June 9, 2022 - 4:14 pm
This year’s Triple Crown has more closely resembled a revolving door than a series of horse races aimed at determining the best 3-year-old over a classic distance.
That trend will culminate in Saturday’s $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, which features a mix of new and familiar faces, a fresh filly running against the boys and a couple little guys trying to prove that lightning can strike twice.
In most years, the Kentucky Derby winner and top finishers can be counted as sure entries in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later, but this year the connections of upset winner Rich Strike and third-place finisher Zandon quickly ruled out running in the middle jewel of the crown.
The same happened in Baltimore three weeks ago, with the top two Preakness finishers – winner Early Voting and runner-up Epicenter, owned by Las Vegas businessman Ron Winchell – passing the Belmont Stakes in order to prepare for summer-fall campaigns.
The result is that not one horse has competed in all three legs of the 2022 series.
Critics say the timing of the races over a five-week span is the big reason for the lack of continuity, since modern thoroughbred training techniques generally see horses given a month or more between starts.
The keepers of the Triple Crown – participating racetracks and sponsors — are reluctant to tinker with a winning formula that has made the three races the most-recognizable horse racing events in the U.S., if not the world. But this year’s rotating casts will only increase the pressure for change.
If there is an upside to all the comings and goings it’s that all three races this year have presented very different handicapping puzzles and good betting opportunities.
The field of eight for the 1 ½-mile Belmont, which will be broadcast by KSNV-3 from 2-4 p.m., is no exception.
Triple Crown newcomer We the People, an aptly named son of Constitution, was installed as the 2-1 morning line favorite over 5-2 second choice Mo Donegal, last seen when finishing a late-closing fifth in the Kentucky Derby.
Rich Strike, who pulled a Derby shocker by getting up in the closing strides at odds of more than 80-1, is the third choice on the morning line at 7-2. The son of Keen Ice, trained by Eric Reed and owned by Richard Dawson – the aforementioned “little guys,” — is the onlye horse in the field who could vault to the fore of the 3-year-old picture by adding the Belmont to his Run for the Roses title.
Adding intrigue is the Todd Pletcher-trained filly Nest (8-1), runner-up to Secret Oath in the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby.
The weather could come into play. As of late Thursday, the National Weather Service forecasting a 30 percent of showers for Elmont, New York, on Saturday.
Sorting out a field of improving 3-year-olds over a marathon distance is no easy task, but many handicappers place considerable weight on pedigree when trying to uncover the Belmont winner.
There are a couple interesting bloodline angles at play this year, including a variation on one that has been especially productive in recent years.
Tapit, the foundation sire of Ron Winchell’s Winchell Thoroughbreds breeding operation, has produced a modern-day record four Belmont Stakes winners. He has no offspring in this year’s race, but two of his sons do: Constitution (We the People) and Race Day (Barber Road).
Tapit also is the sire of Creative Minister’s dam, Tamboz, herself a Winchell homebred.
The bloodlines of Nest also suggest she will have no problem navigating the distance, as she is a daughter of Curlin (2nd by a head to the filly Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont) out of a mare sired by 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy.
The pace in the Belmont can difficult to project, since jockeys tend to put their mounts under a stout restraint in the early stages to save energy for the stretch run. But on paper, We the People appears to be the lone speed, suggesting he may be able to relax under jockey Flavien Prat and dictate the pace as he did in his gate-to-wire score in the Peter Pan.
But the riders of the other horses will surely be aware of that scenario and are likely to try to apply some pressure to the favorite in the early stages. Skippylongstocking, Nest and Golden Glider have all shown speed in some races and are the most logical pressers if one emerges. If none does, the race may be over before the field reaches the long stretch of the track nicknamed “Big Sandy.”
My pick in the race is Nest to give Pletcher his fourth Belmont Stakes victory and second by a filly.
In addition to her pedigree appeal and expected pace presence, she had to wait for room entering the stretch of the Kentucky Oaks while Secret Oath ran past her or the finish would otherwise likely have been much closer than the official two-length margin. Given that Secret Oath ran a credible fourth in the Preakness despite a troubled trip and Nest’s other attributes, I think she has what it takes to capture the race known as the test of the champion.