Well, this weekend’s Belmont Stakes sure feels like a letdown after the past two years.
In 2014, Valley-bred star California Chrome gave us five weeks and endless furlongs of Triple Crown hope, only to be dashed in the final strides on a heart-wrenching Saturday in June at Big Sandy. Last year, we couldn’t believe our eyes when American Pharoah dazzled us with a scintillating performance to secure the first Triple Crown in 37 years.
However, any hopes of a repeat were dashed three weeks ago when Kentucky Derby champion Nyquist succumbed to sizzling fractions in a downpour at the Preakness.
The Preakness winner, Exaggerator, is a quality horse with a fun closing style, and his Cajun connections are easy to root for, but he certainly doesn’t move the needle across America for casual racing fans. And with Nyquist sitting out this final leg and depriving us of a Triple Crown rubber match, why watch?
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Well, two reasons.
▪ 1. The competition. You’re a sports fan, right? I would assume you are, if you’re reading this column that appears once in a blue moon. Saturday’s Belmont is what sports is all about. It’s a hard-nosed competition that gives its athletes the ultimate test – in this case, running 1 1/2 miles for the first time – with the hope that at the end of the day, a star is born. Seeing and hearing an exciting stretch run can give you chills, imagining what it would be like to be on the back of those powerhouses stretching for the wire. In the Triple Crown of horse racing, unlike team sports, there are no teams you root for year after year. Each year is a new crop of 3-year-olds, making each race special in that you may just end up cheering for a champion. So dive in, pick a number, pick a name, pick a color, whatever. Just get invested. It makes for a special 2 1/2 minutes.
Which gets me to my next reason …
▪ 2. Make some money. The possibilities appear endless in a race like this, where there’s one proven favorite and 12 other horses that bring in question marks and upside. Even if it’s just $2, have fun with it. Get crazy for Lani! Be Team Cherry Wine for a day. Root for Governor Malibu on a Saturday afternoon as you would your 49ers on a Sunday afternoon. Get your friends involved and lock up some bragging rights – and maybe a free dinner – while you’re at it.
Top selection – No. 4 Suddenbreakingnews (10-1 morning line). Sure, it might sound like a homer pick for a journalist to side with this horse, but it goes beyond the name. This son of Mineshaft ran a credible fifth in the Derby five weeks ago after laboring in the back of the field for most of the race. He’s shown an excellent ability to close from off the pace and gobble up ground late. I think he will relish the distance and gets a key jockey switch to Mike Smith, whose past success in the Belmont shows he knows the right time to push the button, especially important for an off-the-pace runner. He’s trained well since the Derby and should be ready to run the best race of his life.
Other contenders – No. 2 Destin (6-1) scares me the most. Sometimes horses with tactical speed are the most dangerous at this distance because they can grind away and not get caught by the deep closers (think Palace Malice in 2013). There’s only one true speed horse in the race, and Destin could get a beautiful trip under stud jockey Javier Castellano and is fully capable of making a winning move. … No. 11 Exaggerator (9-5) can easily win but at some point the toll of running the Triple Crown gantlet will catch up, and I think it will Saturday. … No. 3 Cherry Wine (8-1) and No. 12 Brody’s Cause (20-1) were my Preakness and Derby picks, respectively, and both are capable of closing with a rush to hit the board. … No. 10 Lani (20-1), the quirky horse from Japan and only one besides Exaggerator to run in all three Triple Crown races this season, seems to be thriving while training at Belmont and could be ripe to make a run into your exotic wagers. … No. 13 Creator (10-1) improved rapidly in the spring and had an impossible journey in the Derby. Has beaten my top selection twice.
The plays – Exaggerator has been my nemesis all year, but let’s hope I get the last laugh. These plays are for the minimum, so bump up the increments if you’ve already set aside money for the kid’s college fund.
▪ Upset specials ($8 play): $2 win/place on No. 4 Suddenbreakingnews and No. 2 Destin.
▪ Exacta fever ($6 play): $1 exacta box, using No. 2 Destin, No. 4 Suddenbreakingnews, No. 13 Creator.
▪ Tasty Trifecta ($44 play): 50-cent trifecta, 2-4 over 2-3-4-11-13 over ALL.
Should Exacta Kenny live the stud life after this Triple Crown season? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
148th Belmont Stakes
▪ Post: 3:37 p.m. Saturday (Race 11 of 13) at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
▪ Distance: 1.5 miles
▪ TV: KSEE-24.1
1. Governor Malibu
3. Cherry Wine
Donnie Von Hemel
7. Seeking The Soul
8. Forever d’Oro
9. Trojan Nation
J. Keith Desormeaux
12. Brody’s Cause
Irad Ortiz Jr.
Weights: 126 pounds. Purse: $1.5 million. First place: $800,000. Second: $280,000. Third: $150,000. Fourth: $100,000. Fifth: $60,000.