JC / Railbird

Triple Crown Archive

Picks, Plays, and Thanks

Belmont Stakes day picks, up on Hello Race Fans.

Kevin Martin, of Colin’s Ghost, asked five handicappers how they would bet the Belmont Stakes with $100. Valerie Grash offers some pedigree plays that hold up even with I’ll Have Another’s sudden retirement.

As for that, like everyone else on hearing the news, I was disappointed. What a letdown! But, like everyone else, I can’t see that trainer Doug O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam did anything but their best by the horse, scratching him when he came up with a sore tendon after galloping on Friday.

Team IHA also did right by the bettors — imagine the outcry there would have been if I’ll Had Another had finished other than as the winner and it emerged — as it would have — that he had had some heat and swelling in his left front leg and so wasn’t 100 percent. Oh, we would have howled! How could they let us bet him? How could they have run him?

By putting the horse first, they protected the horseplayer.

Belmont Bombs

Andrew Beyer mentions something that’s been on my mind as I start thinking about how to play this year’s Belmont Stakes:

Forget about handicapping; if you bet every starter in every Belmont Stakes for the last 15 years you’d have almost doubled your money.

Last year, I looked at the win payouts for each of the Triple Crown races and the five Grade 1 Kentucky Derby preps over a decade, and the Belmont was the race that offered the greatest opportunity:

Only one favorite has won the Belmont Stakes in the past 10 years, and that was Afleet Alex in 2005. Handicappers look for longshots in the Derby, but the Belmont has delivered a higher average price ($43.61) and a healthy ROI in recent years — if you had bet $2 to win on all 110 Belmont starters since 2002, you would have almost doubled your money.

There’s a lot to like about I’ll Have Another on Saturday, but the Belmont is the classic race to look for an upset with a rewarding payoff.

Desormeaux Speaks

Not to the press — “I gave my interview after the race, and I really have nothing more to say,” said the jockey (NYT) — but with trainer Rick Dutrow and the stewards. Dutrow said he and the rider are “back on target” (Blood-Horse) after meeting this morning at Aqueduct to discuss the Belmont. As for the stewards, Demormeaux spoke with them for about 20 minutes early this afternoon. It is uncertain what action, if any, the officials might — or should — take.

Tuesday Links

– Summer countdown: 35 days to Del Mar, 42 to Saratoga.
– Curlin breezed an easy half mile in :49 flat at Churchill on Monday, in his final prep for the upcoming Stephen Foster. After grousing over the 128 impost and making vague threats about withdrawing the reigning Horse of the Year from the race, trainer Steve Asmussen confirmed yesterday afternoon that Curlin would start on Saturday: “Not running would be an injustice to him” (Courier-Journal).
– So true: “No matter how dominating a horse may look in a key prep race, or in a previous Triple Crown race, the ultra competitive spring classics provide no tolerance for any interruption of training” (DRF+).
– Trainer Rick Dutrow feels like a loser, scapegoats his jockey. (More discussion of Kent Desormeaux’s Belmont ride and the developing conflict among the connections here, here, here, and here.) Meanwhile, IEAH president Michael Iavarone is talking about the Haskell as a possible next start for Big Brown: “I know we’d get favorable conditions on a track that is more to our liking” (NYT).
– Zaftig, who won the Acorn most impressively under a handride after John Velazquez lost his whip mid-stretch, will point to the Mother Goose, where she could meet up with Oaks victress Proud Spell and up-and-comer Music Note.


ESPN commentator Pat Forde gleefully kicks a down Dutrow:

How now does it feel to be the freshly humbled fool of thoroughbred racing, after your waltz to the Triple Crown turned into a disaster, a last-place finish, a Brownout? How now do you justify all the obnoxious bragging about your horse, Big Brown? How now do you possibly answer for having flagrantly disrespected the difficulty of the task before you?
You remember, babe: Winning the Belmont and the first Triple Crown in 30 years was a “foregone conclusion.” You dismissed the field by saying, “These horses just cannot run with Big Brown.” You envisioned winning this race “by daylight, easily. I just don’t see no dogfight in this race.”
It might not have been a dogfight. But there was one dog in the race: the Brown Bomber. This was the worst performance by a Brown since W. told Mike he was doing a heck of a job handling Katrina.

Oh, that’s low, but I won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy reading.
And Steven Crist points out something I’d missed:

Two other races came to mind after the Belmont, ones involving previous skirmishes between the winning and losing connections. In the 2005 Woodward, Rick Dutrow ran two overmatched sprinters at Zito’s Commentator to soften him up for Saint Liam. In the Wood Memorial two months ago, IEAH entered the rabbit Inner Light to wear down War Pass early for the benefit of their Court Vision. Both times it “worked” insofar as compromising Zito’s chances. Zito never complained publicly about either incident, and I’m not saying he entered D’Tara and Anak Nakal in retribution, or instructed their riders to surround Big Brown on the first turn, but there was at least a pinch of karma involved in the way it all worked out.

Sometimes, the universe rights itself …
Faultless Big Brown is back at the Big A, and apparently in fine health, leaving his people befuddled about what happened on Saturday. Barring any late-breaking veterinary finds, there’ll never be a good explanation, although I subscribe to the theory that he wasn’t fit, having lost four days training and posting only one work before the Belmont (and that, not as good as it looked). Blame has been heaped on “lazy” Kent Desormeaux elsewhere. Since I’ve never even been on a horse, much less hurtled along at high speed in a tight pack on one, I hate to second guess jockeys in these situations, but did find his words about pulling up Big Brown because he wasn’t “going to be fifth” a bit disturbing. What bothers me more, though, is the lack of transparency and accountability — if the New York stewards talked to Desormeaux afterwards, examined the ride or the results in any detail, or contemplated any action, we’ll never know, since that sort of information isn’t published anywhere. So, it’s all speculation, as is anything on the topic of steroids — it’s a guess whether being off Winstrol affected Big Brown, or if being on steroids helped Da’ Tara, especially since trainer Nick Zito declined to say whether the Belmont winner or Anak Nakal were injected in the days before the race. It’s a safe bet both were, but much like any inquiry by the stewards into Desormeaux’s decision to pull up, there’s no information available, no data kept, no public right to know.

Da’ Tara 99

Unpressured, allowed to coast through the first two quarters in :48.30, three quarters in 1:12.90, and the mile in 1:37.96, Da’ Tara wrapped up the Belmont in 2:29.65, the slowest final time since Sarava in 2002, for which he was assigned a Beyer speed figure of 99, the lowest in the past 15 years:

Trainer Nick Zito said the unexpected winner would be pointed to the Jim Dandy and Travers this summer, along with stablemate Anak Nakal, who finished in a deadheat for third with Todd Pletcher-trainee Ready’s Echo.

Back to the Races

– Finally, a winner (I have not done so well with my TBA picks today). J Be K, pressured through a first half in :44.89, rebuffed dogged longshot True Quality at the top of the stretch, drawing away to take the Woody Stephens with a final time of 1:21.85 and paying $7.20 for the win. Silver Edition got up for second, True Quality finished third. It was second stakes win of the day for rider Garrett Gomez, who will be aboard Macho Again in the Belmont.
– The Manhattan is the deepest, most competitive stakes on today’s card, with the formidable Out of Control, second to Einstein in the Turf Classic last out, and 2007 Manhattan winner Better Talk Now among the starters. Coupled with his rabbit, Shake the Bank, Better Talk Now is 7-1 with 12 minutes to post. I went with Proudinsky, coming off a win in the Muniz Handicap over the yielding turf at Fair Grounds, and Dancing Forever, winner of the Elkhorn at Keeneland at April, in a small pick four I have going. I’m awfully tempted to take a flyer on Stalingrad, making his first graded stakes appearance, and now 12-1 on the board. The 4-year-old gelding has been dominant in his first two local starts this year, but whether he’ll appreciate the added distance or has the class are questions.
– What a terrific finish: five across, then three across, then two heads bobbing for the win, with 4-1 Dancing Forever on the inside beating Out of Control by a nose. Well done!
– Watching the walk from the barns to the paddock on ABC and I’m struck by Big Brown’s appearance — it could be the angle or the light, but he looks ribby and thin in the flank, although his coat is shiny and his haunches well muscled …
– With 20 minutes to post, maiden Guadalcanal is at an inexplicable 23-1 on the board. Big Brown is at 1-4.
– The Belmont field is on the track and Ed checks in with a report: “This crowd is electric … they’re all forgetting about the plumbing, etc. Amazing experience.”
– Kent Desormeaux: “I had no horse.” Big Brown, rank in the first turn, unresponsive to his rider’s urging on the far turn, eased at the top of the stretch. Not how anyone wanted this to end. Fortunately, Big Brown does not appear lame, but he did just become the first Triple Crown hopeful to finish last (that can’t be good for his future stud fee). Congratulations to Nick Zito and rider Alan Garcia, who pulled off a wire-to-wire upset with 38-1 Da’ Tara.
– Zito is all class while being interviewed by Jeanine Edwards in the winner’s circle. Asked whether he would have started a horse with a quarter crack in the Belmont, Zito gracefully refuses to question the decision to run Big Brown or Dutrow’s judgment and turns the conversation back to his winner. Garcia is bubbly and charming thanking owner Robert LaPenta for the chance to ride Da’ Tara. As for the Big Brown connections, here’s a comment from someone on the scene:

IEAH and Dutrow show their classlessness in defeat. The whole world is watching and they duck out and sulk. Desormeaux was the only one who took time to talk to media.

Good for Desormeaux. I’m sure the loss was crushing for him, coming so close to a Triple Crown for the second time, as well as for the trainer who called the Belmont “a foregone conclusion.” Dutrow may have fled the press this afternoon, but the questions about Big Brown’s fitness will persist, and he missed a chance to show sportsmanship and humility …
– 8:10 p.m. update: Attendance was 94,476, way off from the crowd that packed Belmont when Smarty Jones went for the Triple Crown. Total handle has been estimated at $99,850,000, about 13% less than 2004.

No Water!

Commenter John S. reports from the scene:

The entire Belmont Park plant has NO WATER! All the toilets are backing
up and it’s 96 degrees and there, obviously, is no drinking water for the lord-knows-how-many patrons. Never make fun of Pimlico again!

Sounds dreadful, and dangerous. Let’s hope the problem is taken care of quickly, for everyone’s safety and comfort.
4:15 p.m. update: I just talked to Teresa of Brooklyn Backstretch, up on the Belmont third floor, and she has a sorry tale — the men’s bathrooms have been locked, the women’s bathrooms are in poor shape, and the situation is worsening as hot, inebriated people realize they have no place to relieve themselves. “I already have tomorrow’s blog post written,” she warned. I recommend you check her site on Sunday for all the details.
4:45 p.m. addendum: The third floor men’s rooms are open once again, and “spotlessly clean.” Does this mean the water situation is resolved? Let’s hope so.

Belmont Day Notes

– Two races into the card and it looks — as Paul Moran surmised it would, reporting earlier today that the “maintenance crew scraped the surface on Friday and the course was inexplicably sealed at about 9 a.m.” — as though we have a faster surface than we’ve seen all week at Belmont. In the first, Desert Key wired, getting the first half in :45.12 and finishing in 1:08.80, while in the second, maiden Sixthirteen squeaked out a similar run, flying through a half in :44.80 and wrapping up 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:16.70. In both races, the place horse was the same horse that chased the leader from the start.
– NYRA’s online wagering service does now show Casino Drive scratched, but the site is exhibiting plenty of other problems. I’m getting kicked out every couple minutes and have been presented with one “System busy” error so far, which does not bode well for later afternoon.
– If Big Brown wins the Belmont Stakes, I have the perfect epilogue to my book on great American racehorses. Yet, like Pete Fornatale, I’m kind of rooting for him to lose … but then, like Andrew Beyer, I suspect he’s so superior to this field that even with lost training time and a patched hoof, “he is unlikely to be beaten.” At least if Big Brown does win, we won’t see Hooters girls in the winner’s circle.
– In the fourth, Kent Desormeaux scored his first win of the day, coming through on the rail with favored Forefathers.
– ESPN just showed footage of a rambunctious Big Brown in the detention barn, kicking and bucking in his stall. Trainer Bob Baffert says, “If I were an opposing trainer, I’d be feeling nervous. He looks good.” Big Brown is fresh.
– More fun with NYRA online wagering, which apparently was not prepared to scale for Belmont day. As of 3:30 p.m., all I’m getting from it are these two errors:

The application data was updated a moment ago and the item you selected does not exist anymore.
Error occurred when retrieving track information.
System busy.

Might be time to switch to TwinSpires, if that system is up …
Oh! New NYRA error at 3:41 p.m.:

Error occurred when retrieving toteboard M/L information.

Fantastic. I’ve been shut out of one of the card’s best betting races. Go, Vacare, Bayou’s Lassie, and Bit of Whimsy!
– Well, the NYRA site malfunction saved me money: 9-1 Ventura, getting a super trip inside and a dream ride from Garrett Gomez, came through in the stretch to win the Just a Game, with favored Lady of Venice, briefly boxed on the rail, taking second. As expected, lone speed Bayou’s Lassie was the pacesetter, but she faded back to fourth, with 44-1 Forever Together getting third for the wily combo of Jonathan Shepard and Ramon Dominguez.
– Another NYRA online error to report, this time at 4:38 p.m., 22 minutes to post for race nine: “All pools for race nine have been closed.” Right, NYRA … and by the way, where’s my refund on the $2 Casino Drive win wager that I shouldn’t have been allowed to make more than two hours after the colt was scratched?

Knock-knock-knockin’ on History’s Door

To me, winning the Triple Crown is a self-fulfilling accomplishment. That is, doing it is enough.
While the fact that no horse behind Big Brown in either of his Grade 1 victories has run better than 100 Beyer or earned a Ragozin figure better than a “5” certainly speaks to the inferiority of this crop in a general basis, I have been impressed by the way Big Brown has won his races: He’s winning by open lengths, overcoming obstacles, and making it look easy.
Other than Big Brown, there doesn’t appear to be any world beaters in today’s Belmont Stakes, but I do think this race will pose the dual classic winner’s toughest challenge because of the quarter crack issues, some missed training, and the 1 1/2-mile distance.
So going back to my original statement, if he wins his third classic race in five weeks then he’s a deserving Triple Crown winner. To me, the talent behind him becomes moot once he makes it happen.
If someone hit successfully in 57 consecutive Major League Baseball games to break Joe Dimaggio’s record, I wouldn’t care if it came against fifth starters–the accomplishment is enough, and that’s how I feel about Big Brown winning the Triple Crown.

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