Belmont Stakes: The Last Bastion of Racing’s Upper Crust

The Phipps family. The Whitneys. The Vances. The Vanderbilts. Racing’s wealthiest and oldest breeders and financiers. The Belmont Stakes winner’s circle has hosted them all.

But racing’s venerable stables saddle fewer classic stakes winners than they did in the past. Kentucky Derby winners and Breeders Cup champions spring from less esteemed barns and modest bloodlines more often than they did back in the black-and-white-replay era.

Stakes races are shorter. Surfaces are faster. Speed trumps stamina. Precociousness prevails over pedigree. Except in the Belmont, where money, staying power and nostalgia are still the best bets.

Check out winning owners in the recent past. WinStar Farm, Robert Evans, Dogwood Stable, Shadwell Stable, Marylou Whitney, Juddmonte.

List Belmont contenders over the past 1o years in order of stud fees or purchase price, and you’ll find most winners occupying the top third of the list. Two Tapits, a Curlin, an A.P. Indy, Distorted Humor.

The most moneyed stables. The most prestigious sires. Those are your Belmont Stakes winners.

Among recent losing favorites and Triple Crown disappointments, you’ll find lots of humble origins. California Chrome (a Cal-bred from a small stable), Smarty Jones (a Pennsylvania bred from a small stable), Real Quiet (out of a low-priced sire at the time), Silver Charm (quick…who is his daddy?).

But handicappers shouldn’t limit themselves to pedigree analysis in the Belmont. Recent form and demonstrated ability still matter.

For example, you can’t find a winner coming off as long a layoff as this year’s most notable Japanese tourist Epicharis. And you can’t find a recent Belmont winner with two preparatory efforts as dull as those of Tapwrit.

If you combine “class” in the classic sense with sharp current form (excusing a poor effort in the Kentucky Derby if it stands as an anomaly in a horse’s past 3 or 4 races), you very well might land on the winner.

Listing the top pedigrees is a good place to start:

  • Tapwrit (out of Tapit, $300,000 stud fee)
  • Irish War Cry (out of Curlin, $150,000 stud fee)
  • Gormley (out of Malibu Moon, $75,000 stud fee)
  • Patch (out of Union Rags, $50,000 stud fee)

That’s the top third of the pedigree list in this 12-horse field. Of the four horses listed, only three show solid current form: Irish War Cry, Gormley and Patch.

Irish War Cry is the likely favorite. And he’s a favorite with a huge deficiency: he cannot handle an honest pace around 2 turns. When the early pace went from :47.4 in the Holy Bull to :47.0 in the Fountain of Youth, he folded. When the Wood Memorial found him just a half length off the pace in a more manageable :47.2 he rebounded. But he prevailed in that race despite running a mediocre final eighth, a sure sign that even that modest pace took its toll on him.

Not surprisingly, when Irish War Cry attempted to press a much-accelerated pace of :46.2 in the Kentucky Derby, he wilted once again. He might have inherited some of the best genes in racing, but that pedigree power hasn’t demonstrated any true class yet.

That leaves just two elite pedigrees to bet on.

Gormley jumps in late to the fray. This race, absent of true stars, looks much like the 2017 Santa Anita Derby field that Gormley outlasted to the wire in April. Sporting a pedigree loaded with stamina influences and just enough early speed to track weak-willed speedsters, Gormley might enjoy this mile-and-a-half scenic tour more than his rivals. At 7-1 or so he’ll be carrying my money around Big Sandy.

Patch runs for Belmont Stakes specialists Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez. They’ve racked up more wins and placings in the past dozen or so runnings of this race than any other trainers or jockeys. A quick glance at the $50,000 stud fee of Patch‘s sire might not knock your socks off. However, his above-average sire side is bolstered further by the presence of the great A.P. Indy as the dam sire.

As for performance and fitness, Patch‘s only bad race came from post 20 and a rough trip in the Kentucky Derby. His perfect stalking trip with Johnny V. aboard in his maiden win looks like a great dress rehearsal for this stretchout to a mile and a half on a major stage.

Patch‘s ensuing 2nd place finish to Girvin in the Louisiana Derby (in one of the fastest runnings of that race in the past 10 years) showed us a glimpse of his potential. With his odds settling in at 12 to 1 or so, you shouldn’t turn a blind eye to his upper-crust origins or to the considerable ability he demonstrated in his first few races.

Roger LeBlanc
June 7, 2017

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