Thursday, June 07, 2007

Stand by Your Horse (With Apologies to Tammy Wynette)

[SMA's horse specialist, Los Angeles-based Steve Brady, offers us his assessment of Saturday’s running of the 139th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. Post time is scheduled for approximately 6:30 p.m. ET, with television coverage set for 5 p.m. ET on ABC.]

Stand by your horse
Even as his odds keep risin'
The payout could be surprisin’
If tracks are fast or sloppy.

Stand by your horse
And show the clerk your ticket
Keep bettin’ all your dough, of course
Stand by your horse.

Okaaaay, I was a little off in the Preakness. I had the top three, but I had them in the wrong order. My 1, 2, 3…came in 2, 3, 1… If I had just boxed them in a trifecta, I would have done fine. But I thought Curlin was just too green to win the race, so I threw him out of the top spot in deference to Hard Spun. Waaaah!!

Looking back, it appears the best horse won—end of story. Despite his inexperience, Curlin (above) ran a monster race. He showed his mental toughness by battling back in the final furlong and grabbed the race by the tip of his nose, and he did it with Street Sense and jockey Calvin “Bo-rail” having all the momentum with their textbook come-from-behind stretch run. Plus, he did that with only three previous races on his resume, and having never raced as a two-year-old. And he did it just two weeks after a tough third in the Kentucky Derby. Furthermore, he did it with that big frame cornering those tight turns at Pimlico, so he should handle Belmont’s arching track even better.

So, right now it looks like the obvious thing is to just pick Curlin (#3) again in the Belmont, right? Well, hold on there, Little Filly. There are a few other things to consider. And one of them is a big filly: Rags to Riches (#7). With no assistance from Title IX, it’s been more than a hundred years since a filly has won the Belmont (Tanya in 1905). Still, as the third favorite, Rags to Riches is worth a look.

Rags to Riches (left) won the Kentucky Oaks the day before Street Sense won the Derby in May. She’s won her last four races and won her last three as a clear favorite. She won the Oaks by four-and-a-half lengths, and finished it in one-fifth of a second faster than Curlin finished the Arkansas Derby at the same distance. Plus, since she’s running in the equine equivalent of high heels, they give her a five-pound break on the jockey’s weight. Add to that the extra two weeks’ rest, and her off-the-pace running style (which tends to do well in the Belmont), and you know why she’s 3-1 on the morning line.

Her entry has also been part of an interesting game of musical saddles going into this race. John Velasquez will ride R2R in the Belmont, even though Garrett Gomez rode her in all four of her wins. Garrett jumped over to Hard Spun when Larry Jones called him after Mario Pino (presumably) blew HS’s ride in the Preakness. Gomez didn’t think Todd Pletcher—thoroughbred racing’s answer to the pre-Masters Phil Mickelson: “best trainer never to have won a major”—would enter R2R in the Belmont, and it was too late to get back on her when he did. Pletcher offered the ride to #2 man Velasquez. You’d think Garrett would be happy just to have a ride—especially on the lone speed in a race that tends to favor runners on (or just off) the pace.

Still, even with Curlin’s proven athleticism, I’m still standing by my colt: Hard Spun (#6). He’s the standout speed of the race, and with this short field and the long run up to the first turn, post position won’t be much of a factor. He’ll be able to sit on the shoulder of fellow speedster Slew’s Tizzy (#5) for a mile and a quarter before taking over the lead. I do think Pino blew the ride in Baltimore. (That's Pino aboard Hard Spun, above, in a pre-Derby workout.) He moved too early and spent a lot of Hard Spun’s energy on the turn. Gomez is more patient, and despite his second thoughts, I’m very happy that he’s on Spun. With the rider upgrade, the on-the-pace favoring track and distance, and the favorable odds, Hard Spun seems like a solid bet.

Tiago (#2) scares me. He finished a strong seventh and galloped out past Street Sense in the Derby. And he's bred to run all day. He's had plenty of rest, and he put in some nice maintenance work on the Hollywood Cushiontrack in the interim.

Imawildandcrazyguy (#1) was fourth in the Derby, and he’s also been munching on Pringles in the La-Z-Boy the past five weeks. He just may feel up to taking a run on Saturday.

C P West (#4) hasn’t won since his very first maiden race almost a year ago. He hung on for fourth in the Preakness, but to me that just means he’ll have all the “tired” without any of the talent of Curlin or Hard Spun.

The Picks:

1. Hard Spun
2. Curlin
3. Rags to Riches
4. Tiago

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