Handicapping the Belmont: Profile of the Typical Winner

Does War Emblem fit the profile of a typical Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner?

The Belmont Stakes is a one of a kind event. The 1 1/2-mile encounter around two sweeping turns ends a grueling five week odyssey for some 3-year-olds. Others, new to the fray, will be competing on somewhat fresher legs. The marathon distance of the race leads many fans to believe that horses closing strongly at lesser routes will relish the added yardage. The more impressive of these closers often get tabbed as "natural mile and a half horses," taking plenty of money on the tote board. But overall these types of runners have had little success in finding the winner's circle in the Belmont Stakes, especially those of the one run variety.

So what is the profile of winning runners in the Belmont Stakes?

(A)- Racing close enough to the pace to make a winning move mid-way on the far turn is a tremendous advantage in this race. Positioning is a key factor in the Belmont Stakes. The last 15 runnings have produced three types of winning trips. They are:

1- A colt on the lead accelerates away from his competition on the far turn. Point Given, Commendable, Hansel, Easy Goer, Risen Star and Bet Twice all won in this fashion.

2- A runner stalking the leaders shows his best acceleration on the far turn. Touch Gold, Thunder Gulch, Tabasco Cat, Colonial Affair, A. P. Indy and Go And Go took this route to the winner's circle.

3- A horse running from deeper in the pack is close enough to the leaders so that his best acceleration on the turn is not wasted on simply reaching contention. Lemon Drop Kid, Victory Gallop and Editor's Note benefited in this manner in their closing victories.

The Belmont Stakes is a difficult race in which to make up significant ground in the stretch. Angel Cordero understood this completely when he opened up a six length lead on the far turn with Bold Forbes in 1976. The son of Irish Castle staggered home a by a desperate neck. After the race, the lead pony had to drag an exhausted Bold Forbes back to the frontside of the racetrack.

Despite having great momentum on his side, Strike the Gold couldn't get past a determined Hansel, who had drawn clear on the far turn in the 1991 edition.

The stretch runners in the Belmont Stakes are usually just as weary as the tiring leaders. Consequently, one-run horses have not had major success in this race. In 2000, favored Aptitude put in a strong run to finish second, but couldn't catch longshot Commendable, who capitalized on his acceleration through early positioning.

In the last 68 runnings of the Belmont Stakes, the winner was no worse than third racing into the stretch. In 1933, Hurryoff ran past three rivals in the final quarter-mile to win from fourth position. Coming into the stretch in those next 68 races, 52 of the winners were on the lead, 12 raced in second, and four held third.

How does this fit the running style of potential Triple Crown winner War Emblem? From all appearances, extremely well! Bob Baffert's tactics in the Preakness (gr. I) mirrored the profile of a winning Belmont Stakes runner. War Emblem prompted the pacesetter, Menacing Dennis, while racing under restraint from the outside. Then War Emblem accelerated mid-way on the final turn beneath jockey Victor Espinoza, drawing clear.

War Emblem's lead was diminishing through the Pimlico stretch. The simplistic approach says the Belmont Stakes' extra 5/16 of a mile will make it that much tougher on him. But War Emblem's Preakness tactics may actually be better suited to this 1 1/2 mile race.

Sunday Break's stalking victory in the Peter Pan (gr. II) at Belmont Park also fits this profile. Though Neil Drysdale's colt was never asked for his best run on the far turn by Gary Stevens, most agree that a burst of acceleration was there for the asking had it been needed in his rather conservative win.

(B) The winners usually exude class, having already won a graded stakes event at distance of 1 1/8 miles or over.

For the most part, the winners of the Belmont Stakes have been an extremely classy lot. The 1 1/2 mile distance can become a strong dividing line in determining class. That division was crystal clear in last year's event. Point Given pulled away from his lesser rivals with complete authority. The winner was the only colt truly running through the stretch that day. The others were just drifting to the finish line behind him.

Class can be a difficult aspect to judge coming into a major race. Improving runners or those rebounding from any number of difficult circumstances have often thrown prognosticators a wicked curve. But being a previous winner of a graded stake at a distance of 1 1/8 mile or greater has been reliable indicator of class coming into the Belmont Stakes.

War Emblem, Sunday Break, Perfect Drift and Wiseman's Ferry have all registered such a victory.