The Belmont Stakes, the final leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, is being billed as Round 3 between Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness Stakes champ Shackleford. That marketing hype -- in lieu of a Triple Crown attempt, build up the best storyline and pray for a healthy turnout -- is understandable though a bit shortsighted. The top seven finishers from the Kentucky Derby are back to contest the Belmont, making Saturday's "Test of the Champion" more than just a two-horse race.
The Belmont has recently been a very tricky handicapping exercise -- in the last nine years alone, long shots Sarava (70-1 in 2002,), Da' Tara (39-1 in '08) and Birdstone (36-1 in '04) have all shocked at big prices -- and this year's deep field makes the 2011 version especially challenging. That however will not deter this horseplayer from attempting to solve the Belmont puzzle.
Some words of caution before you proceed: Though these predictions correctly forecasted Nehro to place and Mucho Macho Man to show in the Derby, they did not have Animal Kingdom to win. (Thank heaven for trifecta boxes.) And this analysis completely missed Shackleford in the Preakness, though my wife correctly picked him. So read the selections below carefully, and perhaps you should go with the choice of Mrs. Menez, who says, "I'm sticking with Shackleford."
The selections, in order (morning line odds in parentheses):
Jockey John Velazquez and trainer Graham Motion have attributed Animal Kingdom's runner-up finish in the Preakness to being too far back and having too much ground to make up. The Derby winner broke slowly and took a lot of dirt in the face, which combined to force him to the rear by some 18 lengths. He still ran a huge race, rallying strongly to lose by only a half-length to Shackleford.
Since the Preakness, Animal Kingdom has turned in a fast workout (similar to the impressive work he put in a week before the Derby), hinting that the grueling Triple Crown trail has taken nothing out of him. And his pedigree and running style suggest that he will love the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont. Though the pace of the race figures to be slow, Animal Kingdom shouldn't be too far off it. Everything points to another big race from the Derby winner.
After the Derby, jockey Corey Nakatani said that Nehro, who finished second while stalking the early pace, was actually hindered by the slow fractions in the Derby because they did not allow the colt to get into his "high cruising speed," where he's at his best. The Belmont is shaping up to be quite paceless itself so it's doubtful he'll hit that high cruising speed on Saturday either.
Nehro, however, does have an advantage: He skipped the Preakness to freshen up for the Belmont -- something the last five Belmont winners have done -- and on May 30 trainer Steve Asmussen said Nehro put in his "best work" ever. As with Animal Kingdom, the Belmont distance should not be a problem for this son of Mineshaft. He's a major contender.
If you read the Preakness preview, you already know this story, but here it is again: In a Louisville restaurant four hours after Mucho Macho Man ran third in the Derby, I ran into one of the minority owners of the colt, who told me, "He's going to win the Belmont." Then at a press luncheon in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday, Barry Irwin, head of the partnership group that owns Animal Kingdom, called Mucho Macho Man, not Shackleford, the "horse to beat."
I'd have their level of confidence in Mucho Macho Man if he didn't lose a shoe in the Preakness and finish sixth, and if his sire wasn't Macho Uno, who is not known for producing horses with 12-furlong stamina. But Mucho Macho Man did turn in a bullet workout on Sunday, and I wouldn't be surprised if he proved the aforementioned tipsters prophetic.
This Aidan O'Brien trainee ran a sneaky good Derby, weaving through traffic to finish fifth. He then skipped the Preakness to resume training in Europe. The extra time off, combined with the additional two furlongs of the Belmont, make Master of Hounds a logical choice for the exotics.
5 Brilliant Speed (15-1)
Perhaps no horse in the field is bred to handle the 12 furlongs of the Belmont better than Brilliant Speed, who is a son of Dynaformer and a Gone West mare. After finishing seventh in the Derby, he bypassed the Preakness and should be near the back of the pack for the first mile in the Belmont. He'll likely be running at the end but is a better candidate for the gimmicks than the top spot.
12 Shackleford (9-2)
He tired at the end of the Derby and finished fourth. He tired at the end of the Preakness but still held on by a desperate half-length. But with the Belmont measuring 1 1/2 miles, I have serious doubts Shackleford can hang around without faltering at the end. His sire, Forestry, excelled in one-turn races.
Shackleford, however, has improved in each of his last three races, and if he can relax on the front end (which he has shown), slow the pace down to a walk and turn the finish into a quarter-mile drag race, then perhaps he can last longer than expected.
4 Santiva (15-1)
Here's an intriguing exotics play. He was one of many running late in the Derby, where he finished sixth, and then took time off to tune up for the Belmont. With his tactical speed, Santiva should be placed near the front and then he'll run as far as he can. Being a son of Giant's Causeway, that could be pretty far.
8 Prime Cut (15-1)
Expect the Neil Howard trainee to be prominent early, and he might even set the pace if Shackleford chooses not to go. But will he be prominent late? He has finished in the money in his last six races, so perhaps he can stick around, but with so many distance pedigrees in the race, I'll be looking elsewhere.
2 Stay Thirsty (20-1)
Uncle Mo's stablemate has regressed in his last two races, losing by a combined 28 lengths. Maybe the time between the Derby and Belmont will help him. Maybe his pedigree (his sire is Bernardini) will kick in at the quarter pole. I'm taking a stand against.
3 Ruler On Ice (20-1)
This son of Roman Ruler is coming off a second-place finish in the Federico Tesio to Concealed Identity, who finished 10th in the Preakness. Ruler on Ice would have to improve by many lengths to hit the board.
11 Isn't He Perfect (30-1)
He turned in his best Beyer speed figure (87) in the Preakness but still was no factor in the race, finishing ninth. He doesn't figure to be a factor on Saturday either.
7 Monzon (30-1)
His sire, Thunder Gulch, won the Belmont in 1995, but there are few other reasons to like Monzon, who has finished off the board in his last two races.
For dispatches from Belmont Park on race day, follow @SI_GeneMenez on Twitter.