Before the Preakness, trainer Linda Rice commented in a DRF story that The Belmont Stakes was in fact the preferred spot for Kid Cruz, citing her belief that the son of Belmont Stakes-winner Lemon Drop Kid would be advantaged by the race’s distance.
This got us to thinking. We find it a particular challenge to handicap 12-furlong dirt races because we so rarely see races of that “marathon” length (global readers, please, no teasing us for calling a mile and 1/2 a marathon!) on the “preferred” surface here in the USA. If we find it tricky just to conjure a selection, how good could any modern day American trainer be at preparing a horse to run in a race like this?
More specifically, how could any trainer of this year’s Belmont contenders feel “smart” training for a 12-furlong dirt race?
We looked into it, and the results largely made us feel better about our inexperience. With a few exceptions.
The data below goes back as early as 1991, though many of the trainers began their careers as head trainers later than that. And for these purposes, we grouped in the races longer than 12 furlongs, too (a diminishingly small list)–anything to add to the sample size. As you may have guessed, it didn’t help the sample size much at all.
What did help was to upgrade trainers who have shown some reasonably strong history of 12-furlong wins on turf. More on that later.
Let’s start with Art Sherman, trainer of the conquering California Chrome. Since 1991, Art Sherman’s runners have made 9,044 starts…and only 6 of those came in a 12-furlong dirt race. He won twice (!)–Dynamic Host’s win in the March 2012 Tokyo City Cup (you learn something every day) and True Enough’s win in a 1991 Starter Handicap at Bay Meadows. You remember that last one like it was yesterday, right? Overall, Sherman has run horses at the distance of 12 furlongs, across ALL surfaces, just 11 times in the last 23+ years.
Commanding Curve’s trainer, Dallas Stewart, has 4,824 starts in his career, but only 5 have been in 12-furlong dirt races–and he didn’t win any of those. When you throw in turf racing, Stewart does have 3 winners from 29 starts over that distance. Remember turf marathoner Silverfoot?
Dale Romans is bringing Medal Count to NY for “The Test of the Champion,” and while he managed to stretch out Little Mike quite nicely on grass, on the dirt, Romans is 0-12 in 12-furlong races since 1991, from more than 10,000 starters.
Other 0-fers at 12 furlongs since 1991: Wicked Strong’s Jimmy Jerkens (0-6 on dirt from 3000 career starts) and Social Inclusion’s Manny Azpurua’s (0-8 over all surfaces from ~6000 starts dating back to ’91).
Mild kudos to Ride on Curlin’s Bill Gowan, who has managed 5 starts at 12 furlongs from only 529 career starters. Compared to most, that’s quite a clip. Alas, neither of his 2 dirt starters won at this distance.
Let’s get into the trainers who are based in New York:
Linda Rice, who got us thinking in the first place. In her 7,000 starts since 1991, she’s 0 for 6 in 12-furlong races over any surface (and we’re still counting all of her turf sprint wins). Kid Cruz may love the Belmont distance, but his boss can hardly be described as specializing in it.
Rick Violette trains hard-knocking Samraat. Violette has had 4,128 starters since 1991, but only 7 of them were at 12f on dirt. He won with one of those (you remember Rivar breaking his maiden at Belmont just 5 days after Hansel won the Belmont, don’t you?), and also is 3 for 28 on turf going 12f. As far as this list goes, Violette’s looking better than most so far.
Belmont longshot Matuszak is trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott. Mott has nearly 15,000 starters since 1991, but only 15 of them were in 12-furlong dirt races. Roughly 1 of every 1000 starts, yikes. But it’s Mott. He’s 3 for 15 in those dirt marathons, and when including all surfaces, he goes to 47/277, 17% winners. Despite his paucity of starts going 12 furlongs on dirt, we have to upgrade Mott simply for his success with 12 furlong turf runners–Mott’s had runners go to the winners’ circle 44 times after turf races. If you owned a Belmont horse, wouldn’t you feel comfortable with Mott doing the coaching? The further away the 2010 Belmont gets, the more the 13-1 on Mott-trained Drosselmeyer seems like a gift.
Two left on our Belmont Stakes 2014 Trainers list:
Todd Pletcher (longshots Matterhorn & Commissioner this year) has 15,482 starts over his career since taking out his training license in December of 1995.
He’s had 200 starts at 12 furlongs over all surfaces and won 42 of them. Oh so Pletcher-esque. How about the subset of those 200 on dirt? 17 for 66, people. Damn solid.
Of those 17 wins, 15 of them came in some type of stakes. You know, Tweedside winning the Coaching Club American Oaks back when it was at 12 furlongs. Or Rags to Riches. Or Palace Malice. Is Pletcher advantaged by the blue-bloodedness of his horses? Hey, probably. But still, you have to give the guy some credit, no? He’s another who has taken his horses long on turf, with 23 wins going 12 furlongs.
You might expect Christophe Clement to excel at 12 furlongs, and you’d be right–on turf. On turf, he’s 40 for 254; decent, but let’s give him bonus points for 24 of those wins coming in Graded Stakes. 40 wins going 12f on turf. 24 stakes. He knows what to do…but on dirt, Christophe Clement, over 7,448 career starts, is 0 for 6. Like Mott, he has such a long and storied history with grass horses going long, we can’t help but think he can transfer his form to dirt. Of course, he’s gotta have the right horse. Tonalist has never run that fast on TimeformUS Speed Figures, and will take some action in the Belmont. But he’s out of a Pleasant Colony mare (one of our favorite damsires for going long on dirt), and he has Cristophe Clement in his corner. Despite his lack of a track record in 12-furlong dirt races, we think he’s still a big plus here.