The pending disqualification of Kentucky Derby first-place finisher Medina Spirit continues to cloud this year’s Triple Crown, but Saturday’s Belmont Stakes should at least temporarily pierce the gloom.
The “other” shoe in the Derby controversy fell with a thud Wednesday. A test of a “split sample” of blood drawn from the Bob Baffert-trained colt confirmed the presence of a minute amount of betamethasone, a therapeutic steroid used to treat joint inflammation that is banned at any level on race day.
That prompted Churchill Downs to slap a two-year suspension on the Hall of Fame trainer, during which he will be prohibited from entering horses at any track owned by the company.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is expected to make Medina Spirit’s disqualification official within days, awarding the Derby victory to the runner-up in the race, the Brad Cox-trained Mandaloun.
But that is unlikely to be the final word on the matter. Baffert and his lawyer have suggested they’ll go to court to attempt to block any disqualification of Medina Spirit, arguing that the positive test was the result of accidental contamination from a skin cream used to treat a rash and did not provide the colt with any unfair edge.
It’s against this backdrop that the 153rd running of the $1.5 million, 1½-mile “Test of the Champion” at Belmont Park will attempt to return the focus to the racetrack where it belongs.
Despite drawing a relatively compact field of eight, the Belmont offers great betting opportunities. And there’s no need to sit on the bankroll until the big event, with seven Grade 1 stakes enlivening the undercard. The race will be broadcast on Saturday by NBC, with post time at 3:49 p.m.
Most bettors probably will focus on beaten Derby favorite Effective Quality, Preakness Stakes winner Rombauer and Derby third-place finisher Hot Rod Charlie, but the competition doesn’t end there.
Rock Your World, second choice in the Derby wagering before blowing the start, and Known Agenda, impressive winner of the Florida Derby before finishing ninth in the Run for the Roses, also figure to attract their share of support at the betting windows.
I think pace will be the decisive factor, with Rock Your World seizing control of the proceedings early.
The Santa Anita Derby winner did not get to show his brilliant speed in the Kentucky Derby, when he broke slowly and was then sandwiched leaving the gate. After that, the John Sadler-trained son of Candy Ride was then pinched back and found himself at the back early rather than on top where he was projected. After that, he made a mild midrace move before fading to 17th in the 19-horse field.
California-based runners also have dominated the Triple Crown this year, winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
With a better break, jockey Joel Rosario should be able to carve out moderate fractions of 1:13 and change for 6 furlongs and 1:38 and change for the mile, leaving horses trying to make up ground late facing a tall challenge.
I will put 60 percent of my bankroll on his nose to win.
The rest will be invested in exactas — Rock Your World boxed with Known Agenda and Rombauer — and trifectas, using Rock Your World over Known Agenda, Rombauer and Hot Rod Charlie and a wider selection of all primary contenders as well as Bourbonic and Overtook for third.
I’m taking a big chance by leaving Essential Quality off the top of my tickets, but with risk comes the opportunity for substantial reward.
Ellis Starr’s Belmont Stakes analysis
The strategy for Rock Your World in the Kentucky Derby was to go to the lead just as he had done one month earlier winning the Santa Anita Derby, earning a career best 103 Equibase Speed Figure figure in the process. That plan was laid to rest immediately when one of jockey Joel Rosario’s feet came out of the irons, resulting in a shift in his weight and, more importantly, preventing the colt from getting to the front. From there both horse and jockey could do nothing but watch as his No. 1 weapon was neutralized. Shipping back to California for three strong workouts, the most recent a five furlong drill in 58.4 which was the best of 34 on the day, lightning is highly unlikely to strike twice. As such, Rock Your World should be able to control the pace from the start, possibly slowing the tempo down to below average, and go on for the win in the same manner as a number of winners of the Belmont in the last 20 years such as D’ Tara, Justify and American Pharoah.
In spite of finishing fourth of 19 as the betting favorite in the Derby, Essential Quality continued a pattern of improvement started in his first start of the year as a 3-year-old in February. The talented colt won the Southwest Stakes with a 105 figure before a career-best 109 figure in the Blue Grass Stakes in April. In the Derby, Essential Quality made a rallying move while wide to go from seventh (five and one-half lengths back) to fourth (three-quarters of a length back) with a quarter mile to go but ran evenly thereafter. Although the 109 figure was the same, one thing Essential Quality has in his favor for the Belmont is his tactical speed because if he sits second in the early stages as he did in the Blue Grass, he may be able to pass Rock Your World in the final strides where he was unable to pass Medina Spirit in the Derby. The reason for this is his pedigree, as Essential Quality is the only son of Tapit in the field. Tapit produced the 2014 (Tonalist), 2016 (Creator) and 2017 (Tapwrit) winners of the Belmont. Tapit produces horses which can run 12 furlongs and more as evidenced by STATS Race Lens Query which reveals the sire has produced 13 different winners at distances from a mile and one-half to two miles over the last five years, accounting for 18 wins, with six of those coming at Belmont Park.
Known Agenda ran just a bit less poorly in the Derby than Rock Your World, checking in ninth after advancing from last of 19 in the early stages. That’s insignificant as compared to his two races prior to that. He added blinkers for the first of the pair in February and won by 11 lengths with a 103 figure. Next he won the Florida Derby with a 112 figure and did so easily. Known Agenda is trained by Todd Pletcher, as is Bourbonic and Overtook. Pletcher has won this race with Rags to Riches (2007), Palace Malice (2013) and Tapwrit (2017). Considering his win in the Florida Derby earned a 112 figure, which is the best figure earned by any horse in this field, and considering North American leading jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. rides the colt for the fourth straight time, Known Agenda could bounce back to top form and post the mile upset to win.
Second tier contenders
As for Rombauer, although he has improved in each race as a 3-year-old, going from a 95 figure, to 100, to 103 in the Preakness, I have concerns about his ability to run 1 1/2 miles as well as his ability to stay close early. Historically, a few horses have come from far back, which is the way Rombauer likes to run. For the most part, winners of the Belmont have either led from the start or been within two lengths for most of the race. Considering the likely early pace edge Rock Your World possesses, Rombauer could be relegated to a minor award.
Similarly, Hot Rod Charlie‘s third-place effort in the Derby may give bettors incentive to bet him more heavily than is appropriate given his somewhat low probability to win in my opinion. Hot Rod Charlie earned a 97 figure when beaten a neck by Medina Spirit in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in January, before improving to 99 when winning the Louisiana Derby in April. In the Kentucky Derby, Hot Rod Charlie moved up quickly after a half-mile to get into third position then kept that same position the entire last six furlongs of the race. It is possibly he could be sitting in second behind Rock Your World in the early portions of the Belmont instead of Essential Quality, but I see jockey Luis Saez on Essential Quality being more aggressive from his inside post and denying Hot Rod Charlie that opportunity, which means he would have to outfinish Rock Your World. Considering he couldn’t pass Medina Spirit the entire length of the stretch in the Derby, I think that’s a tall order.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.