With entries due in less than two weeks, the field is slowly coming together for the final leg of the Triple Crown, the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes (G1) on June 8 at Belmont Park.
At least 11 horses are under consideration for the 1 1/2-mile “Test of the Champion,” and more could join the field during the coming weeks. The Belmont figures to come up deeper in terms of quality than the recent Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico, in large part because the Belmont could attract a half-dozen Kentucky Derby (G1) entrants who skipped the Preakness.
Recent history suggests horses fitting this profile have the best chance for success in the Belmont Stakes. Eleven of the last 16 Belmont winners started in the Kentucky Derby, and eight of them passed on running in the Preakness to run in the Belmont.
One of the high-profile colts who could employ this route in 2019 is Game Winner, the champion 2-year-old who suffered a poor start and wide trip before crossing the wire sixth in the Kentucky Derby. Conditioned by the three-time Belmont-winning trainer Bob Baffert, Game Winner boasts a strong pedigree and a relentless running style well suited to the 1 1/2-mile distance he’ll be asked to negotiate. Perhaps he lacks the tactical speed and turn of foot so critical to winning races like the Kentucky Derby, but the Belmont Stakes is a different ballgame entirely.
Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) winner Tacitus, who crossed the wire fourth in the Derby, likewise skipped the Preakness. A son of Tapit, who has already sired three Belmont winners, Tacitus will attempt to give trainer Bill Mott a second classic win in 2019, following Country House’s Derby victory via disqualification.
Master Fencer (seventh across the wire in the Derby), Plus Que Parfait (ninth), Tax (15th) and Spinoff (18th) are the other Derby veterans waiting for an opportunity to shine at Belmont. Spinoff will seek to follow in the hoof prints of his Todd Pletcher-trained predecessors Palace Malice (2013) and Tapwrit (2017), who lost the Derby and skipped the Preakness before achieving classic glory in the Belmont.
But the Belmont Stakes won’t be completely without representation from the Preakness. The winner at Pimlico, War of Will, will try to join Point Given (2001), Afleet Alex (2005), American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018) as one of a few colts since 2000 to win the Belmont after competing in both previous legs of the Triple Crown. Everfast and Owendale, who chased home War of Will to finish second and third in the Preakness, will also join the fray at Belmont, though no horse who skipped the Derby before contesting both the Preakness and the Belmont has prevailed in the third leg of the Triple Crown since Touch Gold in 1997.
This leaves just two Triple Crown “new shooters” currently targeting the Belmont Stakes. They are Sir Winston and Intrepid Heart, second and third in the Peter Pan Stakes (G2) May 11 at Belmont. As I noted in my pedigree analysis of the Belmont Stakes contenders, both Sir Winston and Intrepid Heart are bred to thrive running 1 1/2 miles, particularly Intrepid Heart. They’ll also be fresh compared to some of their Triple Crown-tested, battle-hardened rivals, not an insignificant fact, since five of the last dozen Belmont winners skipped both the Derby and the Preakness.
So who has the best chance to win the Belmont Stakes? History says to favor Derby veterans who skipped the Preakness, and downplay Preakness contenders wheeling back in the Belmont. If you do want to play against the Derby form, it’s better to side with newcomers entering the Belmont fresh and relatively untested.
Another thing to keep in mind? Contrary to popular belief, horses with tactical speed typically outperform one-run deep closers. Gate-to-wire winners aren’t uncommon in the Belmont Stakes, so you want to back a horse who can be forwardly placed from the outset.
I don’t know about you, but these trends are pointing me toward horses like Game Winner, Intrepid Heart and Spinoff. Taking into account history, pedigrees, and running styles, if you asked me today to name the horses with the best chances to win the Belmont Stakes, I’d steer you toward those three.