Pace will make the race in Belmont
Pace, a critical component in every race, was hugely important in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
The pace in the Kentucky Derby on a sloppy, sealed track was 22.57, 45.33, and 1:09.80, or, in other words, extremely fast. Orb, Golden Soul and Revolutionary were racing 16th, 15th and 18th, respectively, a half mile into the Derby, 18, 18, and 19 lengths off the lead. They finished one-two-three.
Conversely, the pace in the Preakness was 23.94, 48.60 and 1:13.26, which was slow even when you consider that the fast track those fractions were recorded on was on the dull side. Since Oxbow, the horse who was allowed to set those splits unchallenged, was not a totally overmatched no-hoper, it was no surprise that he proved impossible to catch.
So what kind of pace should we look for in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes? Truth be told, handicappers can be forgiven if they are a little gun shy these days when it comes to projecting potential pace scenarios. And that is because of the epidemic of riders taking hold early of speed horses that seems to have taken hold in the jockey colonies of several racing circuits.
This used to happen only in turf races, but now it happens in all sorts of races on all surfaces, and at all distances.
It happened in the Preakness, where the speed of Titletown Five and Govenor Charlie was never used to challenge Oxbow early. Hey, it happened Saturday at the Belmont in the Dancing Renee Handicap for New York breds. Beautiful But Blue and Clear Pasaj were head and head for the lead in the initial stages when the rider of Beautiful But Blue suddenly put the brakes on and conceded Clear Pasaj a clear early lead.
That move turned out to be a big deal, because with no more early pressure to absorb, Clear Pasaj had just enough left in reserve late to hold on. Unfortunately, jockeys taking hold on speed horses happens all too frequently now.
Anyway, back to the potential Belmont Stakes pace scenario. With the projected field of 15 as of Sunday, I can see two horses wanting the lead, three horses laying close, and another group of three who I will call mid-range stalkers who might move in the third quarter.
The two I see wanting the lead are Oxbow and Freedom Child. After just winning the Preakness in front-running fashion, Oxbow wanting the lead is obvious.
And it should also be noted that the two other victories in Oxbow’s 11-race career were also achieved in front-running fashion. Freedom Child is a similar case. His breakthrough performance in the Peter Pan last time out came when he went to the top and widened on a speed-favoring sloppy track, but his only other victory also came when he was on the engine.
The difference between them is Oxbow doesn’t have to have the lead to be effective, whereas I’m not so sure the same is true of Freedom Child yet. So I can see Oxbow conceding the lead to Freedom Child, but staying right on his hip.
The three I envision laying close are Palace Malice, Midnight Taboo and Giant Finish. Palace Malice is the one who, with blinkers on, took off like a rocket and set those fast fractions in the Derby before tiring to finish 12th, which wasn’t bad considering the circumstances.
Palace Malice isn’t really a speedball and he’s losing the blinkers, so I see him rating close up. Midnight Taboo wasn’t far off a hot pace in an allowance race in the mud last time, and Giant Finish showed positional speed from tough outside posts prior to his unsuccessful attempt in the Derby, so I see them close, too.
The mid-range stalkers, the ones I see turning up the pace pressure by moving in the third quarter, or thereabouts, are the filly, Unlimited Budget, Vyjack, and Will Take Charge. Unlimited Budget stalked solid paces in her past two starts and this really seems to be her preferred style.
Vyjack is a gelding with sprint-speed who they want to turn into a closer, so this kind of trip might be his happy middle ground. Will Take Charge wouldn’t seem to fit with this group as he showed no speed of any sort in his past four starts. But he did show positional speed in his two starts before that, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him placed closer this time, if only just to shake him up.
Taking all of this into account, while also being aware that the biggest wild card might be the approach the Belmont Stakes jockeys take toward the 12-furlong distance, I believe we will see a different type of pace in the Belmont than we saw in the Derby and the Preakness.
I’m not exactly going out on a limb there regarding the Derby because it would be insanity if the pace Saturday is anywhere near as destructive as it was in Kentucky. But while the Belmont fractions might prove to be as slow or slower than they were in the Preakness, I don’t think we will again see someone cruise to the lead and lope along uncontested. In a word, honest is the Belmont pace I’m anticipating.