March 23, 2023

Belmont Stakes Report May 31: Classic Empire casts a large shadow

Classic Empire, shown readying for the Kentucky Derby, is based at Churchill Downs presently but trainer Mark Casse is considering sending him to Belmont Park for a breeze over the track @CoadyPhoto

Classic Empire can stake a claim for divisional superiority in the 149th running of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes. The 1 ½-mile race lacks star power outside of the 2-year-old champion, with Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and Preakness victor Cloud Computing bypassing the final leg of the Triple Crown, and Classic Empire will look to get back on track following a pair of tough setbacks.

A troubled fourth in the Kentucky Derby and a head second in the Preakness, Classic Empire heads to the June 10 Belmont as an overwhelming favorite. A good-sized field is being assembled, with 13 horses considered possible with a week and a half remaining, but it’s an undistinguished bunch.

Classic Empire could be in the 3-5 range due to the dearth of a captivating rival. European betting shops are listing Japanese invader Epicharis, runner-up in the UAE Derby (G2) last time out, as the early second choice, an indictment of the American-based competition.

Racing fans may be looking forward to seeing Songbird or playing other contentious races on a stakes-packed undercard, but I’m excited about the Belmont Stakes from a wagering perspective. And that’s because circumstances are ripe to play against Classic Empire at extremely short odds.

He was playing catch-up as recently as March, missing training time before being sent to a training facility, and barely made it back in time for the last major prep race, the Arkansas Derby (G1) on April 15. His class showed as he gutted out a narrow victory and that left a three-week turnaround to the Kentucky Derby.

Classic Empire didn’t receive a fair chance at Churchill Downs, roughed up at the start and forced far off the pace, but offered a commendable rally for fourth while wide on an inside-favoring track. He had the opportunity to make amends two weeks later at Pimlico.

A Preakness win would’ve changed the whole narrative, allowing a presumed divisional leader to skip the Belmont Stakes following a less-than-favorable start to 2017 and grueling spring campaign. Instead, Classic Empire has now lost 3-of-4 starts this year and needs the Belmont Stakes to restore his reputation after coughing up a clear lead in the Pimlico stretch. It’s fair to wonder if the third race in five weeks was catching up to him in the latter stages of the Preakness as Classic Empire registered only 77 BRIS Late Pace Rating.

He’s still the class of the field and may have enough left in the tank to prevail. But I am bringing a contrarian approach toward the heavy favorite.

Here are three challengers of interest:

Tapwrit entered the Kentucky Derby as a viable rebound candidate but lost any chance to make a serious impact after being caught up in a traffic jam and funneled back to 15th at the start. He still managed a solid late kick and is eligible to move forward significantly off the troubled sixth-place effort. Conditioned by two-time Belmont winner Todd Pletcher, gray colt offered a sensational turn of foot when capturing the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), registering a career-best 101 BRIS Speed Rating for the 4 ½-length decision, and I’m not putting any stock into his Blue Grass (G2) effort two back. Sire Tapit is responsible for two of the last three Belmont winners (Creator and Tonalist) and I expect a strong showing from Tapwrit.

Senior Investment won 4-of-5 starts entering the Preakness, including his first graded tally in the Lexington (G3), and closed well for third after racing in last down the Pimlico backstretch. Kenny McPeek called it a “Belmont Stakes prep” and knows something about preparing a horse for “Test of the Champion,” sending out Sarava to a 70-1 upset in 2002. Confirmed closer must avoid leaving himself too much to do from off the pace but it’s easy to appreciate Senior Investment’s improving form.

True Timber rates as a huge outsider following a third-place effort in the Sir Barton at Pimlico but his profile has produced a trio of major Belmont upsets in the last 15 years, with Sarava, Da’ Tara (2008) and Ruler on Ice (2011) all paying more than $50 to win after competing in minor Pimlico stakes races in the previous start (Da’ Tara and Ruler on Ice also failed to win at Old Hilltop). True Timber possesses good speed, registering century-topping BRIS E1 and E2 Pace Ratings in recent outings, and the front-runner promises to be overlooked in the wagering. has free Ultimate Past Performances for the prospective Belmont Stakes field