The Belmont/Triple Crown Postmortem

Well, it’s over.  Belmont day stretched on and featured a handful of tremendous performances, a handful of upsets, and a few buckets full of rain.  Fortunately, we had only one Triple Crown race run on an off track in 2011.  I am happy it was the Belmont above all because of the quality work done on a daily basis by NYRA Track Superintendent Glen Kozak and his crew.   Let’s take a look at some of the highlights and lowlights of Belmont Day and the Triple Crown altogether.

1.) The Emergence of Shackleford and Animal Kingdom

When Uncle Mo was scratched on the day before the Kentucky Derby a seemingly wide-open Derby was completely up for grabs.  While there were significant doubts about Uncle Mo being able to rebound from his Wood Memorial defeat, it was universally understood that the best he could offer would win the Derby.  Who was the horse that stood up and made himself a potential star in the 3YO division?  That was Animal Kingdom.  Two weeks later, Shackleford gamely held off the late threat of the Derby winner in the Preakness Stakes and made it clear that he will be a force in the 3YO division this year.

2.) The disappointment of Dialed In

Dialed In wound up being the Kentucky Derby favorite and underperformed in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.  He is supposedly pointing to the Jim Dandy and will continue on facing 3YOs in the top level of his division.  My hope is that by the time the leaves on the trees turn colors and begin falling that Dialed In is running in one mile races around one turn.

3.) The Euro fascination

When the early Belmont odds were available on Friday afternoon there was one horse who was receiving a ridiculous amount of support from the wagering public.  As Birdrun won the Brooklyn Handicap and we took a look at the probable payoffs in the Brooklyn/Belmont double, that one horse was practically favored.  That horse was Master of Hounds, who at 6-1 will forever be one of the most inexplicable underlays in the history of the Triple Crown.

4.) The Dale Romans Show

Let’s not forget that in addition to winning the Preakness and having Shackleford run 4th in the Derby and 5th in the Belmont, Dale Romans was the only trainer to pick up a win in an undercard race on each of the 3 individual racecards.  He also did it with three different horses.  Sassy Image won the Humana Distaff on Derby day, Paddy O’Prado took the Dixie on Preakness Day, and CS Silk won the Just a Game on Belmont day.  Even the far flung operations of Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen couldn’t accomplish such a feat.

5.) The randomness of the Belmont Stakes

I love the Belmont stakes.  With that being said, the last two winners of it illustrate the point that there will always be a randomness that goes into the result that exceeds the other two legs of the Triple Crown.  What do I mean by that?  The 1-2 finishers were hardly competitive against vastly inferior horses going the more traditional 9-10 furlong distances of the Triple Crown trail.  Racing close to a moderate pace on a track that was kind to speed they were able to stay.

6.) The lack of consistency

Going back to the Rebel at Oaklawn Park, no horse has won two graded stakes races restricted to 3YOs on dirt or synthetics with the exception of Animal Kingdom.  That’s right, we had different winners of the Sunland Derby, Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby, Bay Shore, Wood Memorial, Illinois Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass, Arkansas Derby, Jerome, Derby Trial, Peter Pan, Preakness, Laz Barrera, Ohio Derby, Woody Stephens and Belmont.  That’s what you call parity.

7.) As for Belmont day itself, how about Kiaran McLaughlin?

Though his Derby hopeful, Soldat, was nowhere to be found on Belmont day, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin scored two impressive wins with It’s Tricky in the Acorn and Trappe Shot in the True North.  Both vaulted towards the top of their respective divisions and proved two separate things in their victories.  First, It’s Tricky winning over the heavily favored Turbulent Descent showed that you can never hold one bad performance against an otherwise consistent horse.  Trappe Shot’s victory showed that discretion is the better part of valor.  He had been very sharp as a sprinter in 2010 and in his first start this year and his connections kept him sprinting despite upcoming route races at Churchill Downs and Belmont Park.

8.) The disappointments

In six stakes races at Belmont on Saturday there were 5 favorites that failed.  What went wrong for Turbulent Descent, Arch Traveler, Aviate, Gio Ponti and Animal Kingdom?  All different things, and while you can be sure they’re all quality horses, each will have to rebound moving forward.

9.) The slop/bog

Moving forward handicappers are going to have to decide how to approach the damp conditions that Mother Nature created at Belmont on Saturday.  Is Mission Approved really a GI caliber turfer or simply a beneficiary of a tremendous pace edge over a course that negated his main rivals’ late kicks?  Is It’s Tricky ready to become a top level 3YO filly or did the slop move her up?  Did Justin Phillip benefit from getting clear on a type of surface that he had handled nicely in the past?  Will Ruler on Ice ever win a GI again?

10.) Approaching the Belmont from a handicapping perspective

In years to come it is going to be imperative to take a stand against horses exiting the Preakness.  Since Afleet Alex’s win in the 2005 Belmont, horses exiting the Preakness are now 0-16 and 2-31 overall dating back to Point Given’s victory in 2001.  While there are plenty of “rules” that are tossed around about the Derby, this might be one of the best with regards to the Belmont.

While it is always a bit sad to see another Triple Crown come and go with it vacant for another year, the future looks bright.  Beginning with Saturday’s Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, there are Grade I stakes races on each of the next five weekends leading up to the opening of Saratoga and Del Mar in late July!

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