This is a Jacuzzi for all those Triple Crown expectations, a trumpet blast of wishful possibilities and a Brandy Alexander for dessert. This is the two-foot-long, chili-with-cheese hot dog. You're probably not sure how you're going to approach it, but you're certain you have to try. In other words, if you're a horseplayer or just a casual racing fan, you have to love Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
Although they've set fire to a few garbage cans over the years and have on occasion sprayed jockeys with a hot stream of invective, horseplayers and fans are generally a forgiving group.
No, you're right, this isn't better than a Triple Crown possibility, which would have had a tidal pull on fans and would have drawn history to the edge of its seat. But for now this is the best Belmont Stakes that's possible: a full field that includes the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners in a showdown plus several more that would appear to have a genuine chance for an upset. As it turns out, this Belmont is a horseplayer's Shangri-La: terrific racing combined with an opportunity to collect a band of Benjies.
Although they've set fire to a few garbage cans over the years and have on occasion sprayed jockeys with a hot stream of invective, horseplayers and fans are generally a forgiving group, and they no doubt buried that Preakness hatchet in a compost heap before Orb was even cooled out, especially given his trip, on the slow part of the Pimlico surface and in traffic throughout. And he's a local, Big Apple-based with New York connections, so he'll be heavily favored in this Belmont, the assumption being that his Derby victory was more indicative of his talent than his Preakness defeat. And the Derby probably was.
Still, if Orb is heavily favored, Oxbow becomes enticingly playable. In fact, given Belmont's history, Oxbow is indeed the play Saturday -- the smart investment opportunity -- unless you'd prefer to shoot for an introduction to President Grover Cleveland, whose stern countenance guards the thousand-dollar bill like a gargoyle, by betting on Palace Malice, Freedom Child or Unlimited Budget. From here, they all look seductively alluring with a chance to win Saturday. And that's the point, for it's what makes this Belmont Stakes so appealing.
Quick, since Affirmed's sweep of the Triple Crown in 1978, in which of the three races has the charge-from-behind stretch runner been most effective? In which of the three races has early speed been most effective?
The answers might surprise. Since 1979, the Derby, Preakness and Belmont all produced four winners that led after the opening half-mile. But the Derby clearly favors the stretch runner, largely because it's the race that, due to its unique circumstances, can produce the pace that boils. And the Belmont, despite being the longest of the three at 1½ miles, is the race where it's most important to be relatively close to the pace.
In the past 21 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, the average winner has been eight lengths (exactly 8.01) back after the opening half-mile. During that same period, the average Preakness winner, including Oxbow, who led throughout, has rallied from four lengths (4.13) behind the early leader after the opening half-mile. The typical Belmont winner has been only three lengths (3.4) back.
145th BELMONT STAKES DRAW
In other words, Oxbow's early speed could give him an edge over Orb in the Belmont. Oxbow might not seize the early advantage Saturday, as he did in Baltimore, simply because that front-running role will probably go to Freedom Child, the Peter Pan winner who's a threat to lead this Belmont from start to carnation blanket. But Oxbow has proved he can stalk effectively, and he should enjoy just such a trip at Belmont.
Despite his Preakness victory, Oxbow remains underrated. His Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, describes him as a "tough, little horse," but most observers have economized their kind words in describing Oxbow. A taut bundle of energy, he must be so restrained in the mornings to keep him from jumping over the grandstand that he rarely impresses and can appear choppy. But he's a runner.
Except for his Arkansas Derby, where he was taken back in a failed experiment, all his races this year have been outstanding. He won the Lecomte Stakes by more than 11 lengths, finished a half-length back in the Risen Star Stakes despite racing extremely wide, finished a head back in the Rebel Stakes despite stalking a lively pace on an extremely dull surface and hung on for sixth in the Kentucky Derby after flying too close to the sun.
And history likes his chances Saturday. Although the Derby favors stretch runners, history favors the Preakness winner in the Belmont. Since 1979, only two Derby winners have won the Belmont, Thunder Gulch and Swale. But five Preakness winners have won the final race in the series -- Risen Star, Hansel, Tabasco Cat, Point Given and Afleet Alex. During that same period, the winners of the first two races in the Triple Crown have met 10 times in the Belmont (12 horses, of course, won both), with the Preakness winners holding a 6-4 advantage.
Orb, though, will be hard to beat. He continues to train well, and Saturday he probably won't remain stuck behind traffic in the turn lane. Moreover, the Derby winner probably won't find himself 18 lengths behind at any point, as he was in Kentucky. With early fractions that promise to be anywhere from room temperature to downright cold, Orb could be within four or five lengths of the early Belmont lead.
Palace Malice is an intriguing mystery. Without the blinkers that turned him into a Kentucky speed demon, he could become this season's New York surprise. Although he could jump to the front of the conga line, he'll probably be content to stalk the Belmont pace closely, along with Oxbow. A late foal who's still learning, Palace Malice has yet to give his best, or even a true, performance.
The filly, Unlimited Budget, won't be far behind the early leader nor will she be at a physical disadvantage. Rather she'll be one of the bigger and more talented horses in the field. Third in the Kentucky Oaks, where she had some trouble, she gave one of the best performances of the season when she won the Fair Grounds Oaks in New Orleans, stalking a fast pace while racing wide around both turns and drawing clear in the stretch. Lightly raced, she appears ready to step forward, possibly to become the fourth filly to win the Belmont and the first since Rags To Riches (2007).
Yes, it's the best Belmont possible. The sport, everyone agrees, could use a Triple Crown winner. And that will happen soon. But in the meantime, this race will do nicely. And so from here, chin deep in the Jacuzzi, here's one look at the Belmont: Oxbow, Unlimited Budget, Orb, Palace Malice.