After a host of late scratches put a damper on the Kentucky Derby, and after the Preakness was, well, the Weakness, horse racing’s Triple Crown season seems to have finally found its footing with a very strong field for this Saturday’s 155th running of the Belmont Stakes.
The race comes as Churchill Downs has shifted the rest of its spring meet to Ellis Park after a spate of tragic horse deaths, and as the New York Racing Association (NYRA) has secured a $455 million loan to dramatically shrink the footprint of Belmont Park’s grandstand and completely reimagine its spectator experience.
US Bets horse racing correspondents Mike Seely and Matt Rybaltowski will get to all that later. To begin with, they offer horse bettors their thoughts on the longest marathon most 3-year-olds will ever run.
Mike Seely: I know we’ve got a lot to talk about on a big-picture scale with Churchill moving the remainder of its spring meet to Ellis Park after a series of horse deaths and Belmont Park’s upcoming remodel, but why don’t we start by narrowly focusing on the Belmont Stakes. This race has one of the more bankable angles in the sport: Which horses in the field have Tapit in their pedigree?
As Horse Racing Nation wrote a couple of weeks ago, “Of the 12 Belmont Stakes horses Tapit has sired, four won, including Tonalist in 2014, Creator in 2016, Tapwrit in 2017, and Essential Quality in 2021. Four others also hit the board, including Frosted in 2015 and Hofburg in 2018 in losses to Triple Crown champions. One more of Tapit’s sons and four of his grandsons finished in the top five since 2020, the year his grandson Tiz the Law won the nine-furlong, COVID running of the Belmont.”
This year’s nine-horse field boasts two sons of Tapit in Tapit Shoes (20/1 on the morning line) and Tapit Trice (3/1), as well as four grandsons — Arcangelo (8/1), Hit Show (10/1), Red Route One (15/1), and Il Miracolo (30/1) — on the dam side.
I absolutely love Arcangelo at that price. He has two wins in just four races, but he’s improved his Beyer speed figures by double digits in each of those races and is coming off a gutsy win in the Peter Pan Stakes over the same racecourse Kentucky Derby winner Javier Castellano will be navigating him around on Saturday.
Here it’s worth reminding everyone that the “Tapit angle” got its start with Tonalist’s victory in the 2014 Peter Pan. As with Arcangelo, that was Tonalist’s fourth career start.
Matt Rybaltowski: The week of the 2016 Kentucky Derby, I wrote a feature about the breeding rivalry between Tapit and Uncle Mo. At the time, Michael Hernon, then director of sales at Gainesway Farm, described Tapit’s resolve as one of the reasons his offspring tended to prevail in tight finishes. Nyquist, a son of Uncle Mo, won the Derby, but Creator returned in the Belmont to defeat Destin in a photo finish.
Tapit’s sire, A.P. Indy, won the 1992 Belmont when he overtook Pine Bluff in the deep stretch and held off a charging My Memoirs by three-quarters of a length. The similarities between A.P. Indy and Forte, Saturday’s favorite, are worth taking into account. Both were among the top choices to win the Run for the Roses, and both scratched on the morning of the Derby with foot ailments. As with A.P. Indy, Forte can still grab top 3-year-old honors if he captures the Belmont on Saturday.
All of this talk about breeding made me go back to the 1992 Triple Crown on YouTube. A.P. Indy scratched in the first leg, a Derby that featured Pistol & Roses, named after the band Guns N’ Roses. The field also included M.C. Hammer entry Dance Floor, who finished third. Two subpar results by Dance Floor before the Derby prompted Al Michaels to quip, “Too illegit to bet.”
In the Belmont, A.P. Indy charged past Pine Bluff with his head down and a distinctive stride befitting of Secretariat, his grandsire. The son of Seattle Slew didn’t match Secretariat’s incomparable stakes record of 2:24 flat, but he tied Easy Goer (2:26) for the second-fastest time in Belmont history. Forte still has a ways to go to be mentioned in the same breath as A.P. Indy, but he has the talent and running style to defeat a tough field in the Test of Champions.
MS: Not only does the Belmont Stakes feature the most competitive field of this year’s three Triple Crown races, it arguably boasts the best undercard as well. Cody’s Wish, winner of eight of his last nine races and probably the best racehorse in the world right now, should be heavily favored in the Grade 1, mile-long Metropolitan Handicap, while the Grade 2 Brooklyn features a wide-open field of older horses who will traverse the entirety of Belmont Parks’ 1½-mile dirt oval before the younger horses get their chance to do the same.
Which makes me wonder: Are bettors better off waiting until after the Brooklyn to get down on the mirror-image Belmont, seeing as how the former race might betray any sort of track biases at that distance on that day?
MR: Some of the top entries in the Brooklyn may be past their prime, but Warrant returns after a second-place showing last year to Fearless. Bumped at the start of the Santa Anita Handicap in March, Warrant finished a disappointing eighth in a field that featured some of the nation’s top older horses. He stretched out to 12 furlongs in his two most recent starts, including a win over Red Run by a neck in last month’s Isaac Murphy Marathon at Churchill. Lone Rock, a son of Majestic Warrior, won the Brooklyn in 2021, but finished sixth in the Isaac Murphy by 23 lengths.
Though I like the handicapping angle of analyzing track conditions on the undercard, the Brooklyn isn’t always a proxy for the Belmont. Two years ago, Lone Rock stalked leader Musical Heart on the backstretch before taking the lead as he approached the quarter pole. Lone Rock extended the lead to three lengths at the top of the stretch before pulling away to romp by 11 lengths in 2:28.4.
Several races later, Flavien Prat sent Hot Rod Charlie to the lead through sharp fractions of 22.78 in the quarter and 46.49 in the half. At that point, Essential Quality trailed by seven lengths. Eventually, Essential Quality passed an obstinate Hot Rod Charlie at the top of the stretch, winning in a swift 2:27.1. A win by one second in horse racing generally equals about six lengths.
If Cody’s Wish replicates his form from last month’s Churchill Downs Stakes, he should win the Met Mile going away. Since losing by a neck in last year’s Challenger at Tampa Bay Downs, Cody’s Wish has reeled off five straight wins while recording triple-digit Beyer speed figures in each. But he will also give up six pounds to Charge It, who flashed a 111 Beyer in last year’s Dwyer at the same distance at Belmont Park.
Seven entrants — Cody’s Wish, Charge It, Dr. Schivel, Slow Down Andy, Zandon, Repo Rocks, and White Abarrio — have recorded at least one triple-digit Beyer, making the Met Mile one of the year’s most intriguing races. The quality of the field is reminiscent of the 2019 edition, when Mitole outdueled Thunder Snow and McKinzie to win in 1:32.75. Over the last two decades, Flightline, Ghostzapper, and Frosted are among the marquee names that have won the prestigious Met Mile. Expect Cody’s Wish to challenge Frosted’s race record of 1:32.73.
MS: You bringing up Churchill Downs in passing is appropriate because the track’s owners just took the extraordinary step of moving the remainder of its spring meet to Ellis Park, which it also owns. This was due to the tragically large number of horse deaths at Churchill since the beginning of May.
Since Churchill is, far and away, the best-known track in America, if not the world, this is significant news. But from a day-to-day standpoint, what’s also newsworthy is how little this stands to affect the bottom line of Churchill Downs, Inc. With the Derby already run, I anticipate live attendance figures at Ellis to be similar to what they would have been at Churchill. Evansville, Indiana is obviously a smaller metro area than Louisville and this situation stinks for certain Churchill Downs workers who are suddenly out of a job, but the number of bodies that cross through a turnstile on any given Saturday is almost an afterthought now.
In modern horse racing, it’s all about simulcast handle and a dynamic on-site experience that’s chockablock with creature comforts. Just look at what they’re about to do at Belmont Park, getting rid of nearly 80% of the grandstand to make way for more open space and all-weather amenities, in part so the Breeders’ Cup deems the track worthy of once again hosting the sport’s premier fall races. It used to be the bigger the track’s live capacity, the more suitable it was as a Breeders’ Cup host. That no longer appears to be the case.
MR: Of the proposed changes announced at last week’s Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) Equine Summit, one on preventing at-risk horses from entering the gates may prove to have the most lasting implications. A 9-year-old that has finished deep out of the money by a combined 75 lengths in his last three races has no business racing.
Per HISA rule 2142 (Assessment of Racing Soundness), a new rule for post-entry screenings includes a review of past performances, lameness diagnostics, and additional scrutinization of horses that have gone more than 60 days without a timed workout or race. The rule went into effect at Churchill Downs on June 3.
As for the changes at Belmont Park, it’s clear that NYRA is looking to modernize the track, just as Gulfstream Park did with its $130 million renovation in 2004. Critics of the Gulfstream facelift argued that the renovation focused too heavily on casino expansion, to the detriment of horse racing.
Under legislation passed in New York’s fiscal year budget, NYRA is required to repay its loan over a 20-year period through revenue the association receives from casino gambling throughout the state. Perhaps the deal between Gov. Kathy Hochul and legislative leaders will bolster a bid for a casino in the vicinity of Belmont Park. The historic racetrack is located a stone’s throw from UBS Arena, home of the NHL’s New York Islanders.
Photo: J. Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images