Fading the Pharoah!

Here we go again!

For the third time in the past 4 years, Mardi Gras comes to Long Island. Pundits will pitch bright plastic accolades into crowds of race-going revelers. Bugles will blare. Money will get tossed around like confetti. Babies will be conceived on the Belmont infield, and millions of nongambling Americans will actually watch a horse race in the month of June.

And the whole circus will end as it has in the past, with trash stuffed into the tubas and tears filling everyone’s ten-dollar beers. American Pharoah, the super horse, will run rubber-legged through the final sixteenth of a mile. The only Egyptian word uttered after the finish line will be denial.

Letting the Trend Be Your Friend

Each time a horse completes the 2-race sweep of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the wave of money bet on him in the Belmont Stakes dwarfs the dollars wagered by savvy handicappers. The hype, hope and hooplah create a mini gold rush for value bettors. The problem bettors encounter, though, resembles the problem prospectors always face: on which specific square of soil do you stake your claim?

Pedigree studies published by Dr. Steve Romans, one of the finest statisticians in the sport, show that the speed influences in the pedigrees of Derby winners steadily increased over the past 20 years. Such findings support the speed-based handicapping approaches I present in my book, The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby. More importantly, Dr. Romans’ site contains stats that show the Belmont Stakes offers no refuge for the heavily raced speedsters who competed in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Nor for any horse whose family earned their hay by means of their speed genes.

The Belmont Stakes, not the Kentucky Derby, has emerged as the supreme test of stamina in US racing.

You don’t have to look very far for further evidence of this. You can verify these assertions using average-winning-distance stats for sires and dam sires. A Belmont contestant better show a 7.5 AWD or higher on one side of his family tree or the other.

Or you can set the stats aside and just watch replays of Derby and Preakness winners getting collared in the late stages of the Belmont: Silver Charm, Real Quiet, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Shackleford, Oxbow.

Visual and statistical evidence abounds. And it’s all stacked against American Pharoah, who sports a speed-heavy pedigree and a running style that’s a natural byproduct of it. Looking for an explanation of his dead-slow final quarters in his races beyond a mile and an eighth? Search no more.

The enormity of the task for Triple-Crown hopefuls combined with the enormity of the money bet on them tips the scales heavily in favor of bettors who wager against these talented (but doomed) speedsters. So I will ride the high side of the scales and fade the Pharoah.

Staking Your Claim

Replays of recent Belmont Stakes runnings offer clues about where to find your vein of gold. Horses near the lead fare much better than those in the lead. Solid stamina influences regularly prevail over speed-oriented pedigrees.

With regard to the first factor, early-race placement, predicting the racing position of any Belmont contender can be difficult. The slow pace of this race allows nonspeedsters to position themselves closer to the leaders than usual. Making your wager based on expected early position alone might fail to land you on the winner.

Pedigree, on the other hand, offers stability you can build a case upon because so few US horses are bred primarily for stamina. The few who possess abundant stamina genes descend from turf sires. If you know a little about pedigree, look for classic turf breeding in the recent bloodlines of Belmont contenders. Nureyev, Nijinsky, Dynaformer, Roberto. Or take the easy way out and look for Northern Dancer.

Tonalist, the 2014 Belmont winner, had Nijinsky as a recent influence in his pedigree. Palace Malice, the 2013 winner, descended from Roberto and Nureyev. Union Rags (2012), Drosselmeyer (2010), and Summer Bird (2009) descended from Nijinsky too. Many of those winners also claimed Northern Dancer as a close relative.

If a horse bred in Europe shows up for the Belmont Stakes, you can safely assume that, strictly in terms of pedigree, his potential to succeed is greater than that of his US foes. That puts the Irish-bred Mubtaahij near the top of the list of legitimate contenders this year.

As in the Derby, pedigree alone can’t be counted on to get the job done. With a few notable exceptions, winners displayed talent at the Grade 1 and Grade 2 levels. Very few winners came from nowhere (or New Jersey, just east of nowhere) like Ruler On Ice in 2011.

Don’t be too harsh in your judgment of slow-early horses who raced competitively at racing’s highest levels without winning. Late runners compromised by shorter, speed-favoring distances now gain an edge. Belmont winners Drosselmeyer, Summer Bird, Victory Gallop and possibly even Empire Maker serve as good examples of grinders who turned the tables on a speedier nemesis in the Belmont. Frosted and Madefromlucky fit into this category.

Betting the 2015 Belmont Stakes

I mentioned the three horses I consider to be the most likely obstacles in American Pharoah’s quest for glory. Mubtaahij tops the pedigree angle, and Madefromlucky claims the “recent performance” prize. Frosted is the underachieving horse (2 wins vs. 4 second-place finishes) I should try to show more respect for, at least for a day.

Does it makes sense to bet all three? Or should you try to settle on one or two?

Let’s take an extremely positive view of the likely 3-5 favorite, American Pharoah. Assume a rational estimate places his chances of winning in the 40 percent vicinity. Then assume that, as a group, my top 3 selections own a similar 40 percent chance. With Frosted at 6-1 as the shortest price among them, even my minimum return of about $14 for $6 in win bets far outshines the $9.00 return from a winning $6 wager on Pharoah.

When weighed against the 60 percent chance of my horses losing, though, my $14 return falls short of qualifying as value. Because Frosted sits at the bottom of my selection list and offers a marginal profit, I’ll skip betting on him and focus on my top two choices.

At 10-1 or so Mubtaahij holds the strongest pedigree and multiple wins in top-rated dirt races overseas. He also brings along a trainer, Michael de Kock who has taken the world by storm in the past decade. After losing weight during the long trip to America, Mubtaahij ran poorly in the Derby. The horse has recovered, and the trainer learned a valuable lesson. Not only did he book a long-term room at Belmont for his horse after the Derby, de Kock also signed up a top Belmont-based rider to replace the European rider who flew in for the Derby.

At 12-1 or so, Madefromlucky offers the sharp recent performance lacking in Mubtaahij’s resume. His win in Belmont’s Peter Pan Stakes is nearly identical to the Peter Pan victory of last year’s Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist.

Both horses figure to sit just behind the leaders, exactly where most recent Belmont winners have hovered.

Because the money wagered on American Pharoah to win will be eclipsed only by the enormity of show money he attracts, I’ll also bet on both of my top choices to show. If Pharoah runs out of the money, as heavily favored California Chrome did last year, the show prices could exceed the win payoffs on my selections.

“Laissez les bons temps rouler!”

Roger LeBlanc
June 5, 2015