be passed by horses in the final yards, I’m not so convinced he can hang in there as long. It’s also worth noting that no horse has won from post 12 in the 142-year history of the race, which is where Shackleford has drawn. But stranger things have happened, and trends are bucked every year. As for speed horses excelling in this race, remember Dunkirk’s 2nd-place run in the Belmont two years ago? And who could forget Da’Tara’s upset victory in 2008? Speedsters have actually had some recent success in the Triple Crown’s longest race, and Shackleford has proven he can rate and fight back when it counts. If you watch the gallop out after the Preakness, Shackleford never let Animal Kingdom pass him.
A total of 12 horses will knock heads in the oldest race in the Triple Crown. The other Derby starters signed on to run are Nehro, Mucho Macho Man, Master of Hounds, Santiva, Brilliant Speed, and Stay Thirsty. To be honest, this year’s edition of the Kentucky Derby was the most cleanly-run in recent memory, and no one has a good excuse for their off-the-board finishing outside of bad post positions. Breaking from post 19, Nehro had a perfect trip in the Kentucky Derby and finished a non-threatening second. Much Macho Man ran a strong third, but finished 6th in the Preakness when his old habit of ripping off his horseshoes cropped up once again at Pimlico. (Since then, Macho Man has been outfitted with new customized shoes to keep him from pulling them off when he runs.) Then there’s Brilliant Speed, who finished 7th in the Derby after breaking from post #2 and being shuffled behind horses in the initial stages of the race; he ended up making his bid going 8-wide around the final turn, and may be an overlooked colt with some upside.
The Belmont Stakes has several good horses in it, but it’s really a test between the Derby and Preakness winner. As both Animal Kingdom and Shackleford seem to be coming into their own at the same time, the best way to see how they’ll handle the grand scale of the Belmont Stakes is by looking back at the 1 ¼-miles match-up. If everyone gets a clean trip, I see a rerun of the Derby playing in New York tomorrow.
The 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes will be aired live on NBC, with coverage from 5:00-7:00pm ET. Post time is scheduled for approximately 6:35pm ET.
A stellar undercard of races (featuring stars like Gio Ponti and Turbulent Descent) will be broadcast live on Versus from 3:00-5:00pm ET and on TVG and HRTV all day.
Belmont Stakes post positions, morning-line odds, and notes.
1. Master of Hounds (10-1) – Game Euro invader was 5th in the Derby, but has only one victory to his record. Flying back and forth overseas between this and his last start can’t be beneficial.
2. Stay Thirsty (20-1) – Has the best pedigree for running over 12 furlongs, but will have to greatly improve off his 12th place finish in the Derby. Doesn’t have much excuse for his last two OTB efforts.
3. Ruler on Ice (20-1) – Who is this horse? Closed well in the Sunland Derby for third, but doesn’t seem to stack up to the competition here.
4. Santiva (15-1) – Hasn’t done much to inspire since his last victory, which came last year in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Has been progressively worse since his 2nd-place finish in the Risen Star.
5. Brilliant Speed (15-1) – The winner of the Blue Grass Stakes has a better post than he had in the Derby, but it’s his turf blood that keeps me suspicious.
6. Nehro (4-1) – This bridesmaid should go on to win a stakes race someday, (he’s finished 2nd in three stakes in a row) but this one will be a stretch for him. Has every chance of making a threat if he runs to form.
7. Monzon (30-1) – Winner of the Count Fleet doesn’t have much else to back up his street cred; aside from the Peter Pan, the company he’s been keeping makes him look even worse.
8. Prime Cut (15-1) – Finished 3rd last time out in the Peter Pan at Belmont. That effort doesn’t look like a Belmont winner.
9. Animal Kingdom (2-1) – He’s got the pedigree, the Belmont-loving jockey, and the 1 ¼-miles race under his belt. Now all he needs is a perfect trip and a pace to run at.
10. Mucho Macho Man (10-1) – Hard-knocking horse seems to have all the bad luck, but he always comes running. Big colt should love the wide turns at Belmont.
11. Isn’t He Perfect (30-1) – Still not close to being perfect. Moving on…
12. Shackleford (9-2) – The lone horse with speed in the Belmont has major guts and will be saddled with the task of setting the pace. If he can turn on a show like he did in the Preakness, he could reign triumphant in the last jewel of the Triple Crown.