August 9, 2020

Belmont Stakes Report: Upset candidates

Intrepid Heart and jockey John Velazquez power by a rival to take an allowance/optional claimer at Keeneland on April 5, 2019 (c) Coady Photography/Keeneland

American Pharoah and Justify dominated as odds-on favorites in recent years but the potential always exists for an upset in the Belmont Stakes (G1). Post-time favorites have not fared well in the final jewel of the American Triple Crown.

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Excluding Triple Crown winners, Afleet Alex (2005) and Hall of Famer Point Given (1999) represent the only winning favorites since 1995. Contrast that with the Kentucky Derby (G1), which recently featured a six-year run for the public’s choice (2013-18), or the Preakness Stakes (G1), where upsets have been more of an exception than the norm.

Nine of the last 13 Belmont Stakes winners have left the starting gate at 6-1 odds or higher, including seven double-digit victors in Creator (15-1), Tonalist (12-1), Palace Malice (13-1), Ruler on Ice (24-1), Drosselmeyer (13-1), Summer Bird (12-1) and Da’ Tara (38-1). That group doesn’t include bombers like Sarava (70-1), Birdstone (36-1), Lemon Drop Kid (29-1) and Commendable (18-1), all major surprises over the last 20 years.

Preakness winner War of Will and Kentucky Derby third-placer Tacitus will compete for favoritism in the 151st running of the Belmont Stakes on June 8. Nine horses are considered probable and I’m expecting separation between the top two betting choices and the rest of the field.

Both remain very dangerous. War of Will may be the best three-year-old in training following a convincing victory at Pimlico. Wood Memorial (G2) and Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner Tacitus dropped too far back in the Kentucky Derby behind slow internal splits but finished up well, netting a 106 BRIS Late Pace number after passing 12 rivals over the final mile.

Here are the three upset candidates to consider in the 2019 Belmont Stakes:

Intrepid Heart will make only his fourth career start and the Belmont Stakes has been the target since an impressive career debut at Oaklawn Park on February 18, crushing eight maiden special weight foes in wire-to-wire fashion. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt came back seven weeks later to post a commendable entry-level allowance win at Keeneland, overcoming a prevailing bias to win from off the pace, and he got off to a slow start when making his stakes debut in a five-horse Peter Pan (G2) on May 11 and wound up a non-threatening third last time.

His BRIS Speed ratings have improved in every start (91-94-96) and Intrepid Heart should benefit from his initial stakes experience; three of the last four horses to win the Belmont Stakes in their first Triple Crown appearance were exiting a setback. A $750,000 two-year-old purchase, Intrepid Heart is a son of Tapit, who has sired three Belmont Stakes winners, and the gray sophomore counts as a half-brother Commisioner, who missed by a head at 28-1 in the 2014 Belmont Stakes. Intrepid Heart possesses the tactical speed to sit a good trip just off the pace and could be primed for a significant step forward.

Spinoff was arguably a race short entering the Kentucky Derby and connections may be expecting a big effort on the front end of the Belmont Stakes. The son of Hard Spun made only a couple of appearances last summer before heading to the sidelines for more than six months, returning in a soft Tampa Bay Downs allowance with a front-running romp by nearly a dozen lengths. That race couldn’t have been any easier and the well-built chestnut came back a month later to record a clear second in the Louisiana Derby (G2). The lightly-raced colt then received a six-week freshening into the Kentucky Derby. With only one real race since August, Spinoff came up woefully short over a sloppy track in the Kentucky Derby and weakened to 18th. But that race still served an important purpose in terms of fitness and Spinoff shows a sharp five-furlong drill in preparation at Belmont Park.

Pletcher knows how to orchestrate a turnaround in the Belmont Stakes, winning with Tapwrit (2017) and Palace Malice (2013) after both were being beaten 10+ lengths in the Kentucky Derby. And Spinoff could employ the tactics of the Pletcher-trained Destin, who intentionally skipped the final round of prep races before an unplaced finish in the Kentucky Derby. Destin rebounded with a big effort on the front end of the 2016 Belmont Stakes, missing by a nose in the final stride to Creator, and Spinoff will bring triple-digit BRIS E1 and E2 ratings into the Belmont Stakes as well as one of top BRIS Speed ratings in the field, netting a 102 two starts back. Don’t be surprised to see another much-improved performance.

Tax broke tardily from post 2 and never ran a step from off the pace in the Kentucky Derby. That didn’t appear to be a true showing and considering his best races have come in New York, the well-bred gelding will offer some appeal in the Belmont Stakes. Tax never finished worse than third in his first five starts, opening this year with a win in the Withers (G3) and a second in the Wood Memorial, and his BRIS Speed ratings (103-102-101) were outstanding entering the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Trainer Danny Gargan (23% win this year) is an up-and-coming horseman and Tax owns a favorable early/presser run style for the Belmont Stakes. We’ll see whether his odds wind up too low to be considered an upset, but Tax must be considered a viable win contender.