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Thursday, June 9, 2011
A Belmont wager? You bet!

By Paul Moran
Special to ESPN.com

ELMONT, N.Y. - Dale Romans, who trains Shackleford, surprise winner of the Preakness, watched his first Classic winner work five furlongs in a shade over a minute last Saturday at Belmont Park, pronounced the colt ready for the Triple Crown finale and said: "It's fun to get a rivalry started [with Animal Kingdom]. It's good for racing."

On Sunday morning, a van carrying Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom from the bucolic Fair Hill training center in Maryland rolled through the stable gate at Belmont. "We're looking forward to a rematch," said David Rock, trainer Graham Motion's assistant, "and there are some other real horses in the race as well."

Indeed, a true rivalry that blossoms during the Triple Crown is compelling and good for racing but they are almost as rare as Triple Crown winners.

Indeed, a true rivalry that blossoms during the Triple Crown is compelling and good for racing but they are almost as rare as Triple Crown winners. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, in 1989, were embroiled in the last and the first true rivalry since Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner, repeatedly battled his dogged opponent, Alydar, through the spring and summer of 1978. There are other forces at work here. Rhetoric notwithstanding, neither the connections of Animal Kingdom nor Shackleford are motivated purely by the prospect of engaging their horses in a rivalry. With the Derby winner's connections looking toward a campaign on turf between spring and fall and unlikely to again encounter Shackleford before the Breeders' Cup Classic, the promise of rivalry rings hollow. Running in the Belmont, however, is a sound business decision for both. Two-thirds of the Triple Crown would all but cement the 3-year-old divisional championship and with it almost immeasurable future value in the breeding market.

Neither Animal Kingdom nor Shackleford will attempt the unprecedented in the 143rd Belmont Stakes. Eleven Derby winners denied in the Preakness have succeeded at Belmont Park. Eighteen have won the Preakness and Belmont, seven of which, Man o' War among them, did not run in the Derby. Were they to finish first and second at the end of a hotly contested stretch drive Saturday, at least the perception of rivalry could well be born on Long Island, but the Belmont in recent years has been no more formful than the Derby without the luxury of a 20-horse field at which to point the finger of blame.

Though Romans, in public at least, has expressed confidence that the Belmont's distance will pose no problem for the Preakness winner, many view skeptically the front-running, excitable Shackleford's prospects of staying 12 furlongs on what is predicted to be a hazy, hot, humid Saturday. Shackleford's success three weeks ago in Baltimore, when confronted by 1 3/16 miles, was largely the product of pace and a clever ride. Animal Kingdom, a 20-1 longshot in Louisville and running strongly in the last furlong of the Preakness, will clearly be the favorite of bettors here but somehow one too obvious to fit comfortably into the trend of recent runnings of "The Test of the Champion."

Last year's Belmont winner, Drosselmeyer, paid $28.00 and went almost a year without another victory. In 2009, Summer Bird's backers collected $25.80. Da Tara, front-running beneficiary of Big Brown's momentous meltdown at the verge of a Triple Crown in 2008, paid $79.00 and left even trainer Nick Zito speechless. The monstrous filly Rags to Riches paid $10.60 after upsetting eventual Horse of the Year Curlin in 2007. She never won another race and was soon retired. Jazil paid $14.40 after defeating an absolutely vapid field in 2006. Afleet Alex interrupted the litany of beaten favorites in 2005, a year after Birdstone ran past Triple Crown hopeful Smarty Jones and paid $74.00. Since 1999, when Lemon Drop Kid paid $61.50 after beating 55-1 Vision and Verse by a head while Triple Crown candidate Charismatic finished third on a broken leg, the Belmont has also seen its winner light the board with payoffs of $39.60 (Commendable, 2000) and $142.50 (Sarava, 2002). This has been a test of chalk players but not recent champions.

For those who embrace the belief that 12 furlongs is beyond the Preakness winner despite the very real possibility that he will again be unchallenged on the lead and that the late-running Derby winner, though perhaps best suited to the route, is not unbeatable, there is great hope for extreme profit in the Belmont's recent, unpredictable history.

The Belmont's great unknown -- 12 furlongs run over a unique racetrack, the world's longest dirt course -- levels the playing field.

The Belmont's great unknown -- 12 furlongs run over a unique racetrack, the world's longest dirt course -- levels the playing field. This is a circumstance the 3-year-old participants will never again encounter, more uncertain even than their initial 10-furlong challenge in Kentucky. Level playing fields and unfamiliar conditions tend often to produce surprising results. The usual parameters employed in handicapping do not necessarily translate to a marathon run over dirt, a route a full quarter-mile longer than any of the participants have been asked to stay. "The Test of the Champion" applies only to those who face this challenge after having won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Otherwise, the Belmont is a test of the long-winded and opportunistic.

The opening odds on the Kentucky Derby winner were set at a reasonable 2-1 after a dozen were entered Wednesday. By post time Saturday the price will almost certainly be lower. Purely from a bettor's standpoint, Animal Kingdom offers no value. Nor does 9-2 on Shackleford, drawn outside, his hand forced in the early stages of the Belmont. He too will be a shorter price when the pools close.

Without doubt, given the right circumstance, both Animal Kingdom and Shackleford are capable of winning the Belmont. There are other possibilities, however, in what has come together as an intriguing finale to the unclaimed Triple Crown. Like the Kentucky Derby, betting favorites in the Belmont have in recent years been agonizingly unprofitable.

Nehro was the wise-guy horse in Kentucky and, though the wise-guy horse never wins, he certainly ran a winning race, overcoming a less than favorable trip until Animal Kingdom swept past in the stretch and left him second, which has been his pattern since winning a February maiden race at Fair Grounds. He is again heavily supported here and installed as the 4-1 second choice overnight behind the Derby winner. He is a progressive colt in the hands of Steve Asmussen, eligible to advance and dismissed at great peril. Still, he very well may be both an underlay and a horse around which to build a vertical wager.

Trainer Aidan O'Brien is dangerous wherever and whenever he brings a horse to a major race and the widely traveled Master of Hounds has been shipped from his Ballydoyle headquarters after having finished a pace- and trip-compromised fifth in the Kentucky Derby. "After the race, Garrett Gomez said he'd like to ride him again, that he's a very nice horse. He'll definitely put up a good show here," said O'Brien's assistant, T.J. Comerford. "The mile and a half will hit him on the head. The reason we're coming here is he really ran well in the Kentucky Derby." Master of Hounds may be, on pedigree, best suited to the distance and will benefit from his initial exposure to dirt at Churchill Downs in what was only his second start of the year. A reprise of his effort in the UAE Derby in Dubai makes him a player whose overnight odds are 10-1.

Brilliant Speed has yet to make his presence felt in three attempts on dirt, most recently in the Kentucky Derby. He survived a nightmarish trip in Louisville and finished well after being fanned eight-wide on the stretch turn, an effort arguably better than his Polytrack victory at 19-1 in the Blue Grass Stakes. The price may be in that neighborhood in the Belmont. "We're enthusiastic about bringing him here for a 1-mile race considering his pedigree and we thought we'd give it a shot with him on the dirt," trainer Tom Albertrani said after the draw Wednesday. "There's always a question how he'll handle the surface, but I'm pretty optimistic."

It is not usually wise to back a horse ridden by a jockey unfamiliar with the vast Long Island course. They tend to lose their way, so Joel Rosario, who rides Brilliant Speed, is not a positive addition to the partnership. But this colt is 15-1 on the morning line, likely twice that by post time and this is, after all, a gamble.

Prime Cut is another improving colt, this one in the capable hands of Neil Howard. He should benefit from a race over the course when third in the Peter Pan Stakes last month. Prime Cut will open at 15-1 and though he has yet to win a stakes, he has yet to finish unplaced in just five career starts. Odds will be at least as generous as the morning line and Edgar Prado in the boot only makes this one a more interesting candidate to be somewhere in the frame.

Santiva ran a better race while, like many, pace compromised in the Derby than the running line would suggest and at 15-1 on the morning line brings a pedigree to the table that is better suited to the route than most of these. He is Grade 1 placed, a Grade 2 winner and has been consistently in the frame on dirt. Underestimate trainer Eddie Kenneally at your own risk.

Barry Irwin, president of the partnership that owns Animal Kingdom, dismissed Shackleford this week and said Mucho Macho Man is the horse he fears most. But this is a difficult horse to gauge after having run in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. He regressed sharply in the Preakness after having run well to finish third in the Derby, a taxing lifetime-best effort that manifested itself in pronounced weight loss noted in Maryland, where he finished a nonthreatening sixth. A bullet work over the course here suggests the possibility of a rebound and a switch to jockey Ramon Dominguez is positive. The opening price, 10-1, makes it difficult to leave this one out of the number despite the poor Preakness effort.

Nine possibilities in a field of 12 for the oldest and longest races of the Triple Crown. Isn't that what they call a "good betting race?"

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at pmoran1686@aol.com.