Belmont Preview: Animal Kingdom One to Beat
If many of the names in the $1 million Belmont Stakes (gr. I) look familiar, that’s because they should. For the first time in history, the top seven finishers from the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) have returned for the third and final leg of the Triple Crown. In all, eight Derby horses made the trip to New York, also a record.
Coupled with the return of the top two finishers of the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and with a few new shooters coming aboard, it makes for an interesting Belmont 143, which will take place Saturday, June 11 at Belmont Park. A dozen 3-year-olds will try the 1 1/2-mile “Test of the Champion,” with post time set for 6:35 p.m. EDT.
The last of six graded stakes on the Belmont card, the race will be shown live on NBC. Coverage on NBC begins at 5 p.m. and also includes the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT). Versus, which will broadcast three graded stakes prior to the Manhattan, will also host a half-hour post-Belmont show beginning at 7 p.m.
Animal Kingdom , who won the Derby and finished a close second in the Preakness, is the horse to beat, as suggested by his status as the 2-1 morning-line favorite. But with Preakness winner Shackleford (9-2) back, as well as a rested and ready Derby runner-up Nehro (4-1), the Belmont shapes up a competitive race.
Many also expect Mucho Macho Man (10-1), third in the Derby and fifth in the Preakness, to run an improved race, especially with New York’s leading rider Ramon Dominguez getting the call for the first time. European invader Master of Hounds (10-1), Santiva (15-1), and Brilliant Speed (15-1), who finished fifth, sixth, and seventh in the Derby, respectively, will all be mid-priced longshots with five weeks of rest under their belts.
Stay Thirsty (20-1) returns from a 12th-place finish in the Derby and ninth-place Preakness finisher Isn't He Perfect (30-1) is back for another try. They join newcomers Monzon (30-1), Prime Cut (15-1), and Ruler On Ice (20-1), who will all make their Triple Crown debuts.
Taking nothing away from Shackleford’s half-length victory in the Preakness, it can be argued that Team Valor International’s Animal Kingdom was the best horse at Pimlico Race Course on May 21. The son of Leroidesanimaux broke slowly that day and was last after a half-mile and second-to-last after six furlongs before launching his strong bid. He was five-wide entering the stretch and fell just short of front-running Shackleford in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness.
Animal Kingdom also came from off the pace in the May 7 Derby when scoring by 2 3/4 lengths at 20-1, but he had a much better trip that day. John Velazquez will once again ride for trainer Graham Motion. The chestnut colt will make his first start in New York, but had an encouraging four-furlong work in :47 3/5 June 6 at Belmont, the best of 33 moves that morning. Motion said his horse is as primed for the Belmont as he was for the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
“He just hasn’t changed,” Motion said. “It’s remarkable. He’s taken everything in stride and hasn’t gotten worked up about anything. Physically, I think he’s handled it great. I was worried about him after the Preakness, but it was more because I thought, visually, he’d had a tough race. But he never gave me any indication he’d had a tough race, and he recovered very quickly.”
The New York-based Velazquez won the Belmont in 2007 with filly Rags to Riches. Animal Kingdom, winner of the Vinery Racing Spriral Stakes (gr. III), is 3-3-0 from six starts and has earned $1,938,700.
Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge’s Shackleford probably won’t have the luxury of sitting off of speed, as he did in the Preakness when following closely behind Flashpoint for six furlongs. The son of Forestry will almost certainly lead the way in the Belmont, despite having to break from post 12. He was the leader in the Derby after breaking from post 14 and without any other discernable Belmont speed, Shackleford should be in position to inherit the lead.
“With post position 12, he’ll be the last one in and the first one out. Hopefully, he’ll be able to clear the field. He’s fast enough that he’ll be able to break and clear everyone anyway,” trainer Dale Romans said.
After finishing fourth in the Derby, Shackleford pulled a 12-1 upset in the Preakness to give Romans his first Triple Crown race victory. The colt, who seeks his fourth win in his eighth lifetime start, also has turned in one work at Belmont since the Preakness. He was timed in 1:00 1/5 for five furlongs June 4. Romans has no doubts he is ready to run big again.
“I think he will handle the distance,” said Romans, who will again look to jockey Jesus Castanon to set a reasonable pace. “Under the right scenario he will be fine.”
This will be the 22th time that Derby and Preakness winners will have squared off in the Belmont. The Derby winner has prevailed five times, with the Preakness winner scoring 10 times.
Zayat Stables’ Nehro has run three huge races in a row, but finished second in all of them. The Mineshaft colt missed by a neck in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and Arkansas Derby (gr. I) before falling short of Animal Kingdom in the Derby. The connections, including trainer Steve Asmussen, strongly considered running him back in the Preaknesss, but ultimately decided that the Belmont would be the best target.
Nehro has turned in three works since the Derby, the last coming June 6 at Belmont Park. Corey Nakatani will keep the mount.
“We’ve got three seconds in the last three Derbys, being in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Kentucky, and we hope to shed the bridesmaid’s tag and get the win,” said Brad Weisbord, racing manager for Zayat. “Nehro is very versatile, so he really can be anywhere.”
Along with Animal Kingdom and Shackleford, Mucho Macho Man is the only other Belmont entrant who will have competed in all three legs of the Triple Crown. Trained by Kathy Ritvo, the Macho Uno colt has been outfitted with a new pair of glue-on shoes since losing his front shoe in the Preakness for the second time in three races. His sixth-place Preakness finish was only the second time he’s been off the board in 10 career starts.
“We think we have the best horse in the country,” said co-owner Dean Reeves. “We just need to prove it, and hope Saturday we’ll do that.”
Master of Hounds, based in Ireland and trained by Aidan O’Brien, shipped back to his home base since the Derby, which was his first start on dirt. Master of Hounds, who will be ridden by Garrett Gomez again, will be making his third start of the season after finishing second in the UAE Derby (UAE-II) in March. The Kingmambo colt is hoping to be the first horse since the Dermot Weld-trained Go and Go in 1990 to win the Belmont coming off the plane, having arrived in New York on Tuesday, June 7.
“He’s been training very, very well since the Derby,” said T.J. Comerford, O’Brien’s assistant. “He’d never actually run on the dirt before he cantered around on the dirt at Churchill Downs. He’ll definitely put up a good show here. The 1 1/2 miles will hit him on the head.”
Santiva, who was gaining ground as he finished sixth in the Derby, is another who skipped the Preakness to focus on the Belmont. Trained by Eddie Kenneally for Tom Walters, Santiva will be making his fourth start of 2011 in the Belmont, having finished second to Mucho Macho Man in the Risen Star (gr. II) and ninth behind Brilliant Speed in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).
Brilliant Speed was making his first start of the year on conventional dirt in the Derby, in which he came wide and made a late bid to finish a respectable seventh.
“He’s fresh and he runs well fresh,” said Tom Albertrani, who trains the homebred Dynaformer colt for Live Oak Plantation. “We’re enthusiastic about bringing him here for a 1 1/2-mile race, considering his pedigree, and we thought we’d give it a shot with him on the dirt. There’s always a question how he’ll handle the surface, but I’m pretty optimistic.”
Stay Thirsty is back in New York where he won his only two races in seven starts—the April 3 Gotham (gr. III) at Aqueduct and a maiden special weight sprint at Saratoga last summer. The Bernardini colt finished second at Belmont in his racing debut last July. He is owned by Mike Repole and trained by Todd Pletcher, who won the 2007 Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches.
The new shooters include Prime Cut, most recently third in the Peter Pan (gr. II) at Belmont on May 14; Monzon, sixth in the Peter Pan in his first start off a three-month layoff; and the Sunland Park Derby (gr. III) third-place finisher Ruler On Ice.
$1 million Belmont Stakes (gr. I, Race 11, 6:35 p.m.), 3YO, 1 1/2 Miles (Dirt)
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