Print and Go Back ESPN.com: HorseRacing [Print without images]

Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Why run in the Belmont? Why not?

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

Midnight Taboo works at Belmont Park.
Midnight Taboo appears to be out of place in the Belmont but may prove he belongs.

There are 15 horses set to line up for Saturday's Belmont and at first glance you could argue that six or seven of them don't belong. Incognito was buried in his lone stakes try, the Peter Pan. Frac Daddy was 16th in the Kentucky Derby, the only horse in the race who didn't close into the torrid early pace. Will Take Charge was eighth in the Derby and seventh in the Preakness, which ought to tell you he's not a prime-time player. Even Todd Pletcher is throwing a Hail Mary with Midnight Taboo, who is 1-for-3 and couldn't win a first level allowance race in his last start.

But this is the Belmont Stakes, where anything can happen, which any horse can win.

This is the one race where you can't blame people for taking a shot, no matter what the horse looks like on paper.

Some good horses have won the Belmont in recent years. There was Union Rags last year and Afleet Alex, Birdstone, Empire Maker and Point Given are on the list of Belmont winners over the past 12 years. Even Drosselmeyer, who looked like a fluky Belmont winner at the time, would go on to prove himself in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

But for every Afleet Alex and Empire Maker there has been a Da' Tara. Not very good horses win this race and win it all the time.

Since 2000, the Belmont has been won five times by horses with, to be polite, very modest credentials: Commendable (2000), Sarava (2002), Jazil (2006), Da' Tara (2008) and Ruler On Ice (2011). They didn't look very good going into the Belmont and they looked even worse coming out of it. The quintet is a remarkable 1-for-39 combined in their post Belmont starts. Only an allowance win by Ruler On Ice, who is still in training, keeps this group from having a collective oh-fer.

With the exception of Jazil, who somehow paid only $14.20 to win on a $2 wager, the public was far from enamored by these horses. Their Belmont payoffs were: Ruler On Ice ($51.50); Sarava ($142.50); Commendable ($39.60); Da' Tara ($79).

There's not any way of figuring this out. The horses come into the race with poor records, they win the Belmont and they do nothing the rest of
their careers.

No Grade 1 race in America has produced more seemingly hopeless winners over the past few years than the Belmont has, and it's not hard to see why. The mile-and-a-half distance makes this race a crapshoot. American horses are no longer bred to go beyond a mile-and-an-eighth, so the Belmont has become as much a test of who can stagger through the distance as who the best horse is. The other factor is the Triple Crown campaign. Be it because of Lasix or other therapeutic drugs, the way they are prepared or whatever, the modern horse has a lot of trouble standing up through the strain of prep season and the Triple Crown races. Orb is likely the best horse in the Belmont, but he is being asked to run in all three of the races and was already flat in the Preakness. He doesn't have to show up Saturday.

So who is this year's Da' Tara? That's the problem. There's not any way of figuring this out. The horses come into the race with poor records, they win the Belmont and they do nothing the rest of their careers.

The only hint may be the trainers. Ken McPeek will be starting Frac Daddy and he's already won the Belmont with long shot Sarava and was able to get another big long shot, Atigun, to run third last year. He seems to know how to prepare a horse for this race. And Kiaran McLaughlin is taking a stab with Incognito. He's the same trainer who won this with the less-than-immortal Jazil.

That doesn't mean that Orb won't win or Oxbow won't win. It does mean that this is the Belmont, everyone belongs, anyone can win and don't be the least bit surprised if Frac Daddy is standing in the winner's circle early Saturday evening.

Belmont notes: Vyjack's trainer, Rudy Rodriguez, has had a tough time of late. Not only has he had to deal with a handful of positive drug tests but he had an 0-for-29 streak that was finally broken on Sunday when he won the ninth race at Belmont with Quiet Power. It was his first winner in New York since May 16 … Unlimited Budget will be the first filly to run in the Belmont since Rags to Riches won it in 2007 … Afleet Alex (2005) is the last favorite to win the Belmont.