Steve Haskin's Belmont Report: Time to Roll the Dice

Steve Haskin's Belmont Report: Time to Roll the Dice
Photo: Associated Press
Jody Pieper sits atop Belmont Stakes entrant Steppenwolfer as they walk with trainer Daniel Peitz during a Thursday morning workout at Belmont Park.
There are nine -- count 'em, nine -- horses who can win Saturday's Belmont Stakes (gr. I), and it wouldn't come as a major surprise. What that means is that you can safely disregard the experts, speed figures, or any other handicapping tool and just hope the horse or horses you choose are in top shape to go a mile and a half.

The speed "sheets" gurus all point to the Todd Pletcher pair of Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver as the two fastest horses in the race, but you can toss all those numbers. This is a totally different ballgame.

The two Pletcher horses likely will be the two top choices, so if you want to take short odds that they're going to handle the distance, you no doubt will get solid runs from both. The Belmont in recent years, however, has produced some hefty longshot winners, such as Commendable, Sarava, and Birdstone  . The betting this year probably will be pretty spread out, so it will be difficult finding that kind of megabomb winner.

But there are several horses in the 12-horse field that look like potential overlays, and those are the ones that we concentrated on. First off, the horses coming out of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) all look terrific, and it's apparent the five weeks have done them good. Steppenwolfer is the horse that seems to have changed the most, and would be a smart selection.

Some consider the son of Aptitude a deep closer, but with a :48, 1:12 pace, he will be much closer than people think. The Derby third-place finisher is the type of horse who can make steady progress throughout the race and still have something left for the grueling final quarter mile. But he will need some luck breaking from post 11, which is not ideal. With his sensational six-furlong breeze in 1:10 1/5 and his overall looks and demeanor, he would have been a clear-cut choice here at a decent price. He still looks to be the solid play, but he will have to overcome that post.

Bluegrass Cat (second in the Derby) and Bob and John (Derby 17th-place finish) are other Derby starters who look good, but at the price, don't ignore Jazil, who dead-heated for fourth in the Derby and who is doing everything right and looks to be sitting on a big race. The only possible little glitch with him is that he hasn't had a work in two weeks, and you can use that as a deterrent or you can simply ignore it and trust trainer Kiaran McLaughlin that he knows what he his horse needs and what he is capable of. He was scheduled to work Monday, but the main track was in bad shape, and although the training track was much better (Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver had good works over it), McLaughlin elected to take a pass and just gallop him into the race.

The son of Seeking the Gold showed a lot of enthusiasm out on the track Friday morning, and couldn't be doing any better physically. He's just a little guy, and Belmont is more conducive to a bigger, long-striding horse. But he's always coming at the end, he's shifty enough to weave his way through horses, and he can handle any kind of surface. So, despite some question marks, he's still worth a play at a big price.

The other Derby starter who will offer good value, despite having Edgar Prado aboard, is Deputy Glitters, whose eighth in the Derby is a lot better than it looks on paper. He is another who has thrived here since that race and turned in a particularly strong five-furlong work in :59 4/5 on Tuesday.

If you're totally confused by now, it gets worse. There are two unknown quantities in the race that could be busts or could be the horse you've been looking for all year. They are High Finance and Oh So Awesome. They are in here on a hope and a prayer, and a decent dose of confidence from their connections that they can be competitive at this level.

Both are good win bets if you can't make up your mind which of the leading contenders you like. With Oh So Awesome, you're getting stamina, a top-class trainer, and enough form through French Derby (Fr-I) winner Darsi to suggest that he may be a live longshot.

With High Finance, you're getting a horse who likely will control the pace, is coming off two huge performances, and could be the next star to emerge on the 3-year-old scene. Both are also owned by syndicates who have had excellent success finding good horses.

Then you have Hemingway's Key, whose trainer, Nick Zito, is always dangerous in the Belmont, with one win and six seconds. Zito put the son of Notebook in the Preakness (gr. I), pretty much as a prep for the Belmont, and got a third-place finish out of it.

So, where does all this leave us? First off, there is the Bob and John – Bluegrass Cat exacta angle, based on the parallel with the 2000 Belmont, in which Commendable, the 17th-place finisher in the Derby, defeated Aptitude, the runner-up in the Derby who skipped the Preakness and was second in the Belmont. Bob and John, of course, was 17th in the Derby, and Bluegrass Cat was the runner-up who skipped the Preakness and likely will be favored in the Belmont.

A four horse trifecta (or superfecta) box of Derby starters Steppenwolfer, Jazil, Bob and John, and Bluegrass Cat looks strong. But if you want to shoot for the stars, you can replace the short-priced Bluegrass Cat with the long-priced Deputy Glitters (only if the track is in good shape) and possibly keep it down to a trifecta box or even an exacta box (with the hope Deputy Glitters can sneak in there) if you want to play it a little safer.

Sometimes, things appear complicated when they are in fact simple. And the simple facts are: Bluegrass Cat was all out to beat Deputy Glitters in the Sam F. Davis. Deputy Glitters came back to beat Bluegrass Cat by two lengths in the Tampa Bay Derby. Bluegrass Cat had a perfect trip in the Kentucky Derby, while Deputy Glitters had the trip from hell. Bluegrass Cat is the 3-1 favorite and Deputy Glitters is 15-1. Not much left to be said.

Oh So Awesome is intriguing enough to warrant a win bet, and you might want to bank on the future with High Finance if the price is right. Don't be surprised to see him take some heavy action at the windows because of the possibility that he is an emerging star. Speaking of emerging stars, the last two horses to beat him were Bernardini and Showing Up. High Finance's last start was extremely impressive. He came home his final quarter in :24 flat under a hand ride, and he has as strong a Belmont pedigree as you'll find in this race.

His paternal grandsire, Deputy Minister, sired Belmont winner Touch Gold  ; his paternal great-grandsire, Gone West, sired Belmont winner Commendable; his broodmare sire, Conquistador Cielo, won the Belmont by 14 lengths; and his maternal great-grandsire, Vanlandingham, won the 1 1/2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I).

But if I were asked to make a single pick, based mostly on what little has been observed over the past week, I would have to go with Steppenwolfer because of the tremendous progress he's made since the Derby. But, again, the post is a bit of a concern, and he will need to get a heady ride from Robby Albarado.

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