Handicapping the Belmont Stakes
It was the scratch heard 'round the world: On Friday, I'll Have Another was pulled out of Saturday's Belmont Stakes because of tendonitis in his left foreleg, and trainer Doug O'Neill announced the horse's official retirement. I'll Have Another will not even get a chance to try and become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.
The defection of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner from the race has deflated a horse racing nation. But the Belmont will still be run, and there will still be a winner -- just not the one that so many fans wanted to see.
He was the choice in this space even before I'll Have Another scratched from the race. Five weeks ago, despite running seven-wide at Churchill Downs, Dullahan closed strongly to finish third, beaten by just 1 ¾ lengths. He skipped the Preakness to freshen up and seems to have thrived with the rest; no Belmont runner has trained as beautifully as Dullahan leading up to the race. (He fired a bullet work on Sunday, which was reminiscent of the bullet he ran leading up to his victory in the Blue Grass Stakes.) And he should benefit from the added distance of the Belmont.
The recent history of the final Triple Crown leg hasn't favored deep closers, but Romans said he expects his horse to be much closer to the pace. There are many factors pointing Dullahan's way even before considering the jockey switch to Castellano, who's arguably the hottest rider around, winning at a 25 percent clip. Even with his 0-for-4 record on dirt, Dullahan is set up to run a big one on Saturday.
Just like his stablemate Bodemeister, Paynter is a speed horse trained by Baffert, ridden by Mike Smith and owned by Ahmed Zayat. Before I'll Have Another scratched out of the Belmont, assistant trainer Dennis O'Neill, who saw Paynter at Santa Anita, said that he was the horse in the Belmont who scared him the most.
Earlier this year, Baffert dubbed Paynter, not Bodemeister, as his best three-year-old, but Paynter took a bit longer to develop. He's just now turning into a running monster, easily winning his last race by 5 ¾ lengths and earning a 106 Beyer in the process. He has since turned in a bullet work and is coming up to the Belmont with the arrow pointing way up.
A son of Breeders Cup Classic winner Awesome Again, Paynter should have no trouble handling the 1 ½ mile distance of the race. He'll be prominent early and late. Dangerous.
This big and strong colt will be dismissed by bettors because he's light on races and speed figures (his best Beyer is an 82). But McPeek, who shocked at the 2002 Belmont with 70-1 shot Sarava, says that Unstoppable U has never been outworked in the mornings or outrun in the afternoons, so the trainer is willing to swing for the fences. Having drawn the 2 hole, Unstoppable U will likely go to the front. This will be a significant step up in class, but if others don't fire, it's possible he could hang on for a piece -- speed horses have recently run well in the Belmont.
The favorite for the Kentucky Derby for much of the spring, Union Rags broke slowly at Churchill and never really fired, passing tired horses to finish seventh. He has trained well since, firing two bullets, but he also trained well before his last two races, both losses. He has yet to prove he has progressed from age 2 to 3, and the distance for this son of Dixie Union is another concern.
The rider switch to Velazquez can only help, but Union Rags will have to avoid the traffic trouble that he has encountered in his last two starts and run the race of his life to be in the hunt in the end.
Horses who finish strongly at nine furlongs are often wise guy selections for the 1 ½-mile Belmont; that's the case with Street Life, who will be closing from out of the clouds. That late-running style, however, didn't work in his last race (third in the Peter Pan by 1 ¾ lengths) even though the pace seemed to set things up for him. A son of Street Sense, Street Life should be able to handle the Belmont distance and will be running at the end, but he'll need a pace meltdown to do more than flirt with the bottom of the exotics.
Another McPeek trainee, Atigun is improving at the right time, having earned his two best career Beyers (both 89s). McPeek says he's training well, but he'll need a hot pace (remember, his stablemate Unstoppable U should be the controlling speed) to make any noise down the stretch.
Breen and owners George and Lori Hall are aiming to repeat as Belmont winners -- their horse Ruler on Ice won last year's race at 24-1 -- and they're doing so with another long shot. After two good efforts in Grade 3s to begin 2012, My Adonis has regressed in his last two starts, including a disappointing third at Pimlico on Kentucky Derby day when he faded as a 1-5 favorite. Hard to see the Halls in the winners circle again.
It has been a tough few weeks for Lukas, whose Optimizer finished sixth, beaten 15 ½ lengths, in the Preakness. (He has lost his last three races in the Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness by a combined 48 lengths.) Then on Tuesday Lukas was kicked in the head by one of his horses, cutting a gash that required stitches. The Belmont should provide another tough blow for Lukas as Optimizer hasn't finished in the money since finishing second to a tiring Secret Circle in the Rebel in March. Not optimistic on Optimizer.
The good news is that this son of Invasor is running as fast as he ever has and that his pedigree suggests he could handle the distance better than some of the others in here. The bad news is that he's still not fast enough, even with the services of Napravnik, and that he's coming off an 11 ¾-length defeat in his last.
Unraced since March 10, Ravelo's Boy's best claim is finishing fifth to Prospective, beaten 6 ¾ lengths, in the Tampa Derby. Handicappers who go by colors, numbers or names may be interested, but others shouldn't.
There's little to like about this $5,500 Keeneland sales grad, who finally broke his maiden on April 7 but regressed in his last outing, finishing 6 ¼ lengths behind Unstoppable U at the optional claiming level. Shivmangal, a.k.a. 'The Dood,' is winning at just a seven percent clip. Sorry, Dood.