Belmont Park: The Grade I, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes at 1 ½ miles
#1 Medal Count: Turf and Polytrack specialist is being overlooked off his eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, but go back and watch the replay again and see all the trouble he had while full of run off the far turn; it’s not hard to envision him being third, if not second, with a clean trip, so don’t just give him the proverbial slash and move on. Son of Dynaformer is no doubt bred the best of anyone in here to get the trip, and his stalking style should have him in a good spot off the far turn, as the pace looks like it could be honest and possibly even contested. It’s also nice to see Romans forge on after initially suggesting he wouldn’t run, and anyone who saw that 6-furlong bullet in 1:10 3/5 at Churchill Downs 5/31 knows this guy is breathing fire and not on the grounds simply to hear “New York, New York” blare through the rafters. Obviously it takes some creativity to land in this corner, especially since he’s yet to win a dirt race other than that MSW at Ellis Park in his debut in September, but make no mistake about it: this horse can run on the dirt and gets a lot of positives in his corner today, none more important than a pedigree that says he’ll be rolling through the stretch when the majority of them might come up empty; bombs away.
#2 California Chrome: Rousing Derby and resolute Preakness winner goes for racing immortality as he looks to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in the sport’s history and end a 36-year drought in the process, and he no doubt rates a deserving favorite over a group he’s essentially beaten soundly already this spring. Son of Lucky Pulpit enters off a six-race winning streak for Sherman while doing it under a variety of circumstances and running styles, which only adds to his appeal over a group that, on paper, has yet to approach his level. Of course, we’ve seen better horses than this Cal-bred come up short, at lesser odds against lesser foes, too, so it’s hardly a foregone conclusion that he hits the winner’s circle first, especially from a tricky draw that sees the other speed to his outside. Versatile runner has a knack of getting the best trip, but there’s a chance he’s the inside speed today, so with Samraat and Tonalist keeping him honest from the outside, he’s no doubt going to have to run hard every step of the way. And even if the latter goes and sets the pace, he’s at the very least good enough to drag this guy along through a solid mile, which could leave him wanting in the lane, all at a trip that could very well test his scope. Point being, while rooting for him is easy and even recommended, taking 1-2 is a completely different story on a horse with a tricky pace scenario, who isn’t all that much faster than his main rivals, and who meets the starter for the third time in five weeks and 13th time in a career that hasn’t seen a break of more than two months since April 2013; 37 years and counting.
#3 Matterhorn: The first of two from Pletcher was a meek fourth behind Tonalist in the local prep, the GII Peter Pan, and will no doubt have to do a ton better to make waves against this field. Private purchase (he was owned by Coolmore prior to his last) has started only four times and won just once, so to say he’s being thrown into the deep end of the pool might even be a bit tame. If you’re looking for positives, you do get the best trainer on the planet at a huge price, but on paper this son of Tapit is a decided cut below; midpack finish appears his ceiling.
#4 Commanding Curve: Surprising Derby runner-up closed from the clouds in Louisville with a strong stretch run after a wide, trouble-free trip while his saltier rivals played bumper cars behind him, so where he would have finished in a cleanly run race is anyone’s guess. Yet there’s little doubt he’s on the improve for Stewart and deserves a ton of credit for rallying into a slow pace in the Derby and finishing clear of the rest, while only 1 1/4 lengths behind ‘Chrome. There are some problems here, though, as he has no speed at all and deep closers don’t win the Belmont too often, not to mention he’s still eligible for one of the those N1X’s they’ll run here this week, meaning he’s going to be spotting a lot of ground and winning experience to several who are much faster than he is on figures. You’re also going to have to take an underlaid price on this Master Command colt, who was 37-1 in the Derby and will be less than half of that here; respect the West Point crew, but willing to make this one prove it.
#5 Ride On Curlin: Accomplished runner gave ‘Chrome a bit of a scare in the Preakness when he was second and well ahead of the rest in what was a breakthrough run after finishing seventh in the Derby, though you never really got the impression he was in with a winning chance that day, as the chalk always seemed to have him at bay. Sire Curlin was beaten a scant head in this race in 2007, so you know the trip is within his scope, but you also have to worry about regression, as his run at Pimlico was by far the best he’s ever done, and he’ll be making his 12th lifetime start here, which means he’s logged a lot of miles in a short period of time. Trainer Gowan has done an excellent job with this versatile colt and that 7-furlong drill in 1:28 over the track 6/1 sure seemed to suggest he’s still thriving on activity, but the gut says there are going to be a few better than he is on Saturday, like there have been all winter and spring; eligible for a part.
#6 Matuszak: The longest of the longshots is a surprising entrant for Mott, who rarely runs them where they can’t win, as he’s about 15 lengths behind this crew, no matter what kind of speed figures you want to use. Son of Bernardini is another with no speed, so not only is he seemingly overmatched on talent, but he’s also up against it in terms of running style as well. Deep closer has yet to make a dent in seven starts against winners, and this sure isn’t the spot to break the mold; get home safely.
#7 Samraat: Talented New York-bred gave a fine account of himself when he was fifth in the Derby after looking eye-to-eye with ‘Chrome entering the far turn, in an effort that surprised many, this handicapper included. Noble Causeway homebred was game as they come winning a pair of GIII’s over the inner track at Aqueduct this winter, and he’s shown time and again he can be a daunting presence when pressing/stalking from the outside, which is the exact trip he figures to pull Saturday for Violette. Getting a 1 1/2 miles might be asking a lot, but he showed in the Derby that he’s good enough to shadow the big horse early and often, which means that while a win here isn’t likely, he may still have a big impact on the outcome; know him early, not sure about late.
#8 Commissioner: Tricky read looked great winning his seasonal debut over Top Billing in a GP optional claimer in January but has struggled since, going winless in four graded stakes starts. Beautifully bred son of A.P. Indy is one of the few in here who should relish this trip, and he was an improved second, albeit a non-threatening one, behind Tonalist in the Peter Pan, so at least you know he’s seemingly in good form. He also showed some more tactical speed that day, which means he could sit the right midpack, stalking trip today while tipping out off the far turn, which would make him intriguing if the pace becomes contested up front. And while he won’t be as big of a price as stablemate Matterhorn, he should be every bit of 20-1, which means he’s not the worst price stab in a race where all hell could break loose if the chalk falters; thinking he fires a biggie.
#9 Wicked Strong: Sharp winner of the GI Wood Memorial at Aqueduct had trouble when fourth in the Derby, some of his own doing and some because of others, and is one of a few in here that has a right to think he would have been second with a clear run. Jerkens charge will probably go off as the second-choice today, and while his Wood is likely good enough to win this, anything else on his resume simply doesn’t stack up against this crew’s best, so you’re going to have to take an underlaid price to find out just how good he is, not to mention whether a son of Hard Spun can get 12 furlongs. Stretch-runner does usually make up ground in the lane, which is a good sign in a race where some of these could be staggering home, but if he drops too far out of it early, it’s tough to envision him reeling them all in late, no matter how fast they go up front; tread lightly if he’s for you.
#10 General a Rod: Roman Ruler colt joins ‘Chrome and Ride On Curlin as the only three to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, though in the grand scheme of things it means little today. Tactical runner was a decent fourth in Baltimore for Maker, which was an improvement off his 11th-place finish in the Derby, and a clean run at Pimlico likely would have gotten him third, as he did have some trouble. Rosie gets aboard today and you have to wonder if she puts him in the race a bit earlier, as he showed plenty of speed in Florida and could run the risk of being wide into the turn if he isn’t at least urged a bit. Talented hoss isn’t exactly bred for this and seems to catch a muddled pace scenario that won’t flatter his style, so you have to think he’s a fringe player, at best; using in the bottom rung of the exotics, if at all.
#11 Tonalist: The “now” horse sure looked good wiring the Peter Pan in the slop while setting fast fractions and streaking home under the line, and he rates as a serious pace presence, if not more, today. Clement has done a nice job picking his spots this year with a horse who has had a few issues along the way, but there’s no doubt his last was a breakthrough and delivered on the promise he showed at GP earlier this winter. Son of Tapit seems a bit sketchy going this far, but there’s little doubt he’ll impact the race from either on the lead or pressing the issue from the outside, especially since this wide draw forces his hand a bit. Lightly raced colt has just four starts coming into this, meaning he’s spotting a ton of experience, but he’s immensely talented, which means at the very least he’s going to be in there for the long haul while potentially affecting the chances of ‘Chrome and anyone else who wants to tango with him early. And that’s where the rub comes in, since he likely has to be good enough to wire the Derby and Preakness winner while running fast early and often, or be good enough by pressing him into the ground from the outside and still having something left to hold off the bevy of stalker/closers entered. And when you say that aloud, it seems like it’s asking an awful lot; taking a strong stand against.
#1 Medal Count
#2 California Chrome
#9 Wicked Strong