Despite the Kentucky Derby winner being absent from the Belmont Stakes next weekend, one could argue that with the way it is shaping up, this particular Belmont is the most anticipated of the three big events this year.
The scratched Kentucky Derby morning-line favorite, No. 1-ranked Forte, is back. Joining in him was the post-time favorite of the Kentucky Derby, Angel of Empire, who finished third. Tapit Trice, the second choice in the Derby,and a horse who many still feel is near the top of this division, also will be present. And the Preakness winner, National Treasure, will be back to try to prove that his win in Baltimore was no fluke.
Make no mistake, the Belmont will be the most impactful Triple Crown race in 2023. Before I dive into my early Belmont Stakes thoughts, let's take a look at this week's updated Division rankings.
Older dirt males
1. Stilleto Boy. This guy holds down the top spot for now. It's really pretty simple, he did all the running last out in the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) and fell just short at the wire to lose by two noses to Proxy, a horse he defeated in his previous two starts this season. Given that, he has to be ranked ahead of Proxy. Recency bias doesn't exist in these rankings, so the head-to-head record along with his Grade 1 win matters here.
2. Proxy. He closed well to score his first stakes win of the season and second of his career in the Oaklawn Handicap. But I need to see much more from this guy. The Oaklawn was his first win of the season after an off-the-board finish in the Pegasus World Cup (G1) and his runner-up finish to Stilleto Boy in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1).
3. Defunded. Hard-knocking gelding won the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1) on Memorial Day. Two graded-stakes wins this season from four starts, and he hasn't been off the board in his four for any of them. In the best form of his career.
4. Smile Happy. Super impressive on Kentucky Oaks day, defeating several ranked below when winning the Alysheba (G2). Now 2-for-3 this season, he should be a player in this division in races up to nine furlongs. I just can't see him being a serious threat if he is forced to run 10 furlongs.
5. Art Collector. Ran well in the Alysheba to finish runner-up to Smile Happy. Previously he was runner-up to West Will Power in the New Orleans Classic (G2). Clearly, he is in the best form of his career, but as with Smile Happy, I question how effective he will be going longer than nine furlongs.
Next 5: West Will Power, Cody's Wish, Last Samurai, Rattle N Roll, Hopper
Older dirt females
1. Clairiere. Ran down Secret Oath last out in the Apple Blossom (G1) to take over divisional leadership for now. Previously she was runner-up to Secret Oath in the Azeri (G2) at Oaklawn. Will run next in the Ogden Phipps (G1) on Belmont Stakes day. A win in the Phipps will give her distance over the others in this division.
2. Secret Oath. Ran strong again in defeat, this time in the La Troienne (G1) when she was runner-up to Played Hard. She maintains this spot despite her loss. Will run in the Phipps as well.
3. Search Results. Came back well when a close third, beaten two heads in the La Troienne. She is once again a major player in this division and could go next in the Phipps at her home base.
4. Played Hard. This gal made her seasonal debut in the La Troienne a winning one. She now has won three graded stakes in her career and was off the board only two times in 15 career starts. She will run next in the Fleur de Lis (G2) on July 1 at Churchill Downs.
5. A Mo Reay. Started the season off right by winning two stakes, including the Beholder Mile (G1) at Santa Anita. She then had a shot to move up here but she didn't get the job done in the La Troienne last time out and finished fourth, beaten two lengths. She didn't run badly, but she didn't run as well as expected. Look for trainer Brad Cox to wheel her back soon, perhaps in the Phipps or a race at Saratoga.
Next 5: Nest, Pass the Champagne, Fun to Dream, Adare Manor, Frost Point
1. Forte. Pay no attention to the other 3-year-old male rankings. Don't fall into the trap of recency bias. This guy was the clear No. 1 before the Kentucky Derby, and nothing that has happened since can remove him the top. In fact, his spot here is only bolstered given the results of the first two legs of the Triple Crown. He has swept both of his meetings with Mage, and the one time he faced Blazing Sevens this season he defeated him by more than 25 lengths. He will run next in the Belmont.
2. Mage. His Preakness third-place finish is a complicated one to analyze. He certainly was in good position throughout, but he didn't have enough at the end. The race he ran in the Derby, combined with the stitches and the fresh horses he faced, got him beaten by more than a slow pace in Baltimore. After all is said and done, this guy has a maiden win and a Kentucky Derby win, the same boat as Rich Strike from a year ago. I hope we see him in the major events this summer.
3. Angel of Empire. The Arkansas Derby (G1) winner came with his run in the Kentucky Derby but fell short and finished third, beaten a little over a length. I still feel like he might end up on top of this division when all is said and done. He will run next in what should be a deep Belmont Stakes.
4. Two Phil's. Really impressed me in the Kentucky Derby as he was close to a fast early pace and held his ground in the stretch to finish a very good runner-up. Some could say he ran the best race of any. Will not run in the Belmont and instead could run in either the June 11 Matt Winn (G3) or June 24 Ohio Derby (G3) at Thistledown. Either would be used as preps for the July 22 Haskell Stakes (G1) at Monmouth Park and Aug. 26 Travers (G1) at Saratoga.
5. Tapit Trice. I was surprised at his race in the Kentucky Derby, where he was never really involved and finished seventh, beaten nearly 10 lengths. But this guy will be back for the Belmont and will be one of the favorites in that event.
Next 5: Practical Move, National Treasure, Blazing Sevens, General Jim, Arabian Lion
1. Pretty Mischievous. Impressive in her Kentucky Oaks (G1) win and takes over this top spot. She is now 5-for-7 on her career, never finishing off the board.
2. Wet Paint. Finished fourth as the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks after demolishing the Fantasy (G3) field at Oaklawn. The Oaks was her first loss on dirt.
3. Gambling Girl. Nearly pulled off the Kentucky Oaks upset, losing by a neck. Winless in four starts this season but has placed in two graded stakes.
4. Faiza. Disappointed as the favorite last weekend in the Black Eyed Susan (G2), where she finished third. The loss snapped a five-race win streak to start her career, and four of those were graded events.
5. The Alys Look. Finished third in the Kentucky Oaks, and before that she was third to Southlawn in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2).
Next 5: Taxed, Southlawn, Defining Purpose, Dorth Vader, Julia Shining
1. Modern Games. Ran in England two weeks ago and won a thrilling Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes (G1). Before that he disappointed as the runner-up in the Maker's Mark Mile (G1). He retains this top spot for now. This guy won the Eclipse last season and at least has made a start in this country already.
2. Chez Pierre. Can we finally see a horse assert himself in this division? In his last start as the winner of the Maker's Mark Mile, he went from 24-1 to 9-1 in the final tote board flash before they left the gate. Not only did he win, he won by a wide margin quite easily. Before the Maker's Mark, he had lost only one race from six starts, so perhaps that one loss in the Tampa Bay Stakes (G3) was an aberration?
3. Casa Creed. Now a 7-year-old, but he is in the best form of his career. He ran lights out when narrowly missing overseas in Saudi Arabia in the Turf Sprint (G3) and finishing second. The Saudi race was his first start this season.
4. Up to the Mark. Turf Classic (G1) win on Kentucky Derby day is certainly enough to move him up to this spot in a division starving for a horse to assert himself at the top.
5. Exaulted. Since being moved to the grass from the dirt, this guy is 4-for-4. His win in the Shoemaker Mile (G1) was his second graded-stakes victory of the season and he may very well be the best in this division right now. Bigger things could be in store for this son of Twirling Candy.
Next 5: Hong Kong Harry, Spooky Channel, Never Explain, Annapolis, Ottoman Fleet
1. War Like Goddess. Was outstanding in her return to the races last out, running away in the Bewitch (G3) at Keeneland. Simply put, she is the best long-distance grass horse based in the U.S. of either gender. Will run next in the New York Stakes (G1) next Friday at Belmont Park
2. In Italian. Facile winner of the Jenny Wiley (G1) at Keeneland, she moves to this top spot for now. Before that she ran well when runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Will run next in the Just a Game (G1) on Belmont Stakes day.
3. Didia. Unbeaten in four starts in this country since coming from Argentina. Won the Modesty (G3) last out.
4. With the Moonlight. Runner-up to In Italian in the Jenny Wiley, this gal won her other two starts this season in Dubai, both Group 2. Was sixth last out overseas over the soft turf in the Howden Dahlia Stakes (G2).
5. Caravel. A winner of her last four starts, this turf sprinter is headed to the Jaipur Stakes (G1) on Belmont day.
Next 5: Fluffy Socks, Spendarella, Shantisara, Higher Truth, Queen Goddess
1. Elite Power. Certainly showed he is the best in the world now sprinting on dirt in overpowering the Riyadh Dirt Sprint (G3) field. Will come back to the states to run in major races and build an Eclipse-worthy resume. The True North (G2) on Belmont day is next up.
2. Cody's Wish. Made his 2023 debut a winning one in the Churchill Downs Stakes (G1). Will head to the Met Mile (G1) next on Belmont Stakes day.
3. Spirit of Makena. The best of the West Coast sprinters right now, this guy has won all three of his starts this season. Last out, he overpowered the Triple Bend (G2) field, and before that he won the San Carlos (G2).
4. Sibelius. Surprise winner of the Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1), defeating Gunite, among others. Before that this guy won the listed Pelican Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Won his first graded stakes in late December at Gulfstream in the Mr. Prospector (G3).
5. Gunite. Disappointed somewhat in last out in the Golden Shaheen when third as the favorite. Before that he was simply the best of the rest when runner-up to Elite Power in Saudi Arabia.
Next 5: Repo Rocks, Doppelganger, Straight No Chaser, Skelly, Hoist the Gold
1. Goodnight Olive. Maintains the top spot here despite her loss in the Derby City Distaff (G1). The Eclipse winner from last season started her season off with a win in the Madison (G1) at Keeneland a few weeks ago. Her next start has not been decided.
2. Matareya. Upset the top one in the Derby City Distaff, and it appears that she and Wicked Halo will make Goodnight Olive work for a repeat Eclipse in this division.
3. Wicked Halo. Runner-up in the Derby City Distaff, this 4-year-old filly ran well in the Breeders' Cup last fall to finish third in the Filly & Mare Sprint. Before that effort she won two Grade 2 events, the Raven Run at Keeneland and the Prioress Stakes at Saratoga. She returned this season in the Matron Stakes at Oaklawn a few weeks ago and defeated Matareya.
4. Frank's Rockette. Won the Hurricane Bertie (G3) at Gulfstream in early March and the Roxelana Stakes at Churchill in late April.
5. Fun to Dream. Winner of the Santa Monica (G2) earlier this season, her connections tried to stretch out last time in the Beholder Mile (G1), where she finished runner-up.
Next 5: Echo Zulu, Maryquitecontray, Elm Drive, Maple Leaf Mel, Caramel Swirl
The big boy is back
Despite missing the first two Triple Crown events this season, the No. 1 ranked Forte has only widened his lead in this division, in my opinion.
Think about it. Forte has swept both of his starts this season, winning the Fountain of Youth (G2) and the Florida Derby (G1). In the process, he defeated the eventual Kentucky Derby winner, Mage, both times. Mage’s win in the Kentucky Derby solidified Forte’s place at the top of this division.
Forte has won his last five starts dating back to last year, four of those in Grade 1 events. Things get tricky now for Forte. He will enter the 12-furlong Belmont after not racing for 70 days. Some will worry about his jump in distance from the nine furlongs of the Florida Derby after not running for so long, but not me. Why would you worry about that angle? Horses regularly wheel into the Belmont from the nine-furlong Peter Pan (G3), a yearly Belmont prep race, albeit spaced much closer to the Belmont.
About the only concern for me with Forte is his pedigree. I already was a bit skeptical of how the 10 furlongs of the Kentucky Derby would impact Forte, so I obviously have those same concerns here with the Belmont distance.
But Forte just might be that much better than the others right now. Chief among his Belmont challengers will be Angel of Empire. Angel of Empire certainly has the pedigree for the Belmont distance, and one could argue that he ranked right near the top of this division given his resume. He put in a stellar effort in the Kentucky Derby to finish a fast-closing third, and like Forte, has proven he is reliable in that he will put in his run.
Many will turn to Tapit Trice, mainly because of his pedigree and his sire Tapit, who has had great success with Belmont runners. I was bullish on Tapit Trice in the Kentucky Derby, but his result left his supporters scratching their heads with a no-excuse, dull, seventh-place finish, nearly 10 lengths behind the winner Mage. So for me, Tapit Trice isn’t as reliable as Forte and Angel of Empire. He still has a lot to prove in my eyes.
The Preakness winner National Treasure will get some support. He will likely try to steal the Belmont of the front end, much as he did in the Preakness. But I’m not sold. National Treasure has one stakes win, and while he did win the Preakness, the field he beat that day was the weakest on paper in the Eclipse award era.
Several other horses will entered, but this Belmont appears to be a showdown with the horses who I believe are the top three in this division right now, Forte, Angel of Empire and Tapit Trice. It will go a long way in determining the Eclipse winner of the division.
With a win in the Belmont, Forte would cement his place at the top of the division and elevate his status from a historical perspective with a fifth Grade 1 win and sixth straight win overall.
In some ways, this Belmont reminds me of the 1992 Belmont when scratched Kentucky Derby favorite A.P. Indy was victorious. But few remember that in that year, A.P. Indy did prep for the Belmont with a win in the Peter Pan. The Kentucky Derby winner, Lil E. Tee, was absent from that Belmont and didn’t win another race that season. And like National Treasure this year, the Preakness winner in 1992, Pine Bluff, was present and ran third.
Lastly, where does this leave Kentucky Derby winner Mage? Well, these are the cold hard facts. Like last year’s Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike, Mage has one stakes win in his career right now. He ran well in the Preakness to finish third and now is being given a break. Nothing is guaranteed in this sport. Mage could go on to win more big events, but he also might never win again. We have seen this countless times before. He still has much to prove, in my opinion, but I sure hope we do see him back later this summer and backing up his Kentucky Derby win.
Five of the last 10 Kentucky Derby winners never won another race. My hope is that Mage doesn’t join that club.