National Treasure heads into the Belmont Stakes this week with plenty of momentum after capturing the Preakness Stakes three weeks ago at Pimlico. Under jockey John Velazquez, National Treasure made use of pacesetting tactics to win, and he could end up on an easy lead again depending on the strategies of two other entries with speed.
Because National Treasure went on the shelf from January to April, the three-week turnaround from the Preakness to the Belmont probably will not affect him. This colt has not endured a hard schedule to this point.
But in this round of the Triple Crown series, there are two threats to National Treasure’s comfortable lead in Il Miracolo and Tapit Shoes.
Il Miracolo set the pace May 11 in a one-mile allowance optional claimer at Gulfstream Park. In that race, he took control early and led by two lengths through the half-mile before withstanding a bid from Big Data and prevailing. Il Miracolo ended up winning by 1 1/2 lengths.
Before the allowance win, Il Miracolo ran as an overmatched closer against top company in the Holy Bull Stakes (G3), Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) and Florida Derby (G1). He lost by double-digit lengths in all three of those stakes races, although the more conservative tactics probably did not affect his final position as much as his lower class.
Based on those graded-stakes efforts, Il Miracolo fits a few levels below his Belmont opponents in terms of overall class, which means National Treasure might not find him a huge nuisance even if he shows speed. With distance a concern, the connections might instruct jockey Marcos Meneses to hold back the son of Gun Runner and avoid a speed duel.
But if the connections want to go for broke, Il Miracolo could at least weaken National Treasure a little bit in a head-to-head speed duel before throwing in the towel on the approach to the far turn. Because of the slower pace of a dirt marathon, Il Miracolo would need to run in only 23 and change for the first quarter and either 46 or 47 and change for the half to contest the early lead with National Treasure. He can do that.
From the rail, Tapit Shoes also brings tactical speed on paper and could contest the lead, depending on jockey Jose Ortiz's instructions. Tapit Shoes runs for trainer Brad Cox, who also sends out Angel of Empire and Hit Show. As the least accomplished horse of the trio, Tapit Shoes will run as a double-digit odds long shot despite his connections.
Unlike Il Miracolo though, Tapit Shoes shows promising ability and one day could rise to the top mix of 3-year-olds. He initially gave the impression of a possible Kentucky Derby prospect. Last December, Tapit Shoes broke his maiden by an impressive 7 1/2 lengths at Fair Grounds.
This year, Tapit Shoes began the season with a fourth-place finish in a Fair Grounds allowance optional claimer while running green in the stretch.
Following his season debut, Tapit Shoes took a step forward Feb. 18 in another Fair Grounds optional claimer by finishing third by 3/4 of a length to Cagliostro. In that race, Tapit Shoes made an early move to press the pace.
In Tapit Shoes’s next start, he ran as a stalker in the Bath House Row Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Through fractions of 22.87, 46.95 and 1:12.06, Tapit Shoes always kept within 1 1/2 lengths of the leader Victory Formation before moving ahead of him in the stretch. After those fast fractions, Tapit Shoes eventually lost by a head to Red Route One.
As with Il Miracolo, Tapit Shoes needs to run the first two Belmont fractions only in about 23 and 46 or 47 to find himself contesting the lead. If he can run within one length of 22.87 and 46.95 fractions, he could theoretically directly challenge National Treasure for the early lead or even set the pace with surprise tactics if he breaks better than National Treasure and Il Miracolo.
Given Tapit Shoes brings quality to the table, National Treasure’s team of jockey John Velazquez and trainer Bob Baffert should fear this horse. If asked to go, Tapit Shoes will make the first half taxing for National Treasure.
But there is also the scenario where both Il Miracolo and Tapit Shoes leave National Treasure alone. Perhaps National Treasure sets soft fractions and starts to open up by a clear margin on the far turn before holding on late while observers are left wondering why the other jockeys just let him. It could happen again, as it always seems to happen in big races with a Baffert speed horse. Most connections do not want to duel.
Whenever Baffert enters a good speed horse, predicting human strategy becomes a big part of the process of analyzing the pace scenario. National Treasure might secure another comfortable lead, but he also could face real pressure, depending on the strategies of Il Miracolo and Tapit Shoes. It should become clear early whether he can hold on.