Belmont Bliss: 'Tom the Bomb' Analyzes the Cup at Belmont Park

Belmont Bliss: 'Tom  the Bomb' Analyzes the Cup at Belmont Park
Photo: File
Volponi, returned $89 for this victory in the 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic.
By Tom Valledolmo
The following feature is reprinted from the official Breeders' Cup souvenir magazine.

It's the one day of the year when horse players' hearts beat a little bit faster, the one day when horseplayers experience the unmistakable adrenaline rush that comes with the realization that all those gut-wrenching nose and neck losses they endured during the year can be atoned for in one afternoon. It's called the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, and if Saratoga can be labeled the "Graveyard of Favorites" then horse racing's version of the World Series can be christened the "Crematory of Chalk."

For bettors who are almost fanatically committed to beating the favorite, the Breeders' Cup has been almost a pilgrimage. They seek pari-mutuel redemption and usually find it somewhere in the maze of eight betting events that are so difficult to handicap that since the event's inaugural running in 1984 the lowest average win payoff of a Breeders' Cup race is $12.50. And that race is the Filly & Mare Turf, which didn't come into existence until 1999 when Soaring Softly won and paid $9.20.

Here are the top three Breeders' Cup races in average win payoff:

CLASSIC: Average win payoff of $33.40 (including a Breeders' Cup record $269.20 on Arcangues in 1993, $89 on Volponi in 2002, and $64.60 on Wild Again in 1984).

TURF: Average win payoff of $23.30 (including $108.80 on Lashkari in 1984, $86.20 on Miss Alleged in 1991, and $57.80 on Better Talk Now in 2004).

SPRINT: Average win payoff of $21.30 (including $54.60 on Sheikh Albadou in 1991, $47.60 on Cajun Beat in 2003, and $39.40 on Thirty Slews in 1992).

Despite the fact that favorites have won 57 of the 153 Breeders' Cup races (37%), it's clearly not a day for the faint of heart. Of the 38 horses who have gone off at odds-on (90 cents to a dollar or less), only 17 have arrived at the wire first. In addition to Arcangues and Lashkari, Spain, who won the 2000 Distaff, is the third member of the triple-digit club, paying $113.80. Caressing fell just short that same year, returning $96 when she upset the Juvenile Fillies.

Turning to the 2005 Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park, keep in mind that value abounds in almost every race, with ultra-classy competitors going off at odds they probably will see only once or twice in their careers.

The question remains then, on which races should bettors focus if they're looking to make that season-saving score, the one that can make up for those numerous tortured afternoons when they left the track feeling as if they had been run over by an 18-wheeler? Of the three aforementioned races, the one that most consistently produces juicy payoffs is the Sprint.

In 21 runnings, the winner has paid off in double-digit prices 13 times, and only twice has the return dipped below the 5-2 mark (Kona Gold, $5.40 in 2000; and Eillo, $4.60 in 1984). There have been no 30-1 or higher bombshells, but nine runners who have been dismissed at 10-1 or better have gotten the money, with Dancing Spree ($35.20 in 1989), Elmhurst ($35.20 in 1997), and Very Subtle ($34.80 in 1987) lighting up the tote board along with the aforementioned Sheikh Albadou, Cajun Beat, and Thirty Slews.

An even greater reason to zero in on the Sprint this year is the race's payoff history at Belmont. In the three previous Sprints there, Safely Kept paid $26.40 in 1990, Desert Stormer paid $31 as part of the mutuel field in 1995, and Squirtle Squirt paid $21.20 in 2001. Two of the three were females (Safely Kept and Desert Stormer) and both left from the No. 4 post position. In 2001, another lightning-quick filly, Xtra Heat, just missed making it three-for-three for the ladies when she sprinted clear from the rail, set all the pace, then yielded grudgingly to Squirtle Squirt in deep stretch, finishing second at 17-1.

For years, Belmont has been known as a track that favors close-to-the-pace stalkers and speed horses. That theory has held up in the three previous runnings at "Big Sandy." Safely Kept and Dayjur battled neck and neck from the very early stages to the wire in 1990, with Dayjur, the European champion and favorite, falling short only because he jumped a pair of shadows from the grandstand near the wire and lost stride.

In '95, Desert Stormer and Mr. Greeley, a 31-1 shot, also took up the chase early with the 5-year-old mare outlasting the stalking Mr. Greeley by a neck after a take-no-prisoners, stretch-long battle in the mud. Four years ago, Squirtle Squirt, leaving from post three, sat just off Xtra Heat, then split horses in the stretch to give Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel his long-overdue first Breeders' Cup triumph.

Which means, of course, if you like a horse with explosive early speed breaking from an inside post and you're getting 9-1 or better, you can go to the windows with confidence. If that runner happens to be a female, bet the rent!

If Leave Me Alone, the jet-propelled 3-year-old filly who buried her competition in the Test Stakes at Saratoga, or Forest Music, another super-quick filly who won the Honorable Miss at the Spa, decide to give the Sprint a try and draw inside, they're worth a long look at a big price. Both fit the profile.

With defending champion Ghostzapper retired and injured Triple Crown hero Afleet Alex a questionable starter, the other race to bookmark is the Classic. Despite the fact that the race has produced single-digit winners in one-third of its 21 editions, the trend over the past 10 years has been toward startling upsets. Besides Arcaangues, Wild Again, and Volponi, Alphabet Soup ($41.70 in 1996), Cat Thief ($41.20 in 1999), Pleasantly Perfect ($30.40 in 2003), and Tiznow ($20.40 in 2000 and $15.80 in 2001) have all sent glassy-eyed chalk players wandering off into the night, muttering into their programs.

At Belmont, the 11Ú4-mile Classic is unique because the race starts on the first turn due to the unusual mile-and-a-half configuration of the main track. Logic would tell you that outside posts are poison, but history tells a different story. The three winners of the Classic at Belmont-Unbridled ('90), Cigar ('95), and Tiznow ('01)-broke from posts 14, 10, and 10, respectively. Unbridled, like Tiznow, was a price at $15.20, but the almost invincible Cigar ($3.40) was sent off an odds-on favorite.

Saint Liam, the pro-tem leader of the handicap division, showed he was vulnerable in the Whitney at Saratoga, leaving the race wide open, but one longshot who should be on your radar is the veteran campaigner Perfect Drift. His track-record win in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington in July was accomplished despite repeated traffic trouble.

When the 6-year-old gelding found a hole in mid-stretch, he exploded to a daylight win under jockey Mark Guidry. If he makes it to the Classic, don't ignore this multimillion-dollar earner. The price will be right.

Another interesting betting angle to follow in the Classic is the impact made on the race by foreign horses. Although Arcangues' mind-boggling victory in 1993 is the only time a European-based runner has won, several have come close, including twice at Belmont. Tiznow denied a pair of across-the-pond superstars when he beat Giant's Causeway by a neck in 2000 at Churchill Downs, then outgamed Arc de Triomphe winner Sakhee by a nose to win the 2001 renewal in New York. In 1998 at Churchill, third-place finisher Swain appeared ticketed for the winner's circle in mid-stretch only to drift 10 wide down the lane under a flurry of left-handed whips from Frankie Dettori, allowing Awesome Again to slip through between horses and grab the brass ring. In 1990, rank outsider Ibn Bey, a horse based in England, finished second to Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled at Belmont and paid $30.60 to place.

Of course, any discussion of the foreign contingent in the Breeders' Cup has to center on the grass. Foreign-based horses have won 29 Breeders' Cup races, with 11 of those coming in the Turf and 10 in the Mile. Three others were in the Filly & Mare Turf for a total of 24 victories on the sod.

Besides Lashkari and Miss Alleged, the grass produced bushels of cash for Last Tycoon ($73.80 in the 1986 Mile), Domedriver ($54 in the 2002 Mile), Tikkanen ($35.20 in the 1994 Turf), Pilsudski ($29.40 in the 1996 Turf), and Barathea ($22.80 in the 1994 Mile).

Three 2-year-olds from Europe have made the transition from turf to dirt to dazzle the Juvenile, including Wilko ($58.60), who ran the U.S.-based youngsters off their feet last year at Lone Star Park. He followed in the footsteps of Arazi ($6.20 in 1991) and Johannesburg ($16.40 in 2001).

Andre Fabre, whose Breeders' Cup starters have earned just under $6.5 million, has been the most successful of the foreign trainers with three wins, four seconds, and seven thirds from 36 starters. He was the architect of the most startling grade I upset in history when Arcangues rocked the racing world in '93. Fabre's latest victory came at Belmont Park in 2001 when he saddled Banks Hill to win the Filly & Mare Turf.

Foreign riders to keep an eye on are Frankie Dettori, who has ridden four Breeders' Cup winners (Barathea, Daylami, Fantastic Light, and Wilko) and missed by a nose aboard Sakhee; Mick Kinane, who was aboard Johannesburg and won back-to-back runnings of the Turf aboard High Chaparral in 2002 and 2003 (dead heat with Johar); Kieren Fallon, who won the Filly & Mare Turf in consecutive years; and John Murtagh, who hit the winner's circle with Kalanisi ($11.20 in the 2000 Turf) and Ridgewood Pearl ($7.10 in the 1995 Mile).

Another factor to consider when assessing the chances of the foreign horses is the climate. The cooler fall weather in the Northeast always has been kinder to the Europeans as opposed to the much warmer climates in Florida and California. In fact, when you review the three previous editions of the Breeders' Cup at Belmont, the results are most revealing. In the first running in 1990, both the Turf (In the Wings, $5.80) and the Mile (Royal Academy, $7.60) were won by Europeans. In 1995, Irish-trained Ridgewood Pearl took the Mile, and in 2001 a Breeders' Cup record three foreign horses got their pictures taken in succession-Banks Hill (Filly & Mare Turf, $14), Fantastic Light (Turf, $4.80), and Johannesburg (Juvenile, $16.40).

The six runnings of the Mile and Turf at Belmont have been extremely formful, with favorites winning the Turf twice and the Mile twice. The remaining races were won by the second and third choices. Post position is critical in the Mile, which starts on the first turn out of a chute on the Widener Course. The first two runnings, in fact, were won by horses leaving from post one (Royal Academy) and post two (Ridgewood Pearl), respectively. Val Royal ($12.20) won the 2001 Mile from post 11, but he dropped far back early, had only one horse beaten turning for home, and came flying through the stretch to get the job done.

Enjoy the majesty of the day and all the great racing, but if you're looking to improve your bank account a bit, too, remember to keep an eye on the Sprint and Classic...and don't disregard the foreign horses. Their connections didn't ship across the Big Pond just to do some sightseeing in the Big Apple.
Good luck!

Tom Valledolmo -- more commonly known in racing circles as "Tom the Bomb" -- is a former handicapper and copy chief for the New York Post and copy chief for the Daily Racing Form.

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