Friday, June 10, 2011

Fresh Vs. Fit: Recipe for Belmont Success

-- Christina Bossinakis

   It’s that time of year--in fact, one of my favorite periods of the racing season--Belmont Stakes week. I guess living about an hour from Belmont Park (that’s if you manage to hit the Belt Prkwy before 6 a.m.) has given me a very strong appreciation and affection for the final leg of the Triple Crown. Every year, I  make the pilgrimage with some of my esteemed colleagues from the TDN to New York to enjoy the week’s festivities. I was at Belmont Monday morning to watch Animal Kingdom and Nehro have their first works over the track. Animal Kingdom not only worked well, but he looked really good doing it. Quite frankly, I think the Belmont is Animal Kingdom’s to lose. He looks the part, acts the part and will have no excuses if he doesn’t get up in time Saturday. On the other hand, Nehro didn’t leave quite the same impression. However, in his defense, Nehro did pretty much what his connections wanted him to do, and by all accounts, he didn’t wow the masses heading into the Kentucky Derby either, so should we be worried? Not strictly based on that fact, I think.

   Then there is the Preakness winner, Shackleford. He definitely is nice to look at and moves well over the track. In all honesty, I didn’t think much of him prior to the Preakness, but he definitely has shown incremental improvement in his latest few races. His tactical speed appears to be a big plus in a race that doesn’t have a whole lot of early running types to speak of, and although his sire doesn’t scream distance, his female line definitely offers Classic quality. Also, not to be overlooked in the Belmont is the freshness factor. Shackleford is by no means a little slight and delicate flower (think more L L Cool J), and appears to have negotiated the grueling Triple Crown looking no worse for his efforts. However, we won’t really know how much his top notch recent efforts have taken out of him until he hits that long Belmont stretch..

Animal Kingdom                 Sherackatthetrack Photo
   Speaking of freshness, there are a couple of horses in here that might offer some interest at a price. Monzon came home a winner in the Count Fleet S. on the inner track at the Big A Jan. 1, but couldn’t get it together when fifth in Tampa’s GIII Sam F. Davis S. Feb. 12. In my mind, Tampa’s main track is unique, so I generally try not to penalize a horse that runs poorly there. Last time out, he came home sixth in the May 14 GII Peter Pan S., but he seemed to have some excuses, so there could be some improvement in him with a cleaner trip this time. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he is by Belmont winner Thunder Gulch, who in turn has already sired a Belmont winner, Point Given.

   Master of Hounds is another horse that exceeded my expectations in the Derby. Third in Group 1 company in England last year, the bay came home sixth–beaten only three lengths–in the GII BC Juvenile Turf. A nose back in second on the synthetic in the G2 UAE Derby, he was far back in the early going of the Derby, negotiated his way through the mass of horseflesh and got up for fifth, beaten 5 ½ lengths. He’s been off since that effort, which is positive, however, all the flying back and forth from Europe has to take something out of a horse. In any case, I’m not sure he’s good enough to win, but could definitely get a piece of it.

Shackleford       Sherackatthetrack Photo
Past is Present...

   Jotting down some of my thoughts on this weekend’s Belmont contenders has reminded me of a story I wrote several years back. In 2005, I had the pleasure of interviewing trainer D. Wayne Lukas (now a Hall of Famer) for a feature that ran in the Belmont Stakes Souvenir Program. When asked what kind of horse it took to win ‘The Test of a Champion’, Lukas offered some very insightful and pertinent points.

   "All of the Belmont horses have to be extremely sound and they’ve got to have an iron constitution," he explained. "They can’t be delicate. They have to be the kind of horses that can stand the stress and strain of getting there and do it on that day. Most people think that a 1 1/2-mile race should suit a horse who’s a natural stayer. I do think that they have to have that quality to stay a mile-and-a-half, but I think they also have to have a turn of foot and some tactical speed. It becomes a test of having a horse that’s fresh and on his game. [Trainer] Woody [Stephens] proved that with his five winners, because he would sit in New York and wait for everybody to go through the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and then he’d pick them up and whip them."

   While it’s true, Woody Stephens mastered the art of defeating battle-worn rivals with his daisy-fresh runners, Lukas didn’t. Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch and Editor’s Note ran in the first two Triple Crown events before culminating the five-week stretch with a win at Belmont. Lukas’ most recent Belmont winner, Commendable, ran in the Derby, but bypassed the Preakness.

   I think the point is, regardless of whether a trainer brings a fresh horse or one that has danced every dance, it comes down to how well he or she knows his/her horse. Stephens knew what worked best for him, and Lukas knew what worked for his operation. On Saturday, we will see who will establish their recipe for Belmont success.

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