Grade 1 Belmont Stakes | 1 1/2 Miles, Dirt, 3-year-olds
Belmont, Race 11, 6:37 p.m. (ET) | TimeformUS PPs
Most Likely Winner: Tacitus (#10)
While this Belmont Stakes lacks the spectacle of a Triple Crown attempt, it has nevertheless attracted two of the most talented members of this 3-year-old class. Most would concede that Tacitus and War of Will are more naturally gifted than their eight rivals, yet raw ability does not necessarily translate to success in the Test of the Champion. This demanding journey over 1 1/2 miles requires a combination of speed, stamina, seasoning, and sound temperament. The two favorites each possess many of those attributes, so it will be up to their riders to work out favorable trips.
The TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting that longshot Joevia (#1) will lead the field into the clubhouse turn, with War of Will (#9) taking up a stalking position in behind him. Todd Pletcher’s duo of Intrepid Heart (#8) and Spinoff (#6) should also be stalking the pace, with the former predicted to be racing closer than usual owing to the addition of blinkers. Morning line favorite Tacitus (#10) will settle into his preferred position in midpack, ahead of deep closers such as Sir Winston (#7) and Master Fencer (#3). While the Pace Projector is not characterizing the scenario as advantageous to any particular running style, horses who are successful in the Belmont Stakes do generally possess some tactical speed or an effective turn of foot.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, JOEVIA (30-1): This Gregg Sacco trainee is best known as the instigator of the traffic jam in the early stages of the Wood Memorial, as he veered over from his outside post position without sufficient clearance, causing trouble for many, including Belmont favorite Tacitus. The 113 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned for his Wood performance is respectable, but that number got a large boost from his raw final time figure of just 102 due to the fast pace. The fact that he has not come to close to matching that pace-adjusted number in his surrounding races suggests that it might not be the best indicator of his ability at this level. He’s certain to lead this field through the early stages provided that he breaks cleanly, but it would be a surprise if he were still in the mix at the quarter pole. Pass.
#2, EVERFAST (12-1): He was the surprise of the Preakness, outrunning his 29-1 odds – an underlay in the opinion of this handicapper – to rally for second behind War of Will. Trainer Dale Romans is never afraid to take a shot in a big race and his perseverance with this colt paid off last time out. However, it remains to be seen if that performance was merely a fluke or a signal that Everfast has finally turned a corner in his 11th career start. I personally believe that his improvement last time out was primarily a product of the race flow and his trip. Joel Rosario rode this horse as well as a jockey can possibly ride a deep closer, saving ground in the early stages, weaving through traffic on the turn, and ducking back down to clear sailing on the rail late. The pace of the Preakness was quite fast and some of the more notable closers raced too close to the intense early fractions. Therefore, Everfast was able to capitalize on the favorable circumstances while others were compromised. This colt does not possess the most convincing pedigree for the distance, and there is no shortage of closers this time. I prefer others. Pass.
#3, MASTER FENCER (8-1): The chestnut colt from Japan is likely to receive some support on the basis of his pleasantly surprising Kentucky Derby performance. Dismissed as an unworthy participant by many American fans, Master Fencer silenced most of those critics with his eye-catching late rally. He did not sustain a particularly taxing trip, but the unusual pace dynamics of the Derby certainly affected him. The pace was abnormal in the sense that it is incredibly rare to see both red (fast) and blue (slow) color-coded pace figures in the same running line of TimeformUS PPs. Master Fencer was in the right position – far back in 19th – for the frenzied opening of the Derby, but he found himself at a disadvantage as the crawling pack bunched up around the far turn. Leparoux had plenty of horse underneath him, but had to wait in traffic as a wall of thoroughbreds spread out ahead of him approaching the quarter pole. Once Leparoux finally found a clear lane toward the inside and asked Master Fencer for run, the colt displayed remarkable acceleration. He put in one of the fastest final quarter-mile splits in a Kentucky Derby in nearly a decade, passing 12 horses in the final two furlongs.
Master Fencer proved that he belongs among the elite U.S. 3-year-olds, but the Belmont Stakes is a different beast. Many assume that 1 1/2 miles will suit him, and there is some evidence to suggest that his connections always intended to run him over marathon distances. After all, he debuted going 1 1/4 miles in September of his 2-year-old season. However, this colt’s grinding style may not be suited to the flow of this race, and it’s unclear if he’ll be as effective over a fast American dirt track. There was some concern about his condition after a stumble during a workout last week, but all appears to be fine in the days leading up to the race. I think this intriguing colt deserves to be part of the conversation, but I prefer another late runner as my top selection. A major player in the exotics.
#4, TAX (15-1): On the surface, there are some things to like about Tax in this Belmont. His 120 TimeformUS Speed Figure from the Wood Memorial is actually the second-highest number in the field, behind only War of Will’s Preakness figure. He’s seemingly bred to handle extended route distances as a son of stamina influence Arch from a stout Claiborne female family. Furthermore, trainer Danny Gargan is one of the best in the business on the NYRA circuit, sending out winners at a high rate across a wide spectrum of class levels. Yet it’s hard me to get past the feeling that we may have already seen the best that this gelding has to offer. He improved so drastically off the claim for Gargan in the Remsen and he has failed to progress much further in the intervening months. Perhaps he didn’t handle the wet track in the Derby, but he was never in the bridle that day despite working out a great trip. Gargan has been less than enthusiastic when describing his workouts since that race, which is concerning given that many of his rivals appear to be reaching their peaks. Pass.
#5, BOURBON WAR (12-1): In retrospect, the decision to add blinkers for the Preakness may not have been the best move. Bourbon War was much keener than usual in the early stages of that race and ended up racing far closer to the early pace than the late runners such as Everfast, who were more successful. It’s no surprise that the blinkers come off this time, and the colt also gets a rider switch to Mike Smith. As I noted prior to the Preakness, Bourbon War is a difficult horse for trip handicappers to assess. He benefited from a very favorable set of circumstances when he closed to be second in the Fountain of Youth, yet he was then compromised by a slow pace in the Florida Derby. Typically, one would be inclined to downgrade a horse involved in the former scenario and upgrade a horse exiting the latter situation. His top TimeformUS Speed Figure of 110 is lower than most of his rivals, so it remains to be seen whether Bourbon War actually belongs among the elite 3-year-olds. He’s one of three colts in this race by excellent Belmont Stakes sire Tapit, but his dam, My Conquestadory, appeared to be best at a flat mile. I’m on the fence regarding his chances. Using underneath.
#6, SPINOFF (15-1): He garnered very little respect in the Kentucky Derby, and he performed accordingly. Whether it was the sloppy track or the atmosphere at Churchill Downs, Spinoff never seemed to have his mind on competing and he backed up readily on the far turn. That lack of effort on the biggest stage leaves many questions unanswered heading into the Belmont. He was visually impressive in his 3-year-old return at Tampa, but it was not until the Louisiana Derby that he earned a competitive speed figure. He ran quite well that day, forging to the lead at the eighth pole after a wide trip before tiring in the last sixteenth. Yet his failure to see out the 1 1/8-mile distance does not bode well for his prospects to stretch out further, and his pedigree raises more concerns. Hard Spun is a versatile sire, but he’s not known as a classic stamina influence. His dam Zaftig was one of the most brilliant fillies of the past two decades, but she was best at about a mile. Todd Pletcher’s runners typically merit respect in this race, but I find it difficult to build a case for this one. Pass.
#7, SIR WINSTON (12-1): Many will prefer the well-connected Intrepid Heart out of the Peter Pan, but I feel that this runner-up from that local prep merits serious consideration. Also trained by War of Will’s conditioner, Mark Casse, Sir Winston missed the Kentucky Derby after failing to make an impact in the early season prep races. While those results were disappointing, this colt did show some hints of ability along the way. He closed into a moderate pace in the Withers and was flying at the end of the Tampa Bay Derby, only hitting his best stride as those races were concluding. The light bulb finally went on in the Peter Pan. Sir Winston put in an incredible rally to get up for second behind the talented Global Campaign, finishing nearly five lengths ahead of today’s rival Intrepid Heart. That race featured an honest pace, yet Sir Winston still ran his final three furlongs in a remarkable 35 1/5 seconds, according to Trakus, displaying some of the most impressive closing speed that we have seen out of any 3-year-old in this crop. The fact that his TimeformUS Pace Figure line in the Peter Pan climbs from 101 to 113 over the closing splits suggests that his late rally was hardly a product of pace dynamics. Rather, he was finishing like a turf horse in a dirt race.
It’s true that the Belmont Stakes does not typically set up for deep closers, but Sir Winston is a different type of horse than the plodders I would typically bet against in this race. Like Master Fencer, he’s a closer who is not necessarily reliant on pace dynamics to be successful, especially as the distances increase. New rider Joel Rosario was able to elicit a serious turn of foot from this leggy colt last time out, and that effective finishing speed should allow him to overcome a potential pace disadvantage. His TimeformUS Late Pace Rating of 120 is impressive for a dirt horse and second only behind Master Fencer’s 132 (based only on his Kentucky Derby effort). Sir Winston is bred to get the Belmont distance as a son of Awesome Again out of the turf router La Gran Bailadora, herself a daughter of Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex. He has reportedly been training better than he ever has before leading into this Belmont, and I’m confident that he can improve on his top TimeformUS Speed Figure of 113 given the added ground. If Sir Winston goes off at anything close to his 12-1 morning line, he’s the right value play in a competitive race. The selection.
#8, INTREPID HEART (10-1): Todd Pletcher has been high on this colt from the start, discussing him as a potential Belmont Stakes starter since the winter. Those plans went smoothly in his first couple of starts, as Intrepid Heart easily defeated maidens and gamely ran down some allowance foes after a wide trip at Keeneland. However, he was briefly derailed from that path when he disappointed as the even-money favorite in the Peter Pan. The effort was not a complete disaster, as he actually earned his highest TimeformUS Speed Figure of 106. Yet his supporters were hoping that he would be capable of running much faster once he was actually put the test. The reason why he’s still being pointed for this race – and why many still consider him to be a viable contender – can be found in his pedigree. He’s a son of great stamina influence Tapit, and is a half-brother to Commissioner, who was a narrow second in this race behind Tonalist five years ago. This is also the same female family as Vino Rosso, the recent winner of the 10-furlong Gold Cup at Santa Anita. Yet pedigree alone will not make Intrepid Heart a winner of this race, and I did not see enough out of him in the Peter Pan to suggest he’s among the elite 3-year-olds. Todd Pletcher adds blinkers in an attempt to get him to focus, but it seems like Pletcher is grasping at straws in an attempt to make this relatively slow horse faster than he actually is. Using underneath.
#9, WAR OF WILL (2-1): There were plenty of reasons for Mark Casse and owner Gary Barber to immediately commit to the Belmont Stakes following War of Will’s Preakness victory. Mark Casse is rarely afraid to run his horses when they’re healthy, and there is the potential for great rewards if War of Will is successful on Saturday. A win in the Belmont would go a long way toward confirming what many believe about how costly that trouble in the Kentucky Derby may have actually been. It would also make War of Will a dual classic winner, and put him in position to win an Eclipse Award as Champion 3-year-old at the end of the year, joining a list of horses that includes names like Afleet Alex and Point Given.
Most racing fans acknowledge that War of Will was not beating the strongest field in the Preakness, but he nevertheless deserves credit for returning on just two weeks’ rest to deliver a career-best performance. The 122 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he recorded in victory is the highest number in the field. He achieved that triumph with a perfect trip from Tyler Gaffalione, saving ground around both turns before seamlessly slipping through an opening at the top of the stretch. Yet he projects to work out a similar stalking trip in this race, and he should not have to be used so aggressively from this outside post position after drawing the rail in his last two starts. Some may be concerned about his stamina as a son of War Front, but his female family includes some of the strongest route influences in this field. I’m more anxious about the fact that he’s making his third start in just five weeks. Casse has elected to train him up to the race without a timed workout, so we do not get a clear glimpse into his condition. There is no denying that War of Will is one of the most talented members of this crop, but we have seen the Triple Crown grind unexpectedly catch up to horses in the past. I do not see a great deal of betting value among the favorites in this race, but I certainly respect this colt’s ability. A major threat once again.
#10, TACITUS (9-5): The morning-line favorite is bred for this race. The grey Juddmonte colt is by renowned sire Tapit, who has produced three of the last five Belmont winners, and his dam is the champion mare Close Hatches, a Grade 1 winner going nine furlongs at Saratoga. Tacitus’s versatility is one of his greatest assets. He rallied from far off the pace in a crowded Kentucky Derby field, yet was able to sit much closer to a swift pace en route to victory in the Wood Memorial. He handled the dangerous start of the Wood like a seasoned professional, relaxing into his trip rather than coming undone, and he still displayed some greenness in the lane. While his Kentucky Derby trip was not ideal either, the trouble he encountered was not nearly as severe as that of others. He was bit too keen in the early stages and he had to alter course several times while attempting to find a clear path in the final three furlongs, yet he just kept coming. Tacitus is relentless, and that is a great attribute to have in a demanding race like the Belmont Stakes, especially when the horse in question is capable of launching his rally from relatively close range.
The one vulnerability for Tacitus is that he has not yet established himself as one of the fastest members of this crop. His top TimeformUS Speed Figure of 119 is slightly lower than the best numbers of a couple of his rivals. On the other hand, Tacitus had improved in a short period of time prior to the Derby and he has reportedly been training with even greater enthusiasm in the run-up to the Belmont. If he takes another step forward, as many expect he will, he is unlikely to lose this race. I believe he is a deserving favorite, but there are other progressive types in this field, many of whom are going to be far more enticing prices. I’m reluctant to accept a short price on the likely favorite, but I will be using him prominently in exotics and multi-race wagers. The horse to beat.
Selections: 7 – 10 – 9 – 3
Find out how we’re going to play this race and view horse-by-horse analysis of all other stakes on Belmont’s Saturday card with wagering strategies in this year’s TimeformUS Belmont Stakes Package.