Jun 8 2018

Triple Crown Dreams 2018 (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this article we showed a chart of the “disappointed dozen” horses who have failed to win the Belmont Stakes after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes since 1978. Included in that article was a more detailed account of the first six of these Triple Crown candidates. In Part 2 we describe the attempts of the remaining six, and offer a comparison of all twelve with this year’s candidate, Justify. We also contrast the Belmont Stakes spoilers from year’s past with the field from the 2018 Belmont Stakes.

1999 – Lemon Drop Kid beats Charismatic by 1 ½ lengths.

In the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and several preceding races, Charismatic’s running style was from off the pace. However, in the Belmont Stakes he was on the lead by the first turn, prompting a bit of a surprised reaction from track announcer Tom Durkin, “Charismatic is right in the thick of things early, and he’s coming on, and he’s got a short lead now.” Ultimately, he prompted a pace of 473 for four furlongs and 1:12 for six furlongs. In addition, somewhere in the stretch, Charismatic took a bad step and was ultimately pulled up after the finish line. He never raced again after the Belmont Stakes.

Prior to the Belmont Stakes, Lemon Drop Kid ran a respectable 3rd in the Peter Pan Stakes, closing well in tight traffic in the stretch. He went on to win several major stakes, including the Travers, Brooklyn, Suburban, Whitney, and Woodward. His Belmont Stakes victory was clearly his breakthrough race that led to major accomplishments.

So what beat Charismatic? Change in running style, chasing a quick pace, injury, and blossoming of a talented Lemon Drop Kid at just the wrong time for Charismatic.

2002 – Sarava beats War Emblem by 19 ½ lengths.

War Emblem was a 1-demensional speed horse, whose seven career wins all came while setting the pace. In his six career losses, he never even hit the board. He was the epitome of a “Needs The Lead” type of horse. In the Belmont Stakes he stumbled badly at the start and then became quite rank trying to get to the lead. He did manage to get to the lead briefly, but the damage was done and he fell back sharply in the final three furlongs.

Sarava was the winner of the Belmont Stakes and he did come into the race in good form, having won his previous race and was 2nd in two prior to that. Interestingly, the horse that finished 2nd, Medaglia D’oro went on to have a remarkable career, with a record of 10-640 after the Belmont Stakes, and career earnings of $5.75 million. In the Belmont Stakes he did all of the hard work, prompting the pace against multiple leaders, and fighting back in the stretch, only to lose by ½ length.

So what beat War Emblem? When a horse finishes 8th, nearly twenty lengths back, it’s safe to say that War Emblem beat himself. Had he broken on top, he might have cruised on the lead all the way around the 12 furlong oval. He didn’t and lost decisively.

2003 – Empire Maker beats Funny Cide by 5 lengths.

For the first time in his career, Funny Cide had to deal with a sloppy racetrack at the Belmont Stakes. In 38 career races, he raced on a sloppy track only twice, finishing off the board both times. In his Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins, Funny Cide had rated just off the pace. However, in the Belmont Stakes, maybe due to track condition and/or the small field of six, he ended up setting the pace on his own, with minimal urging from Jose Santos.

As Funny Cide set the pace, Empire Maker sat just off his flank for the entire backside run, and then on the far turn he went by him, pulling away down the lane. Prior to the Belmont Stakes, Empire Maker was 2nd in the Kentucky Derby and previously won both the Wood Memorial and Florida Derby.

So what beat Funny Cide? The sloppy track, change in running style, and Empire Maker was well rested (having skipped The Preakness) and reaching career top form. It should be noted that Ten Most Wanted (who was 9th in Kentucky Derby and also skipped The Preakness) was four lengths ahead of Funny Cide in the Belmont Stakes.

2004 – Birdstone beats Smarty Jones by 1 length.

In the eight races prior to the Belmont Stakes, Smarty Jones pressed the pace, took over at the top of the stretch, and maintained or extended his lead down the lane. In the Belmont Stakes he started out in similar fashion, but on the backstretch he moved to the lead four furlongs into the race. In order to make that move he ran a 23-second quarter, and to maintain that lead he completed the 3rd quarter in 233 seconds. Contrast these fractions with his Preakness victory, where he went 241 and 244 in the same two quarters. The Belmont Stakes is 12 furlongs, the Preakness is 9 ½ furlongs.

Birdstone bided his time five lengths behind at the 1-mile point, while two other horses (Rock Hard Ten and Eddington) pressured Smarty Jones from the inside and outside of him. After those two faded, Birdstone seized the moment and caught Smarty Jones in deep stretch for the upset. Birdstone would later go on to win the 1 ¼ mile Travers Stakes, proving the Belmont Stakes was no fluke.

So what beat Smarty Jones? Fast pace in the middle of the race, 12 furlongs, and a competitor that was capable of grinding out a solid effort at a marathon distance.

2008 – Da’Tara beats Big Brown, who does not finish the race.

In the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, Big Brown broke from the furthest outside post positions. This allowed for clean breaks from the gate, followed by wide and unhampered trips. In the Preakness he broke from mid-pack, was inside briefly, but was mostly untroubled there, and later swung out 5-wide to make another winning move. In the Belmont Stakes, he was rank early, then steadied sharply when trying to move up on the flank of the early leader, on the backstretch he was forced very wide by Tale of Ekati. After not responding to the urging of Kent Desormeaux on the far turn, he was pulled up around the quarter pole.

Da’Tara came into the Belmont Stakes off a 2nd place finish in the Barbaro Stakes, but he was off the board in his prior two races. In the Belmont Stakes he broke on top, was never really challenged, and was the beneficiary of the rough trip had by Big Brown. After the Belmont Stakes, he was winless in his next eleven starts.

So what beat Big Brown? His rankness and inability to overcome a rough trip. The racing chart read, “Rank, steadied, 7-wide, dropped back.” The Belmont Stakes was the only race lost by Big Brown in eight career starts. The bottom line: He had a bad day.

2014 – Tonalist beats California Chrome by 13/4 lengths.

California Chrome entered the Belmont Stakes off a string of six consecutive victories. He did not encounter any serious traffic issues in the Belmont, and had a clear run down the lane, but in the final furlong he flattened out and finished 4th. After the Belmont Stakes he did not start again for 3 ½ months.

Prior to the Belmont Stakes, Tonalist won the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. In subsequent races, he has won twice more at Belmont Park, making his current career record a perfect 4 for 4 over this racetrack.

So what beat California Chrome? The distance, fatigue, and a horse in sharp form, who has run his best races at Belmont Park.

Looking back at the “What beat [Triple Crown Candidate]” descriptions, we’ve come up with four common categories of factors that affected the outcome.

  1. Pace of race. Either the horse went too quick too early (e.g. Spectacular Bid) or in the middle of the race (e.g. Smarty Jones), causing them to run out of gas in the final stages of the race.
  2. Running Style and/or Trip. The horse was 1-dimensional (e.g. Pleasant Colony) and/or couldn’t overcome a troubled trip (e.g. War Emblem and Big Brown).
  3. The Belmont Track and/or 12 furlongs. In the absence of a pace excuse, tiring late suggests the horse wasn’t well suited to 1 ½ mile (e.g. California Chrome) or his opponent relished 12 furlongs and/or the Belmont surface (e.g. Easy Goer).
  4. The Belmont Stakes victor entered the race already in or approaching peak form (e.g. Coastal, Empire Maker, Tonalist, and several others).

So how does Justify stack up in these categories?

Pace of Race: With a limited number of “speed” horses entered, it seems unlikely that a suicidal pace will be set by anyone in the race, this should work to Justify’s favor.

Running Style and/or Trip: Justify seems perfectly at ease setting the pace or stalking from a close position. In races where he did not get the early lead, he settled in nicely and waited for the queue from his jockey to make his move. The one unknown is how he will react if he breaks from the gate on top, but another horse/jockey is intent on overtaking him in the early stages of the race. Will he yield? Will he get into a “scrap” like Silver Charm did in 1997? Will he get anxious on the long backstretch like Smarty Jones did in 2004 and attempt to regain the lead?

The Belmont Track and/or 12 furlongs: Justify has never raced at Belmont Park and his final preparations for the race have been at Churchill Downs, so this is an unknown. Regarding the competition, only Blended Citizen has a race at Belmont, a win in the Peter Pan Stakes.  On the subject of 12 furlongs, Justify extended his lead in the stretch in his first three races.  In the Kentucky Derby he maintained his lead from around the 3/16 pole.  However, in the Preakness he was losing ground late to Bravazo and Tenfold.

Regarding the final point about the “peaking form” of prior spoilers, here once again is the “Spoiler” chart that includes their races preceding the Belmont Stakes.

Triple Crown Spoilers2

Next are the challengers for the 2018 Belmont Stakes (exclusive of Justify) and their three races leading up to the Belmont Stakes.

From past experience, we know how important it is for any serious spoiler to be nearing peak form coming into the Belmont Stakes. It is the chore of the handicapper to determine which horses (if any) are at this point.  A horse like Bravazo, who has improved his placement in three straight graded stakes races, seems to fit that bill.

Additionally, we offer the following observations as food for thought.

  1. Four of the nine potential spoilers this year ran in the Kentucky Derby and bypassed the Preakness to run in this race. Of those,Vino Rosso and Noble Indy won highly regarded stakes races in their prior start. This is a path similar to what Empire Maker followed in 2003.
  2. Horses like Free Drop Billy and Restoring Hope who have declining placements in their past three races, do not fit the mold of any of the spoilers since 1978.
  3. Blended Citizen did not run in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness Stakes. This combined with his recent victory in the Peter Pan Stakes (at Belmont) is a path similar to both Coastal (1979) and Tonalist (2014).
  4. Since 2000, nine horses (in 18 years) have followed the path of a) Running in the Kentucky Derby. b) Skipping the Preakness Stakes. c) Winning the Belmont Stakes. The list appears below.
Year Belmont Winner Kentucky Derby Finish
2000 Commendable 17th
2003 Empire Maker (*) 2nd
2004 Birdstone (*) 8th
2006 Jazil 6th
2009 Summer Bird 7th
2012 Union Rags 7th
2013 Palace Malice 12th
2016 Creator 13th
2017 Tapwrit 6th

(*) Triple Crown Spoilers

Best of luck to Justify and the field of potential spoilers.  Regardless of the outcome, the thrill of another potential Triple Crown winner never gets old.  Enjoy horse racing fans.

Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

6 comments on “Triple Crown Dreams 2018 (Part 2)

  1. Another insightful article Neal! I’m hoping for an upset, just because it’s really fun to pay out customers who are against the favorite….thanks again for the time you put into writing this piece…

    Linda Perryman on

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