Welcome to New York, aka "Big Apple." Welcome to Belmont Park, aka "Big Sandy." And welcome to the last and most demanding race in the Triple Crown series, the 1 1/2 mile Belmont Stakes, aka "Test of the Champion," which has produced some of the most unlikely winners in the Triple Crown series in past editions.
With both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners in the race, I'll let the media ramp up all the talk about a supposed "rubber" match between Orb and Oxbow. But folks, this ISN'T a match race, this is a horse race. Of course, both classic winners have given us two very good races thus far, and certainly deserve all the accolades thrown their way, but an excellent field of 12 challengers have been assembled around the duo, and a few of them are highly capable of taking down this prestigious $1 million event.
Todd Pletcher enters with another five horse attack. If you recall, the trainer tried to win this year's Kentucky Derby with an assault of five runners, three which skipped the Preakness, but have returned for this engagement. One of them, Revolutionary, was Pletcher's best finisher in Louisville (3rd). Surprisingly, for the second time in this three-race series, Bob Baffert, a fixture on the Triple Crown scene for the last decade and a-half, will have no horse participating. Despite having a very strong stable early in the winter, Baffert's lone Triple Crown entrant came in the Preakness with Govenor Charlie.
Orb and Oxbow facing one another in the 145th Belmont marks the fourth time since 2001 that the winners of the Derby and Preakness have met in round three. The last time that happened was two years ago with Animal Kingdom and Shackleford.
Questions arise for the 2013 Belmont: Will Orb rebound to capture two-thirds of the Triple Crown? Can Oxbow can stay the 1 1/2 mile distance and take two of three? Or will the rigors of racing three times in a five week period leave them both vulnerable to a fresh newcomer?
While the possibility of a Triple Crown winner no longer exists, the final jewel should still attract a large crowd and make for an exciting race on Saturday.
Let's take a closer look at the Belmont field from the rail out.
1-Frac Daddy/Garcia/McPeek--With a runner-up finish in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, which ended a dynamite juvenile season for this colt, Frac Daddy landed on the early Derby trail. However, 2013 got off to a bad start with a 6th place finish in the G3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. Then the horse suffered a quarter crack, and was probably unable to be trained much for his next encounter which turned out to be the G1 Florida Derby where he was a well beaten 7th. With a combination of better soundness and fitness, he redeemed himself and earned a spot in the Kentucky Derby by firing an excellent shot in a runner-up performance in the G1 Arkansas Derby. A wide trip in the Kentucky Derby landed the colt no better than 16th. A recent string of strong workouts at Churchill Downs prompted connections to bring the colt to town for this race. Trainer McPeek won the Belmont back in 2002 with Sarava, who paid $142.50, the biggest priced winner in the history of the race. If McPeek is to win his second Belmont, this colt will need monumental improvement and a career best. Always a possibility with still developing 3-year olds, but that's more likely to occur for this horse in a future race as opposed to in here.
2-Freedom Child/Saez/Albertrani--Was magnificent going wire-to-wire in the slop last month here at Belmont Park, in capturing the 9 furlong G2 Peter Pan Stakes, pulling away down the stretch to win by 13 1/4 lengths. It was easily the best run of his six race career, and made him an immediate Belmont contender. Did he "freak" due to the mud, or is he slowly beginning to turn things around? Nonetheless, It was a nice rebound score after finishing last in the G1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct back in April. In that event, he never recovered from an unprepared break that left him lagging near the back early on. He's proven twice that he can dominate at 1 1/8 miles while setting a quick pace, but those two wins were against fields that were nowhere as good as the one he tangles against here. I'm not convinced he can do the same running 1 1/2 miles, but with an off track possible, this one gets to splash through the slop again, which could prove beneficial.
3-Overanalyze/Velazquez/Pletcher--Maybe he should be renamed, Mixed Bag. When he's on, he's odd. When's he off, he's even. That wasn't jiberish. Take a close look at this colt's race record. He won his first, third, fifth, and seventh races, and in the even numbered starts, he finished no better than third. He was dominant in the G1 Arkansas Derby, besting a field that included Oxbow, but in the Kentucky Derby he struggled over the sloppy surface, floundering near the back portion of the field with the eventual top 3 Derby finishers, but unlike those rivals, he couldn't offer a rally of any kind and never threatened, ending up 11th. Had a successful juvenile campaign, winning a pair of G2 events: Futurity at Belmont and Remsen at Aqueduct. Makes his eighth consecutive graded stakes start and is one of three horses in this contest that have won 3 graded stakes (Orb and stablemate Unlimited Budget are the other two). Isn't Pletcher's best runner, but we know he likes the track. This time around the Belmont surface won't be playing fast like it did in his win. He couldn't handle the slop at Churchill, so I can't back this horse with confidence to successfully navigate 12 furlongs through the Belmont goo. However, if you let letters and numbers guide you, then look no further. Horses whose names begin with "O" have won the first two legs and this is start number nine.
4-Giant Finish/Prado/Dutrow--This colt earned just 10 points under the new Kentucky Derby point system with a third place finish in the G3 Spiral Stakes, not enough to crack the top 20, however, late defections allowed him to gain entry. In addition, with only two wins, both in NY state-bred affairs, it didn't come as no surprise he wasn't held in high regards by the Derby bettors (38-1), but really didn't embarrass in the Run For The Roses with a mid-pack 10th place finish following a 5-wide overland trip. All in all, it was a pretty good effort indeed considering he was taken far off the pace and out of his preferred running style. I expect him to be placed mid-pack in the Belmont, but overall there's nothing in his record to remotely suggest he can find that extra boost for a giant finish he would need to pull it off. I'm leaving him off my tickets as I see another mid-pack finish at best
5-Orb/Rosario/McGaughey--Racing world was all abuzz and on a high in the two weeks following his Derby victory, but the flames of a possible Triple crown winner were doused in the Preakness when he failed to deliver as the overwhelming favorite. Colt broke from the rail, but didn't seem comfortable surrounded by rivals and never appeared to settle into any rhythm. In Kentucky, Orb uncorked a spectacular rally around the far turn, circling the field over a sloppy surface and drawing off to win. In Baltimore, all he could offer was a late rally, albeit mildly, to make his dull effort a smidgen better than what it was. Whether it was the pace, Pimlico racing surface or the ride he received that did him in, he certainly didn't fire anything close to his best effort. The loss snapped a five-race winning streak that included a trio of consecutive graded stakes: Kentucky Derby, Florida Derby and Fountain Of Youth. Orb still has my full attention, and I view his Preakness as more of an off day rather than a sign of declining form. Colt got what I perceived as a misjudged ride in Baltimore. Had nowhere to run after getting boxed in on the rail for basically the last five furlongs of the Preakness, yet still managed to get up for fourth. He has drawn well for this race, and it's imperative that Rosario allow him to settle and keep him out of any traps or trouble. Orb should be extremely comfortable over the surface, seeing that he is in the friendly confines of Belmont Park, his home stable where he has done a great deal of training. Has the talent and ability to get the 12 furlong distance, so I fully expect Orb to be ready, make an exciting move and finish with a strong uninterrupted run to deliver a bounce-back performance.
6-Incognito/Ortiz/McLaughlin--Colt started his career off going two turns (1m 70y) in his debut and after six starts, he's never raced less than one-mile. Has done all his racing in New York state, most recently in the sloppy G2 Peter Pan stakes where he finished 5th, beaten over 15 lengths. It was Incognito's first try in a graded stakes, and I'm a firm believer that it was the level of competition that resulted in his poor showing rather than the off track. Incognito is relatively fresh, having not had to endure the battles of the first two legs, and that may serve him well in here. His trainer feels the colt deserves another chance, so be it, but overall this horse just hasn't displayed enough to suggest he can compete at this level, or let alone find a way to win. Veteran jockey Mike Luzzi is the only rider to have ridden this colt, and the two have teamed up for a pair of wins, but unfortunately, Luzzi is out of commission with a shoulder injury, therefore, one of Belmont's leading riders, Irad Ortiz, gets the call.
7-Oxbow/Stevens/Lukas--In surprising, yet impressive fashion, following a solid sixth place finish in Kentucky, he put to rest any Triple Crown aspirations two weeks later with a major upset at 15-1 odds in the Preakness. Kudos to 50-year old jockey Gary Stevens for the major contribution he made in the outcome. Under his guidance at Pimlico, Oxbow seized command of the lead before the first turn, was allowed to set a slow pace, was never challenged at any point, and with Oxbow having plenty of gas left in the tank, the race was theirs. Complete domination and deserving of the victory!! The Preakness win was the first for the colt since taking the LeComte Stakes back in January. He's had a busy 2013 schedule having already made six graded appearances, and now the Belmont will mark his seventh graded stakes and his eighth consecutive dating back to his final juvenile race in 2012. The 3 races Oxbow has won have all been wire-to-wire jobs, but he probably could have added couple of more if it weren't for troubled runs, premature moves and bad post draws. So overall, the Lukas runner has performed admirably well with a classic G1 win to his credit. It's clearly apparent that this runner does his best racing on the lead and should be involved early. He possesses great ability to set the pace and maintain it, and since the Belmont rarely has fast splits, the pace scenario could set up well for Oxbow. Question is, can he get another 1:13 in New York? If he does, the others will be running for second place. His breeding suggests Oxbow can stretch out the additional real estate, but unless the pace is run at a crawl, I feel that 12 furlongs might be a tad to far for him.
8-Midnight Taboo/Gomez/Pletcher--Is it me, or does it really seem like Pletcher enters every single horse he trains into these Triple Crown contests? This colt is certainly one of the lesser known names the trainer brings in. Midnight Taboo is light on experience, with only three lifetime runs, but hasn't finished out of the money. Started only once as a juvenile, finishing second before being put away for eight months. He came out ready and firing in his 3-year old debut in April with a strong 3-length maiden victory, and in his last outing over a month ago, an allowance optional claiming event, he found himself in some traffic difficulties and once again settled for a runner-up placing. His sire (Langfuhr) was a good distance horse, so the breeding is there, but ambitious placement here in his graded stakes debut is an enormous step up to an untested level of competition.
9-Revolutionary/Castellano/Pletcher--Has been in the money in all of his seven career races, winning 3 of the last 4, including the G3 Withers and G2 Louisiana Derby. Was the best finisher among the quintet of horses Pletcher entered in the Kentucky Derby. Colt rallied strongly up the inside to finish third after getting shuffled back soon after the gates sprung open and running next to last after three-quarters. Turned in a pretty solid performance seeing he was weaving in and out of horses a few times for running room, and was only beaten 1-length for 2nd and 3 1/2 overall for the big prize. He's proven he's a top colt with success against top competitors and that makes him a serious and legitimate win candidate. He's also shown (more than once) he can overcome adversity during a race. His downfall could be the late-running style he employs, which might make him susceptible if a slow pace develops. Castellano, who rode the colt to both graded wins, replaces Borel.
10-Will Take Charge/Court/Lukas--Raced mid-pack in the Derby before launching a wide rallying move on the far turn alongside the eventual winner, but had his run impeded by a tiring Verrazano and wound up eighth. A better showing was expected last out in the Preakness, however, he never got involved at any point and checked in just one position better. Along with the Derby and Preakness winners, this one will also have participated in the entire Triple Crown series. It's understandable why Orb and Oxbow are here for the Belmont, but Lukas should have held this colt out. Has shown flashes - beat stablemate Oxbow in the G2 Rebel - but has been more of a disappointment up to this point in his career. In 3 of his 4 recent attempts, he has finished 6th or worse. Owns three wins, all with jockey Court aboard and it's a plus he is teamed up again with that rider. However, as the races have gotten longer, Will Take Charge has struggled, which is puzzling because the colt is bred for distance. Can Lukas pull it off again with his "other" colt? By now, we should all know never to count D.Wayne out, but honestly, I'm not expecting this runner to spring a surprise.
11-Vyjack/Leparoux/Rodriguez--Colt won his first four starts, gradually stretching out from 6 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, and included the G2 Jerome Stakes and G3 Gotham Stakes, both at Aqueduct early this year. In the latter race, Vyjack showed a bit of versatility with a new style of running from way off the pace, and proved his worthiness for the Derby trail. Unbeaten up to that point, he was then entered in the G1 Wood Memorial , where he was competitive, challenging race winner Verrazano in the stretch before fading to third, beaten less than a length. Came away from that affair with a lung infection, but recovered in time for the big dance. Assigned the outside post in Derby 139, Vyjack had an absolutely dreadful run in Louisville and never really had any opportunity to show his best stuff. Four wide early, chasing the rapid wicked pace over the unkind surface probably caused him to back out of it from exhaustion, and he finished 18th. It turned out to be his worst career showing. Was taken out of consideration for the Preakness in favor of a summer campaign, but obviously connections have reconsidered their plans for the colt and interestingly enough bring him back into action for this test. Given all the issues surrounding his Derby experience, I believe he was the victim of circumstances, but I also believe this talented colt is doubtful to last the 12 furlongs. Looks much better suited to races at a mile or less.
12-Palace Malice/Smith/Pletcher--In between a truly troubled trip in the G2 Louisiana Derby and the first Saturday in May, this Pletcher runner had to squeeze in another race (G1 Blue Grass Stakes), where he rebounded with a runner-up finish in order just to qualify for the Run for the Roses. Then with blinkers added for the Derby, this colt, to everybody's surprise, came blazing out of the starting gate to set suicidal splits, which ruined not only his chances, but all those racing in close proximity. We certainly can forgive the fade to a poor 12th place finish. Now with the hood removed, look for him to be much more relaxed early while tracking the pace, then it's just a matter of whether he's good enough. I believe he is.
13-Unlimited Budget/Napravnik/Pletcher--This girl, who is sired by '07 Kentucky Derby winner, Street Sense, captured her first four starts impressively, including a trio of graded stakes, before suffering her first career defeat last outing (Kentucky Oaks) after being bumped hard at the break. Although she recovered from the incident to put herself in a contending position entering the stretch, she just didn't have it that day in what was a very competitive field that featured three previously unbeaten fillies, and none of the three were able to win. There have only been three fillies to ever win the Belmont Stakes, the last being Rags To Riches in 2007. Incidentally, that brilliant filly was also conditioned by Pletcher, and is the trainers only win in this American classic. Unlimited Budget has had three top-notch riders in her five starts, including Rosie Napravnik, who rode this one to victory in the G3 Rachel Alexandra at the Fair Grounds to kick off the 2013 sophomore campaign and gets reunited for "The Test of the Champion". Filly will be offered at tantalizing odds, but will need to run faster if she is going to beat the boys. The feeling here is that she looks ready for the challenge and will give it her best.
14-Golden Soul/Albarado/Stewart--Sure, he took advantage of a blazing pace in the Kentucky Derby, but still, very few handicappers (myself included) saw this colt's second place finish coming. To his good fortune, his Derby trip was free of trouble and uneventful. 34-1 long shot was unhurried along the rail as he raced in 15th for three-quarters, started advancing along the inside through the far turn, angled out as he turned into the straightaway and closed steadily. Prior to the first Saturday in May, this colt did very little on the prep trail, in fact, he registered only 14 qualifying points. It wasn't enough, therefore, much needed defections allowed him in. Has never raced at a distance shorter than one-mile, and Belmont Park will be the first try outside the confines of Churchill Downs and Fair Grounds, where all six of his races have occurred. Certainly the added quarter-mile should help compliment his late running style, but can he adapt to what will probably be a slower pace, and still finish well enough to win? Post draw, wide trip and possible disadvantageous pace, are all factors singularly or collectively, that could severely hinder his chances.
It's all about the pace. It was the driving force and deciding factor in the outcome of the first two legs. There isnt a whole lot of early speed in this field. Oxbow obviously will be involved from the break, but I believe the early leader will be Freedom Child, with Stevens keeping his mount close by. The early fractions appear as though they will not be very demanding.
Pressing and stalking in behind the leaders will be Frac Daddy (normally an off-pace runner, but according to his trainer, the horse will be sent up once the gates open), Giant Finish, Incognito, Midnight Taboo, Palace Malice, as well as Unlimited Budget and Vyjack. A major concern for the runners in this group could be traffic issues that might develop due to congestion, and could cause these horses to become trapped or alter course when they're asked to make their move toward the leaders. The back of the pack will also have plenty of company as Golden Soul, Orb, Overanalyze, Revolutionary and Will Take Charge all settle in. How these closer's play out their hand depends largely on what happens up front.
Obviously, if the pace is slow, the closer's will be forced to move early to try and gain ground. If the back of field can get some assistance from the horses in the front flight to apply some pressure on the pace setters, it makes things easier, and then it be will be a matter of the jockeys on these come-from-behind runners to navigate clear running room, and ask their mounts to accelerate at the precise time.
Overall, I don't for see a pace as fast as what was delivered in the Derby, nor do I expect one as absurd as the Preakness. It should be an honest pace, which means, the Belmont should set up to showcase who the best horse is on Saturday. Hey, this is New York, where only the strongest survive!