Dearth of early speed among likely Belmont Stakes cast

With a set of Saturday stakes results that fell shy of noteworthy, this seems like a good time to talk about the Belmont Stakes, and specifically what is to me the most interesting aspect to this Belmont -- the abject lack of pace.

As of Sunday morning, Daily Racing Form has 10 listed as possible Belmont Stakes starters. They are, in alphabetical order: Brody's Cause, Cherry Wine, Creator, Destin, Exaggerator, Governor Malibu, Lani, Stradivari, Suddenbreakingnews and Wild About Deb.

What is striking about this group is not one of them -- not a single one -- fits the traditional definition of a front-runner. None even fits a loose definition of a speed horse. When Nyquist was withdrawn from consideration for the Belmont due to illness, the race's controlling speed became absent.

Now, the Belmont isn't until June 11, so there is still plenty of time for a horse with legitimate speed to join the cast. But in the five days since Nyquist's defection was announced, no speed horse has surfaced as a possible starter in the Belmont, which is a bit of a surprise. So let's confine the discussion to the 10 who are known to have intentions on the final leg of the Triple Crown.

How scarce is early speed in this group of 10? Only two of the 10 have managed to lead as early as the second call in any race in their past performances, and they managed to do it just once each. And the identity of these two will probably make you laugh. They are Exaggerator and Suddenbreakingnews.

Exaggerator had the lead by a half-length a half-mile into the Delta Downs Jackpot last November, and stuck it out to prevail by a neck over the sort of wet track he clearly relishes.

Suddenbreakingnews was a head in front a half-mile into a one-mile maiden special weight contest at Remington Park last September in his second career start, a race he went on to win decisively.

What's so funny about Exaggerator and Suddenbreakingnews being the two who, even if just in a technical sense, have previously shown the most forward position of the 10 Belmont contenders? Well, as both have emerged, both have also adopted deep closing styles, and I mean deep closing.

These are not coincidental points. Exaggerator and Suddenbreakingnews might not be 15 to 20 lengths back in the Belmont, as they have been in their recent races only because the current lack of pace will result in slow fractions, and slow fractions won't allow these two to be that far back. But Exaggerator and Suddenbreakingnews won't be pace involved, either. Even in extreme circumstances, it's difficult envisioning the connections of these two abandoning running styles that obviously work so well for the horses.

Here's another illustration of how little speed there is in this Belmont. Just two other Belmont aspirants have managed to have the lead as early as the third call in their career past performances. In actuality, there is nothing "early" about having the lead at this point. It's really late; in these cases, three-quarters of a mile into their races.

These two are Stradivari and Governor Malibu. Governor Malibu managed to see the lead at the third call only once, in a New York-bred maiden race at Aqueduct last November, which was his first start with Lasix, and a race he won by six lengths. But since then, in longer races, Governor Malibu has increasingly adopted a deeper closing approach. And it has been successful, not unlike in the way it has worked for Exaggerator and Suddenbreakingnews, just to less of an extreme.

Stradivari is not a true front-runner, but he is a slightly different case. He had the lead three calls into both his second and third career starts, which also happened to be his first starts around two turns, and races he went on to win by lopsided margins. Stradivari was also four to five lengths off what was a destructively fast early pace in the Preakness, in which he finished fourth.

Purely by default, it is not hard to envision Stradivari on the lead in the Belmont because it's impossible to picture Exaggerator or Suddenbreakingnews there, or, for that matter, dyed-in-the-wool closers Brody's Cause, Cherry Wine, Creator, Lani and probably Wild About Deb. But what about Destin?

Destin is even further from the profile of a speed horse than Stradivari. However, and again purely by default, it is easy to see Destin being involved early because of the positional speed he showed when he won the Tampa Bay Derby in March.

Right here, it is important to note that the Tampa Bay Derby figured on paper to be a fast-paced race, but turned into a slow-paced affair when a legitimately fast stretch-out sprinter inexplicably did not go from his outside post position. That slow pace put Destin into the game early, and the same might happen in the Belmont.

But don't expect a pace battle in the Belmont between Stradivari and Destin. That's not going to happen. They might race for different interests, but both are trained by Todd Pletcher.