|1 – Keen Ice (#7)
2 – Materiality (#8)
3 – American Pharoah (#5)
4 – Frosted (#6)
This year’s Belmont Stakes will mark the 20th consecutive year that I’ve been in attendance for this historic race. I attended my first Belmont when I was just nine years old. (Editor’s Note narrowly defeated my first equine crush, Skip Away.) It was one of the first races of national significance that I was able to watch live at the track and I’ve been hooked ever since.
During that time, I’ve witnessed eight Triple Crown attempts – American Pharoah will be the ninth – and I’ve been more emotionally invested in some of those than the hardened horseplayer within me is willing to admit. Yet despite the many disappointments, I remain confident that this trio of races will be conquered eventually. Contrary to popular belief, I am not of the opinion that a Triple Crown winner will save the sport, or that its conqueror would have to be equal to the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, or Affirmed.
As long as thoroughbred racing continues to exist, with the right combination of talent and luck, a good horse will win the Triple Crown. But is American Pharoah that horse? – I’m not betting on it.
American Pharoah is a good three year-old in what is proving to be a decent crop of three year-olds. At distances from a mile and an eighth to a mile and a quarter, he is likely even the best of his generation. However, based on his performances up until this point, he has not proven himself to be a “great” thoroughbred, or even close to the best three year-old of the past decade. Moreover, he has not given any indication that he will handle the seldom contested distance of a mile and a half any better than many of his competitors.
Even after his popular wins in the Derby and Preakness, I failed to be swayed by the fervent devotion that this horse inspires, and I’m certainly not about to bet on him to win this grueling 12-furlong test at odds of 3/5 or less, regardless of the prize at stake.
So, who am I picking after all?
I was able to narrow this year’s Belmont down to four likely winners, of which American Pharoah is one. However, since I’ve already stated that he’s sure to offer bad wagering value, the pool of possible selections narrows to three competitors: Frosted, Materiality, and long shot Keen Ice.
As you may recall, I was a big fan of this horse through the spring. I loved him on Wood Memorial day and picked him second in the Kentucky Derby. However, unlike some, I did not come away from the Derby thinking that this horse ran the best race. While a lot of things did go right for the top three finishers, I think you could say the same for Frosted. Yes, he had to come from farther back in the back, but that’s just his running style. He was forced to make a long, sustained run in an 18-horse field, but he also never got stopped at any point and had his chance to catch the top three through a final quarter mile in 26 3/5 seconds.
Don’t get me wrong – Frosted ran very well in the Derby and is one of the elite three year-olds in this crop. However, some questions remain: Will he improve at a mile and a half, and will he able to settle into his preferred position near the back of the pack in a race that is likely to feature a much slower pace? I believe he’s talented enough to win this race, but he’s coming off two very good trips, which means that his good form is exposed, and he’s unlikely to offer real value. I’m using him, especially underneath in exotic bets, but I’m leaning to others for my top selections.
Materiality is the enigma of this year’s Belmont. By the summer, I truly would not be surprised if he turns out to be every bit as good as the Derby and Preakness winner. He showed immense talent to go from a six-furlong maiden win in January to winning the Florida Derby just two-and-a-half months later with what is still the fastest Beyer speed figure earned by any three year-old in this crop. Obviously, very little went right for him in the Kentucky Derby. He was squeezed back at the start and was forced to race out of position for much of the race. He reacted badly to kickback coming to the top of the stretch and would find himself in 17th position at the quarter pole. The fact that he finished a fast-closing sixth, passing 11 horses through the stretch even after all of that early trouble, speaks to both his talent and stamina.
I expect him to be ridden forwardly from his outside post position since he is the only horse that possesses the early speed to keep American Pharoah honest through the first part of this race. Yet in the Belmont Stakes, this can be both a blessing and a curse. I certainly respect John Velazquez’s ability to win big races at Big Sandy, but he has to walk a thin line here. He must accomplish the task of making American Pharoah work just hard enough during the middle portion of the race to be able to wear him down late while not exerting so much pressure that he would leave them both vulnerable to a closer.
I am confident that Materiality is good enough to win this race, but much has been made of his trip in the Derby and I expect him to be a strong second choice in the wagering – a decidedly lower price even than Frosted. Part of me still wanted to pick him on top, but this is the Belmont Stakes and some wacky things can happen, which is why my top selection is…
This horse has been on my radar for a long time. I picked him to win last year’s Remsen because I thought his apparent stamina would allow him to outlast his rivals, who were all stretching out to a new distance for the first time. While he ran a decent third at 22/1, I learned on that day that a mile and a eighth was not quite the demanding distance that he would require to have an edge over the best horses in this crop. I continued to watch him with passing interest through the spring and quite frankly was disappointed with his races at the Fair Grounds. My early interest in him seemed like a distant memory by the time Derby day rolled around.
I won’t try to tell you that this horse ran some kind of spectacular race in the Derby, but it is worth rewatching his trip. While the trouble he encountered did not attract the widespread attention that Materiality received, you could make the argument that he got in just as much, if not more, trouble through the final three furlongs of the race. Kent Desormeaux asked him to advance midway around the far turn, but he ran into a wall of traffic coming to the top of the stretch. He did pass Materiality around the quarter pole before getting stopped, but as Materiality ducked down towards a clear path on the inside to make his run through the stretch, Keen Ice tried to weave his way through a tight spot on the outside.
Keen Ice lost momentum at two key points during the stretch run as he struggled to find a clear path, but he was moving very well through the final eighth of a mile, and actually had nearly caught Materiality by the time they reached the finish. Keen Ice’s late interest in the Derby reminded me of my initial opinion of this horse: that he’s merely ordinary at the standard route distances of 8.5 to 9 furlongs and is crying out for longer races.
In modern times, few horses are actually bred to improve at distances between 10 and 12 furlongs on the dirt, but Keen Ice has one of those rare pedigrees. His sire Curlin is proving to be a valuable source of stamina, which should come as no surprise given that he won no less than 5 races at a mile and quarter during his career and was a very good second in this supreme test of stamina as a three year-old. Keen Ice’s damsire, Awesome Again, is yet another solid stamina influence. He in fact won four races at 10 furlongs during his career, and has sired such long-winded runners as Oxbow, who won the Preakness and was second in the Belmont Stakes, as well as Awesome Gem, winner of the 10-furlong Hollywood Gold Cup. Digging deeper into Keen Ice’s female family, you find nothing but more strong stamina influences. His second dam, Wiscasset, is by the long-winded Kris S. and is half-sister to Serra Lake, a Grade 1 winner going nine furlongs at Saratoga. Her dam, Tara Roma, won the Ladies Handicap at a mile and a quarter. Traveling even further down Keen Ice’s female line, we find that this family shares similar ancestors with that of 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags.
There is compelling evidence suggesting that Keen Ice will not only handle this 12-furlong distance, but may be better suited to it than any of his competitors. A likely slow pace will allow him to stay in closer attendance to the pace, and if he’s within a few lengths of the lead at the top of the stretch, don’t be surprised if he’s able to wear down his more accomplished foes through the lane. At what is sure to be a very generous price, Keen Ice is my long shot pick to take down American Pharoah and all the rest.