The 155th running of the Belmont Stakes will take place next weekend at Belmont Park on the famously spacious 1 1/2 mile oval dirt track. Last year we saw the winner of the Kentucky Derby show up here (Rich Strike) and the winner of the Preakness stay away (Early Voting). This year will be the opposite as the popular Mage -- an emphatic winner on the first Saturday in May -- will set his sights on other summer races while Bob Baffert's National Treasure will try for the Baltimore-New York double. But there will be as many as eight other runners in Saturday's third jewel including the horse that was just about everyone's top 3-year-old going into the Derby. So with what should be a full and competitive field on Saturday, here is a preview:
National Treasure. The Preakness is Bob Baffert's race it seems almost every year. He won his record 8th second jewel almost three weeks ago at Pimlico with this son of Quality Road. But Baffert also has three Belmont Stakes wins on his resume, the last two of which were Triple Crown Champions. And while much of the "smart" money says that the Belmont's 12 furlongs is too long for National Treasure, you can bet that Baffert wouldn't be here with his horse if he didn't think he had a solid chance. Having veteran jockey John Velazquez -- a fixture on the New York racing circuit for years -- back on board sure doesn't hurt. And Johnny V has two Belmont wins to his credit as well
Tapit Trice. If Bob Baffert owns the Preakness, the Belmont is Todd Pletcher's baby. He's won this race four times, most recently a year ago with Mo Donegal. Tapit Trice had a slow start in the Kentucky Derby and his late running strategy never fully materialized in that race. His stalking style should however be perfect for the Belmont as there is plenty of early speed in here for him to run at. I wouldn't over-emphasize Tapit Trice's Derby effort -- he won his last four races in a row before that. Luis Saez will be back on board for the son of Tapit, who has sired four previous Belmont Stakes winners. Most of the Pletcher attention in the Belmont will be on the return of Forte (see below) which should help Tapit Trice's odds, currently slated at around 3-1
Angel of Empire. If ever there was a horse that seemed destined for this race, it's Brad Cox's son of Classic Empire. The Derby unfolded almost exactly as you would expect for this horse as he was pretty far back throughout most of the 10 furlongs and then came running down the stretch chasing the leaders Mage and Two Phil's. He didn't catch them but one can only imagine what the outcome would have been had they run another 1/4 mile. We will find out today and Angel of Empire will have considerably less traffic to navigate than he did on the first Saturday in May so there are people who are salivating to bet him today at what should be decent odds (around 4-1 most likely)
Forte. Yes, we're going to start our discussion of Belmont Pretenders with the likely favorite in the race. Prior to the Derby, Forte was just about everyone's top 3YO in training. But there were rumors about his health in the week leading up to the big race and his workouts were not good. Then on the morning of the Derby, in consult with the track veterinarian, trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole decided to scratch the son of Violence. Can you think of a worse scenario for a favorite than not having a race in over two months and having known health issues on top of that? Yet Forte will likely have plenty of supporters along with probably the lowest odds at 2-1 or less. Proceed with caution.
Arcangelo. The Peter Pan Stakes is viewed as the major non-Triple Crown prep race for the Belmont. It's run two weeks prior and on the same dirt track, albeit it at a lesser distance (nine furlongs). But ironically few horses in history have completed the Peter Pan/Belmont double. In fact, that feat has only been done once in the last 30 years (Tonalist 2014). But there will still be plenty of attention paid to this son of Arrogate who won the Peter Pan in impressive fashion, digging in down the stretch for Florida-based trainer Jena Antonucci. But it was a very weak field of runners that day and the speed figure of 97 would appear to be on the low side for competing in this race. Derby winning jockey Javier Castellano will get back on board Arcangelo which will only serve to hype him up more but he is likely in over his head here
Tapit Shoes. There are three horses entered for the Belmont that didn't run in either the Derby or Preakness (we already talked about Arcangelo). Of these, the most intriguing is the son of Tapit trained by Brad Cox named Tapit Shoes. Like Arcangelo, a first glance would suggest that his speed numbers don't match up to this field, however Tapit Shoes has been improving with every race and could turn in his biggest performance next Saturday at a big price. Top New York jockey Jose Ortiz will climb aboard Tapit Shoes for the ride. Along with Angel of Empire, and fifth-place Derby finisher Hit Show, Tapit Shoes offers a compelling one-two-three punch for leading trainer Cox who won this race two years ago with Essential Quality.
Good luck, as always...Al McMordie