Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Belmont Stakes Analysis

--Brian DiDonato

The Belmont is a very quirky race that rarely yields a particularly formful result. In the last 10 runnings of the "Test of the Champion," the winner has paid, on average, more than $38. But, with that in mind, and my usual contrarian instincts temporarily kept at bay, I'm going to do the unthinkable--pick. . . the. . . favorite. With Alternation puzzlingly skipping the race that suited him so well, I've got no choice. I'll be shopping around for some prices underneath, and I'll still play other runners on top in certain bets, but I think Animal Kingdom is a very likely winner at a short price. See below for my detailed take on every Belmont entrant.

#9 Animal Kingdom - For those who didn't believe after his decisive win in the Derby, the chestnut turned in a very similar performance in the Preakness--pairing up 103 Beyer Speed Figures. The difference in winning and coming up a close second (in addition to Shackleford's gutsy performance) was probably the shorter distance and how far back Animal Kingdom was early. His 32 early Moss Pace Figure was 26 points slower than the equivalent figure he earned in the Derby, which was more in line with previous efforts, so it's very likely that Animal Kingdom can and will be closer early on Saturday--especially if he breaks a little more alertly. Animal Kingdom's stamina-laden pedigree has been well-documented, so distance the is of no concern. The biggest question mark for Animal Kingdom is how he's doing coming off two big races in a short time period, but a fast and very visually impressive work Monday morning should put those worries quickly to bed.

#7 Monzon - Since I picked the chalk on top, I can't help but go longshot hunting with my second choice. I was high on Monzon coming into the Peter Pan because of his very impressive and subsequently validated win in the Count Fleet S. over the winter at Aqueduct, but he checked in a disappointing sixth. He was very far out of it early behind a neutral pace and seemed to be putting in a threatening move at the top of the lane, but sort of flattened late. A glance at the come-home times in the Peter Pan shows that, after the winner Alternation (:12.30), runner-up Adios Charlie (:12.68) and Monzon (:12.69) were moving much better late than the rest of the field. Monzon did less running early, obviously, but it's something at least mildly interesting to note. Trainer Ignacio Correas IV has run a limited number of horses in the U.S., so it is difficult to generate a sufficient sample size for determining if he does better first or second off the lay-off. Using DRF Formulator, I decided to include Correas' stats with first and second timers in my handicapping based on the principle that the techniques used to get a horse ready to win on debut are the same as getting a previously raced horse to win first off the bench. The modified stats are telling--Correas is 2/24 (8%) with his firsters and first off the lay-off runners, but he is 5/17 (29%) with his second timers and second off the lay-off types. The numbers still aren't perfect, but they're enough to be confident that Monzon will be better in his second start back off the bench. He's a classic "maybe horse”--not one to rely on by any means, but a runner who has enough sneaky positives to take a chance on and feature in bets. The "maybes" might turn out to be "NOs," but at 30-1, Monzon is the type of quirky horse that can juice up the exotics.

#6 Nehro - My Derby pick gave a good account of himself on the first Saturday in May, and while he was ridden slightly more aggressively than he should have been, his mild trip excuses don't come close to accounting for how easily Animal Kingdom beat him. His connections did the right thing to bypass the Preakness, and that freshness edge is not to be taken lightly, but his main rival does not appear any worse for wear, so there isn't much reason to expect Nehro to turn the tables. He's still very talented, can be up close if he needs to be and should have no problem with the distance, but something unforeseen--like a rough trip for the favorite--might be necessary for Nehro to find the winner's circle. I'll still use him prominently on all of my tickets, but I think that after a string of races where he was an overlay, he'll be slightly overbet this time.

#1 Master of Hounds - This European invader is a total “wise guy” horse, but he does offer some positives. Everyone could see that he was running on late in the Derby, but there's more to it than that. It has been all but proven by now that the inside part of the track on Derby weekend was the last place to be, but Master of  Hounds traveled on the inside for part of the early running of the Derby and was steered to the rail while he was turning it on the stretch. His final quarter of :24.13 was only slower than Animal Kingdom, Dialed In and (surprisingly) Twice the Appeal's. Stamina isn’t an issue pedigree-wise, but he'll have to prove he isn't over the top. Master of Hounds has only run twice this year, but he has been subjected to several long intercontinental trips. If he's 100%, he can make an impact.

#4 Santiva -  He was slow last year, but has progressed from two to three despite a fairly uneventful start to the year. His sixth-place finish in the Derby last time earned him a new Beyer top (95), and with good spacing between his races, it's likely he's ready for another step forward. A son of Giant's Causeway shouldn't have much trouble going this long, and while his dam is a half to the brilliant sprinter Safely Kept, Santiva's siblings have seemed to prefer routing. He can hit the board at a price.

#12 Shackleford - I'm a fan of his and had him high on my list in both the Derby and Preakness, but I think his pedigree will catch up with him here. Granted, he outperformed his breeding in that gutsy Preakness win, but he didn't give the appearance of wanting any more ground. His Derby run was underrated because of where on the track he did his running and misconceptions about the pace, but not enough to use him on top here. I fear him, especially considering the expected pace scenario, but think that there will be too many horses running late for him to hold off--even though he's more talented than almost all of them.

#10 Mucho Macho Man - As always, he's a threat to hit the board, but he'll be an underlay in the win pool. Despite a lofty reputation and more than $600,000 in the bank, he has only won twice. His backers have always pointed to his late foaling date and lanky frame as evidence that he's got room for improvement, but Mucho Macho Man has run just about the same race in his last seven outings. He's much more an exposed picture of consistency than the lightly raced, ready to explode type that he has been made out to be by many. Mucho Macho Man also has significant distance limitations pedigree-wise. He sports the field's lowest Tomlinson rating for the distance and his dam side pedigree is very sprint-oriented. His win odds on the board will probably be 1/3 of what they should be, but it's tough to toss him completely from second and third because of how consistent he is.

#5 Brilliant Speed - I didn't expect him to take to the dirt last time, and while he ran a credible seventh, it might have been more due to his stamina than his affinity for dirt. He probably simply outstayed others who were more distance challenged. He'll be overbet off of that misleading late run and because of his pedigree, and I'll stick with my original opinion that he's not a dirt horse.

#8 Prime Cut - His Beyer figures do not compare favorably with his competition, and he has come up in lower level races in his last two. His unraced dam is a half to useful sprinter Disco Rico and his well-bred sire Bernstein was purely a sprinter, so it's not as if the distance will help move him up to the level of his rivals.

#2 Stay Thirsty - He hasn't progressed at all since his debut last July, and his three off-the-board finishes came the three times he was stepped into Grade I company. It's a bit of a fallacy to think more distance is going to be positive for him--he's more of a precocious middle distance horse than a true router.

#3 Ruler On Ice - Nothing about his form makes him look competitive here, and his pedigree is not well-suited to more ground. He was beaten by Concealed Identity in the Tesio last time, and that runner was outclassed in the Preakness. With the addition of blinkers and some quick recent works, he might add to the early pace, but he won't be around late.

#11 Isn't He Perfect - He should get the distance, but not nearly fast enough to be a contender.

I'll use my top four--to varying degrees--in the Pick 4, and my main vertical wager will be a trifecta key of Animal Kingdom over Monzon, Nehro, Master of Hounds and Santiva. I'll also probably be forced to make a small win bet on Monzon because of what his price will be.

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