by Tom Carley
The BELMONT STAKES is now upon us. American Pharoah will try to be the first horse in thirty-eight years to win the Triple Crown. The BELMONT STAKES is called “The Test of a Champion” based on the fact that it is 12-furlong competition run on a racetrack called “The Big Sandy”, because of the sandy type surface. This surface is not firm and that makes a very tiring racetrack because the horses cannot “dig in”, which means that they have to work harder. This makes it difficult for a speed horse to win this race in a gate-to-wire fashion.
This week’s Featured Thoughts:
I. WINNING A TRIPLE CROWN IS MUCH TOUGHER NOW THAN THIRTY YEARS AGO.
Last week while lunching with a friend who’s not particularly a thoroughbred horse racing fan, he asked why it has been so long since there has been a Triple Crown winner. I gave this question some thought and came to the determination that it much more difficult to win all three races now than in the 1970’s when we had three Triple Crown winners between 1973 and 1978. Some reasons I came up with are the following:
- The KENTUCKY DERBY now has more entries than it did forty years ago. In the 1970’s the KENTUCKY DERBY frequently had less than twelve entrants. The race has gotten so popular, that Churchill Downs had to create a points system to determine who could actually participate. Many good horses such as Afleet Alex were upset in the KENTUCKY DERBY, but went on to win the other two legs of the Triple Crown.
- Trainers skip the PREAKNESS with horses that run in the KENTUCKY DERBY before entering in the BELMONT STAKES. California Chrome’s connections made this point obvious last year. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas was the first to take this tactic with Commendable, skipping the PREAKNESS before winning the BELMONT STAKES. Todd Pletcher frequently has more than three entries in the KENTUCKY DERBY, but rarely has a horse in the PREAKNESS.
- The third leg BELMONT STAKES attracts distance specialists, while some speed horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The 12-furlong distance of the BELMONT STAKES provides a unique opportunity for horses that are bred to be endurance horses to earn a Grade I victory. A good deal of KENTUCKY DERBY winners are considered either speed horses or tactical horses. These horses are at a tremendous disadvantage in the 1½ mile race in New York.
- Horses run less frequently than in the past. This makes it more difficult for horses to have three peak performances in a timeframe of only five weeks.
II. “WORK” HORSE
The past performances came out yesterday morning for the BELMONT STAKES. I did my customary quick initial glance and something caught my eye. Mubtaahij -- winner of Dubai’s UAE DERBY who ran 8th in the KENTCUKY DERBY --- has had six published workouts in the last three weeks. Instead of running in the PREAKNESS, Mubtaahij worked 4-furlongs at Churchill Downs. Then a week later he worked 5-furlongs ON THE TURF at Belmont Park. Yes, I highlighted the turf portion of this workout as it caught my eye and I can’t explain why. Then Mubtaahij worked a half mile three days later before working another 3-furlongs on Saturday the 27th. The final published work on the record was a 5-furlong work May 30th. The trainer is training this horse in the way racehorses were trained a generation ago. It should shock nobody that Mubtaahij does not run on Lasix. When I handicap I look at horses that do a 1-mile work. This frequency of workouts definitely proves that Mubtaahij will be able to endure the 12-furlong distance at the BELMONT STAKES.
III. WILL AMERICAN PHAROAH MAKE IT A TRIPLE ?
This is not a handicapping column, so I will not be answering that question. While American Pharoah has won the KENTUCKY DERBY and the PREAKNESS, remember that this Saturday he is facing a whole unique set of circumstances: more distance; new racetrack; third race in five weeks; and facing fresher horses. Strange things happen in the BELMONT. However, one can also look at the number of horses who made their career splash down in the BELMONT STAKES and then reached greatness. Few had heard of Birdstone (another horse who skipped the PREAKNESS) before he won the BELMONT STAKES, going off at 36:1 odds, and then went on to win the TRAVERS STAKES in Saratoga. Don’t throw anyone out when handicapping the race.
For the good of the sport I hope that American Pharoah does win. Racing needs the shot in the arm that a Triple Crown winner could provide. Another part of me also would like to see a horse win the BELMONT STAKES without running on Lasix.
This column has taken us on a long journey. We started in November and now conclude Season 1 of BABYTALK with the wrap up of the Triple Crown. Please check back frequently, because I will be adding content to the racehorses.com website until next fall when we start BABYTALK all over with a new cast of Derby hopefuls.