I can say with some confidence that this is one of the most enthralling cards I’ve ever handicapped. Plans like this rarely come to fruition and actually exceed expectations, but that is the case today. I’ve barely had the chance to even give thought to mutli-race wagers yet; each race in and of itself is a fascinating wagering affair. Below I’ll discuss each and every one of them leading up to the Belmont Stakes and California Chrome’s attempt to complete the first Triple Crown in 36 years.
Race 1: Allowance N1X at 1 1/16 miles
I’m very interested in SPARTIATIS (#3). It’s fair to say that he hasn’t exactly been placed in the most realistic spots during his brief career, but I do think he has some ability on the dirt. Maggie Wolfendale always has positive things to say about this horse, with the disclaimer that he’s just not built to handle the turf. He had a major excuse on February 28th when he actually ran quite well despite forcing the pace to collapse. Then on March 16th, he was one of the only horses on the card to beat an intense rail bias. The distance is a minor question, but he didn’t exactly throw in the towel going a mile and a quarter last time. He may not be the most likely winner, but he’s definitely going to offer value.
$10 Win 3
Race 2: The Easy Goer at 1 1/16 miles for three year-olds
If LEGEND (#7) runs back to his maiden score, he is quite simply going to win this race. The effort came back legitimately fast and Tiz Dark returned to validate the number with a 97 Beyer. It is noteworthy that H. James Bond was quoted in the Daily Racing Form explaining that Legend had an undescended testicle removed after his final race at Gulfstream, which could have been the source of his marked improvement last time. That said, even at Gulfstream he ran well in some very tough races. I’ll bet him to win at fair odds (over 6-5) and will use him over my second choice, PASS THE COFFEE (#8), in the exacta. Pass the Coffee has improved with every start and actually ran better than it appears two back when he was against a strong rail bias. He should come running late at a big price.
$20 Win 7
$5 Exacta 7-8
Race 3: The Brooklyn (G2) at 1 1/2 miles
I’m against the likely favorite Cat Burglar. He has distance questions to answer, and does not have any huge edge over his competitors in overall ability. Most importantly, there is much better value to be found elsewhere. I’m interested in Ground Transport, Micromanage, Norumbega, and especially Bigger Is Bettor. BIGGER IS BETTOR (#7) may not be quite as fast as some of the other entrants in this race, but he strikes me as the sort of horse who keeps getting better as the distances stretch out. Despite the fact that he’s by speed influence Grand Reward, his female family is filled with stamina influences. The layoff and class hike are both major questions, but he was in the best form of his life when last seen and I think this is a race where it makes sense to try a price.
$10 Win 7
$2 Exacta 2,3,8 with 7
Race 4: The Jaipur (G3) at six furlongs on the turf
Apparently I’m not being as clever as I thought with this one as I just noticed that Andy Serling and Mike Beer both also landed on this horse, but ANYRIDERILL DO (#5) has shown explosive finishing speed in his turf sprints and should really like this six furlong configuration. I still expect him to be a pretty big price as he steps up against some seasoned turf sprinters, and these races are often far more competitive than the wagering suggests. Although he’s closed in recent starts, I’d like to see Anyriderill Do placed closer to the pace in a race that’s lacking much speed now that Marriedtothemusic is out. I’ll bet him to win and will use him underneath the deserving favorite Ben’s Cat (#8).
$10 Win 5
$5 Exacta 8-5
Race 5: The Woody Stephens (G2) at seven furlongs for three year-olds
I have the utmost respect for SOCIAL INCLUSION (#11) and I’m glad that his connections came to their senses and decided to run in this race. He’s shown that he can be rated and he drew a great post position to get an outside stalking trip. The only two horses that I believe can mount serious challenges to him are Havana (#3), who probably needed his last race, and Favorite Tale (#8), who was cooked in the Bay Shore pace, but has shown that he’s better than that since and could get a great trip sitting just off Pure Sensation once again.
$15 Win 11
$5 Exacta 3,8 with 11
Race 6: The Acorn (G1) at one mile for three year-old fillies
I think very highly of SWEET REASON (#5) and it’s pretty clear at this point that she’s a filly who wants to run around one turn, so she should really appreciate this turnback. She’s been working up a storm in the morning and if she can get back to her stellar efforts in the Spinaway and Frizette, she’s just as good as My Miss Sophia. House Rules and Fiftyshadesofgold are the two other major players, but Sweet Reason should get it done today if she brings her A-game.
$15 Win 5 (WINNER; Payout: $156.00)
Race 7: The Ogden Phipps (G1) at 1 1/16 miles for fillies and mares
What is there to say? This is first in a series of some of the most significant races that will be run all year.
I’d imagine Todd Pletcher has to be pretty happy with how much pace there appears to be despite the short field. I’ll be rooting for Princess of Sylmar, and she should get a great trip if she’s good enough, but I can’t bring myself to bet this race. I’ll be spectating purely as a fan.
Race 8: The Just a Game (G1) at one mile on the turf for fillies and mares
DISCREET MARQ (#9) looks like the most likely winner and she should be a bettable price. A rejuvenated Somali Lemonade is probably the main speed, and Discreet Marq should be able to sit just off her and spurt away in the stretch at her favorite distance. Rather than take a short price to win on her, I’ll use her in the exacta with Stephanie’s Kitten, who had legitimate traffic trouble in the Jenny Wiley, and Better Lucky. These three stand out as the best horses in the race. I know that Coffee Clique and Somali Lemonade are in career form, but this is a big step up in class for both of them.
$10 Exacta 9 with 6,10
$5 Exacta 6,10 with 9
Race 9: The Metropolitan Handicap (G1) at one mile
If you’ve read my opinions before you know that I’m a big fan of PALACE MALICE (#1). He is perhaps the best horse in the country right now and has shown remarkable versatility on his ascent to the top of the handicap division over the course of the past year. However, he did not draw an ideal post position in this one mile race and may have to be used hard early to attain his customary stalking position. Furthermore, despite a recent blowout victory in the Westchester, I’m not sure that a mile is really his best distance. I’m going to take a small shot against him with CLEARLY NOW (#10), who was certainly best last time when he was squeezed back at the start before making a strong, wide run from the back of the pack. He also broke slowly in the Carter and had a nightmare of a trip behind an extremely slow pace for the distance. Even going back to last fall, his race in the Cigar Mile was better than it appears since he clipped heels and nearly fell at the top of the stretch. If this horse can finally catch a break, he will show that he’s one of the best in the country.
$10 Win 10
$10 Exacta Box 1,10
Race 10: The Manhattan (G1) at 1 1/4 miles on the turf
I suppose that Imagining (#1) is the most likely winner by a very slight margin, but I also think he’s going to be an underlay as the likely favorite. I’m intrigued by a couple of long shots. ROOKIE SENSATION (#3) is stepping up in class, but he does appear to have returned as an improved four year-old. He was much the best in each of his two races out in California in March and April and should appreciate the sweeping turns of Belmont Park, which are kinder to late runners such as him. The pace may not work in his favor, but he should love this distance and possesses an excellent turn of foot. I also want to use FIVE IRON (#7). I was extremely impressed by his race in the Fort Marcy, in which he did all of the dirty work by himself and still had plenty left to hold off a very nice horse in Summer Front. I’m slightly concerned about Five Iron getting today’s distance, but he is awfully tough to pass when he’s allowed a clear lead and that’s likely to be the case today. I’ll bet each of these horses to win and will use them both with the logical Imagining in the exacta.
$10 Win 3
$10 Win 7
$2 Exacta Box 1,3,7
Race 11: The Belmont Stakes (G1) at 1 1/2 miles for three year-olds
I’m a big fan of a TONALIST (#11). I’ve been high on him for a long time and, while it’s hard to be too confident that any modern thoroughbred can get a mile and a half on the dirt, I’ll be very surprised if Tonalist doesn’t handle it. I’ve been following this horse since before he even made his career debut. I had written this in an e-mail to a friend after seeing Tonalist in the entries for the first time:
I’m interested to see how Tonalist runs in the fourth race at Aqueduct. You know how I love a solid pedigree and this colt certainly has one. His dam, Settling Mist (by Pleasant Colony), was a true plodder who just wanted to run all day. She broke her maiden by 14 lengths going 9 furlongs on the dirt, but was probably at her best going even farther. Her first four foals haven’t shown too much on the racetrack, but she is a half-sister to some awesome broodmares. One of those is Easter Bunnette (by Carson City), who produced Havre de Grace and another is The Bink (by Seeking the Gold), who produced Riskaverse. Other top runners produced by half-sisters to Settling Mist include Bouquet Booth ($500,000 earning router) and Tasteyville ($400,000 earning router). Tonalist is obviously bred to run all day. He’s currently not taking much money, but Maggie liked him in the paddock. I might take a shot with him at a price, but he could be one to watch down the road regardless.
He showed a new dimension in the Peter Pan, going wire to wire, and I expect that he’ll be up close to the pace once again in a Belmont that’s come together as a relatively paceless affair without Social Inclusion.
I also think that WICKED STRONG (#9) has a big chance a chance. I’ve heard that he’s been training very strongly since the Derby, and in watching back the replay of that race, I have to admit that he didn’t really have an ideal trip. His one-run style should suit Belmont better, although a lack of pace could be a minor concern if he drops too far back early.
The Belmont Stakes presents a great wagering opportunity. In my opinion, fair odds on the Big Three go something like this: California Chrome 5-2, Wicked Strong 3-1, Tonalist 3-1. Yet California Chrome will be a small fraction of that price whereas Wicked Strong and Tonalist should be two to three times what I believe to be their fair odds.
As a serious handicapper, I have to point out these truths and act on my opinions, but when the horses break from the gate today, my eyes will be affixed to CALIFORNIA CHROME (#2). This is the 19th straight Belmont Stakes that I’ve attended and far too many of them have culminated in disappointments. I find opportunities to be proven right in my opinions on almost any given raceday, but I know that I’ll only get the chance to root home a potential Triple Crown winner a handful of times.
Prior to past attempts we’ve asked each other, “Is this horse really worthy of having his name etched into the history books after Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed?” No, California Chrome is certainly not the same caliber of racehorse as those three—but does anyone really care about Triple Crown elitism at this point? After a 36 year drought, if California Chrome is able to defeat one of the deepest Belmont fields to be assembled in recent years, he will have undoubtedly earned his place in history. We all hope that the Triple Crown continues to be a relevant fixture of this sport, and for that to be the case, a horse is going to have to win it at some point.