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Test of Champions

Posted by on 6/3/2015 9:14:10 PM

Even though styles of the sophomores are evident by the time they are set to enter the starting gate for the Belmont Stakes this weekend, it will still be the first time this crop runs this far and questions have to be answered. As much as breeding and the innate blood evident to get the trip, conditioning will be of the utmost and so will racing style.

So that’s what we will be dealing with again this year, a journey that is grueling and taxing. It is a distance that is rarely run these days. It comes at a time when a lot of the runners have already been through the wars this season and just when fatigue is starting to set in.

One runner that could have an edge as far as stamina is concern is Mubtaahij. He won a $2 million stakes in Dubai at a mile and three sixteenths and he did it very easy on the taxing a deep Meydan track. And the blood is there as his half sister Lilly of the Valley took a Group 1 going a mile and a quarter on grass.

Another thing fans have to understand is that these horses are not machines, that there is blood running through those veins and not just octane. And just like when something freaky happens on the track, like a horse that breaks down and causes a spill, it has a mental as well as physical response.

Casual bettors sometimes figure that the longer races favor the late runners with more real time to catch the leaders but be very careful before just backing some of the deep closers that are aiming for the third jewel, as, just like in most races, tactical speed is crucial.

And who better to take a hint from in that department than Woody Stephens who won 5 straight Belmonts through 1986. The Hall of Famer once said, “it’s not just stamina that wins the Belmont, you have to have a fit horse who has speed.”

One thing that can’t really be left out of the strategy in the Belmont Stakes is the jockey factor. The mile and a half distance is rarely used at Belmont and unless a starter handicap or a race that is removed from turf goes, it’s possible that the distance is only used on this one day. Pace can be tricky and it can fool even experienced riders that are not used to riding in New York.

That could have been the case when Stewart Elliot got nailed by Birdstone several years ago when he rode Smarty Jones and it’s probably not a fluke that New York based riders have a built-in edge.

The reality of it is that the best style to win the Belmont is to have positional speed, be within the realm turning for home, and then have enough in the tank to combine stamina and conditioning in the final furlong.

Remember, no matter how impressive a horse has been coming to the Belmont Stakes, there are no cinches in this affair.

Consider the ill-timed Bobby Frankel quote in the Chicago Sun Times after Smarty Jones crushed his trainee Master David in the Kentucky Derby, Frankel: “Smarty Jones looks like a superstar. He looks like a cinch in the Belmont unless something goes wrong. He likes off tracks. He likes fast tracks. He goes along in a race and doesn’t need anyone to set the pace for him. He’s the complete horse.”

Make that incomplete.

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