by Ted Black
While there may not be any serious buzz surrounding the 145th edition of Belmont Stakes since the Triple Crown is not longer stake, there are plenty of bragging rights and early Eclipse Award implications on the line when the field of 14 three-year-olds enters the gate for the demanding 1 1/2-mile journey around the oval.
But the Belmont is not the only quality stakes race on the card and it caps a late, all-stakes pick 3 in which bettors should be able to find plenty of value considering that the Belmont does not include a genuine standout. The middle leg of the pick 3, however, does feature such a horse and handicappers will be hardpressed to find a rival to upset him.
The late pick 3 kicks off with the Grade II, $400,000 Woody Stephens Stakes for three-year-olds going seven furlongs. Named in honor of the Hall of Fame trainer who once sent out five straight Belmont Stakes winners, the Woody Stephens features six sophomores who won their previous start and three others who finished second. There is plenty of speed in the field and while most of them hale from East Coast barns, the likely favorite is California invader Let Em Shine. After running third in his career debut behind Hear The Ghost last December, Let Em Shine has reeled off three straight victories including the Came Home Stakes over the Hollywood Park sythetic surface for trainer Adam Kithcingman. His first trip across country landed him in a good spot, but not an easy one by any means. Coincidentally, in a stakes named in honor of a trainer who won the Belmont five straight years, Let Em Shine is one of three horses in the Woody Stephens who
was not eligible to the Triple Crown series.
Let Em Shine will break from the outside 11 slot and there is ample speed to his inside, namely Retrieve, Zee Bros and Merit Man and if the California invader needs to work through honest fractions of 22 and 45 flat to make the front, the Woody Stephens could set up for Declan’s Warrior, the Nick Zito trainee who has won both the Gygistar and Bay Shore at the same seven-furlong distance. Forty Tales, fresh off his victory in the Derby Trial, will also be a beneficiary of the
early tempo and should also be included on the pick-3 tickets.
Top three – Declan’s Warrior, Let Em Shine, Forty Tales – 1:21.75
One race later on the card, Point of Entry will look to regain his status as the top distance turf horse in the nation when he goes postward in the Grade I, $500,000 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap at one-mile and one-quarter over a grass course that figures to be soft or yielding.
Point of Entry has been idle since upsetting Animal Kingdom in the Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap in February. Animal Kingdom came right back to capture the $10 million Dubai World Cup, while Point of Entry scratched out of a potential encounter with reigning horse of the year Wise Dan at Churchill Downs on Derby day.
Despite the modest layoff, Point of Entry looks difficult to beat in the Manhattan. While the turf course will likely be soft or yielding, Point of Entry has already proven his ability off the deep terrain at Belmont when he won the Grade I Turf Classic Invitational last September and the Shug McGaughey trainee appears very tractible.
Top three – Point of Entry, Twilight Escape, Optimizer – 2:03.48
Heading into the main event on the card, the 145th running of the mile and one-half Belmont Stakes, the “test of champions” as many have dubbed it, much of the attention is going to be focused on three horses who, unlikely as it may seem, have not been in the same race since they finished one-two-three in a maiden special weight event last fall at Aqueduct.
Orb, who won that race and has since come back to win the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby before floundering as the odds-on choice in the Preakness, will likely maintain his role as favorite for the Belmont although his stock clearly slipped in Baltimore. Freedom Child, arguably the now horse following his 13-length victory in the Peter Pan Stakes over a sloppy Belmont surface last month, was second to Orb in that maiden special weight affair. Revolutionary, a modest third as the odds-on choice in that Aqueduct maiden race, was a good third in the Derby before passing the Preakness to run in this spot for trainer Todd Pletcher,
All three horses will have no trouble with a sloppy track if heavy rains that headed up the coast courtesy of Tropical Storm Andrea prevent the track from drying out entirely on Saturday. But the key may come in the pace scenario, which could favor Freedom Child, the wire-to-wire winner of the one-turn, nine-furlong Peter Pan who may face only modest pressure in the Belmont. Neither Orb or Revolutionary, both of which benefitted from a hot pace in the Derby en route to finishing first and third, respectively, will be too far back.
While Freedom Child represents the best early speed he is far from the lone speed and even if the fractions are moderate – 23.4, 48.2, 1:13 – he may not be able to run away and hide from the closers as he did while sprinting clear in the Peter Pan. Preakness winner Oxbox and Frac Daddy will be in close pursuit and then Orb will likely make an early bid, although his Preakness performance was hardly encouraging.
When the field turns for home in the Belmont, Freedom Child will still be the horse to catch and my guess is that only one horse finishes fast enough to overhaul him – Revolutionary. While big, one-run closers are often at a disadvantage in the Belmont because of the slow early fractions, Revolutionary appears to be sitting on his best effort and I think he will post the mild upset for trainer Todd Pletcher and become the third different horse to prevail in a Triple Crown race this spring.
Top three – Revolutionary, Freedom Child, Orb – 2:29.86