What began back in January with the running of races like the Sham, LeComte and Holy Bull, comes to a close at Belmont Park on Saturday with the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. Each Triple Crown season provides an opportunity to usher in a new set of stars to the racing world. Some step up and assert themselves, as in the case of Animal Kingdom and Shackleford, while others struggle to achieve lofty expectations, such as Uncle Mo.
While Saturday's Belmont brings to a close another Triple Crown season, it is the jumping off point for the top horses towards races such as the Haskell, Travers and, ultimately, the Breeders' Cup. With a seemingly weak crop of older horses, this year's three-year-olds will have an excellent chance to achieve added glory in the months ahead.
Saturday's Belmont Stakes will go to post at 6:35 Eastern.
1-Master of Hounds (10/1): Ran fifth in the Kentucky Derby after sitting in 15th position in the early stages. The Derby pace turned out to be more like a turf race than the traditional Derby free-for-all, something that certainly aided this colt considering he is primarily a grass runner. The pace should be slow again in the Belmont which should allow him to stick relatively close to the lead through the soft early splits. The rail draw shouldn't be a problem at all, especially when you considering that many European horses are trained to run "covered up" on the inside. If Master of Hounds can find a strong late kick inside the final quarter mile, he should have a shot to hit the board.
2-Stay Thirsty (20/1): A stable mate of former Kentucky Derby favorite Uncle Mo, Stay Thirsty's form looks anything but strong right now. He finished well back at Churchill in the Derby (12th, beaten 11 ¼ lengths), and he didn't fare much better in the Florida Derby (7th, beaten 16 ¾ lengths). He showed a glimpse of talent when he won the G3-Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in his first start of 2011, but his inability to back that win up in subsequent starts leaves the impression that he's up against it in this race.
3-Ruler On Ice (20/1): The only win for Ruler On Ice in 2011 took place in an N1X allowance race at Parx (Philadelphia Park) back on Feb. 22nd. He followed-up that effort with a 3rd in the G3-Sunland Derby and a 2nd in the Federico Tesio at Pimlico on May 7th. Both of those races were decent efforts, but he needs to step up his game if he's going to win in this spot. Trainer Kelly Breen will add blinkers for the Belmont which might help Ruler On Ice to show more speed in the early stages.
4-Santiva (15/1): This colt ran decent enough in the Derby when he finished 6th, five and a half lengths back of Animal Kingdom. He didn't get the cleanest of trips at Churchill or at Keeneland in the G1-Blue Grass in April. You can probably draw a line through that race at Keeneland on the Polytrack as he's shown to be better horse on dirt than synthetic. A big problem for Santiva in the Derby was his racing position - he was much too far back early on. His best races are ones where he's able to sit a length or two off of the early lead and I would expect jockey Shaun Bridgmohan to hustle Santiva out of the gate in order to secure a better stalking position in the Belmont.
5-Brilliant Speed (15/1): This colt has two wins in his career - the G1-Blue Grass on Polytrack, and a Maiden Special Weight on the lawn - but he's yet to show that he can win on dirt, where's he now 0-for-3 lifetime and has never been closer than 5 ½ lengths at the wire. He might have enough to get into the trifecta or the super, but the race would probably have to fall apart for Brilliant Speed to win.
6-Nehro (4/1): The runner-up in the Derby is the second choice on the morning line (ahead of the Preakness winner), and for good reason - he ran an excellent race at Churchill Downs (2nd, beaten 2 ¾ lengths) and he's shown versatility to run well off of a slow or a fast pace. If he runs back to his Derby form, he should be right in the mix for the win inside the final quarter mile.
7-Monzon (30/1): It's difficult to find a lot of reasons to get behind this colt in the Belmont. His last race was a lackluster 6th place in the G2-Peter Pan at Belmont, and his race prior was an equally bad 5th in the G3-Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa (a race that has not come back strong at all). Monzon won the Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct on New Year's Day, but that was over six months ago and he's done nothing of note since.
8-Prime Cut (15/1): It's a bit tough to get a good read on where this colt fits in with the rest of the Belmont field. A cursory glance at his past performances suggests he's in over his head against horses like Animal Kingdom, Shackelford and Nehro. On the other hand, you can probably give him a bit of a break for his so-so run in the Peter Pan after a rough start leaving the gate. Two races back he ran at Keeneland on the poly, which is the only synthetic race of his career. If you give him excuses for both of those efforts and look at his 3rd race back you come to a very nice win in an OC 50k/N1X race at the Fair Grounds. He beat Bind and Hydro Power that day, and both of those colts have shown some class in their subsequent races. Bind is a very nice Claiborne farm three-year-old who debuted with a big effort at the Fair Grounds this past winter.
Prime Cut has a good amount of tactical speed at his disposal and should be right up with Shackelford and Santiva in the early stages. It remains to be seen if he has any desire to go 12 furlongs, but we can probably say that about a lot of these colts. With a nice, clean trip, and a slow pace, perhaps Prime Cut can find his way into the top 3 at big odds.
9-Animal Kingdom (2/1): The Derby winner proved his triumph at Churchill Downs was anything but a fluke when he was a late charging 2nd to Shackleford in the Preakness. He paid the price for sitting too far back through the opening quarter mile at Pimlico, something John Velazquez has to avoid this time around. The post position should provide the opportunity for Animal Kingdom to race in the clear for much of the first part of the race, similar to his run at Churchill. He scorched a five furlong bullet drill at Belmont Park on Monday morning (:47 and 3, 1st of 33 at the distance), so he appears to have held his form from the Preakness and is having no problems getting over the surface.
The morning line odds of 2/1 don't off a whole lot of value (and it's likely that he'll get bet down slightly from the starting number), but he's the legitimate and deserving favorite for this race.
10-Mucho Macho Man (10/1): He lost a shoe in the Preakness, something that certainly didn't help him but likely didn't matter in the ultimate outcome. Like Santiva, Mucho Macho Man has run the best races of his career when he's sat just a length or two off of the early leaders. He hasn't been able to run that way in either the Derby or the Preakness, and you wonder if he'll be more forwardly placed in the Belmont.
Ramon Dominguez takes over in the saddle from Rajiv Maragh, and Dominguez knows his way around Belmont Park. Perhaps the jock change will make the difference.
11-Isn't He Perfect (30/1): This colt has tried graded stakes company four times in his career and never finished better than 5th in any of those races. He wasn't close to the winner in the Preakness (9th, beaten 11 lengths) and it is difficult envisioning a situation where he gets close in this race. He'll try to make one big run from the back of the pack in the final half mile, but unless he finds a powerful turn of foot that he's yet to show in any race, he'll be lucky if he hits the board.
12-Shackleford (9/2): How far can he go? He got a soft pace in the Derby and led going into the final quarter mile before fading to 4th. He dueled with Flashpoint in the Preakness through another soft pace (at least after the first quarter mile) and held off all his rivals in deep stretch for the win. Now he gets the ultimate test - a mile and a half - and he'll likely try to win this one in gate-to-wire fashion. Conventional wisdom says he'll be up against it to get take the field the full 12 furlongs, but this colt is tough to bet against given his huge races in the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness. If Shackleford takes this field the distance at Belmont he is, without question, the best three-year-old in America.
It's tough to get away from the Animal Kingdom in this spot as he's in excellent form, he's bred to run all day long, and the pace of the Belmont should allow him to run in mid-pack in the early going, giving him every chance to run down the early leaders in the final furlongs.
While Animal Kingdom won't offer much in the way of win odds on the tote board, there are several colts that sport solid morning line numbers that might have a shot to find their way into the exacta and trifecta. Shackleford and Nehro are going to be part of most exotic combinations, but Master of Hounds, Santiva, and Prime Cut probably offer a bit more value on the board. I'm looking to play an exacta and trifecta part-wheel with Animal Kingdom on top and Master of Hounds, Santiva, Prime Cut, and possibly Nehro on the bottom half, depending on how the wagering unfolds prior to the race.