Making the Grade, which will run through the 2016 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), focuses on the winners of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the next Triple Crown.
This week, rather than taking a closer look at one individual Belmont Stakes contenders, we'll use the last 25 years of Belmont Stakes history (1991-2015) as a guide to try to find several pieces information that might help unlock the key to this betting puzzle.
Let's start with Belmont Stakes favorites. While it might seem to be a race that would be kind to favorites, given handicappers have plenty of data from the two previous Triple Crown races, that hasn't necessarily been the case.
• The average odds of the Belmont winner over the last 25 years has been 12.86-1.
• There have been four instances where the winner was 24.75-1 or greater.
• The median odds of the winner over the same stretch is 5.80-1.
• Five favorites have won in the last 25 years.
• Six horses from 1991 to 2015 went off at even-money odds or less. Only American Pharoah prevailed.
• A. P. Indy (1992), Thunder Gulch (1995), Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005) were the other four winning favorites at odds ranging from 11-10 for A. P. Indy to 3-2 for Thunder Gulch.
• Expanding to the top-three finishers in the Belmont Stakes, the average odds for an on-the-board finisher was 11.72-1 and the median is 6.2-1.
When considering favorites in the Belmont Stakes, it does make some sense that the odds have been higher than a typical race given that we'd seen eight horses enter the starting gate with a chance at a Triple Crown and fail during that 25-year period before American Pharoah ended the 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015.
Because of that, the success rate of Preakness (gr. I) winners in the Belmont Stakes is slightly less than you might expect as well. This year, Exaggerator looks like a formidable favorite for the Belmont, so let's take a look at Preakness winners in the Belmont Stakes from 1991-2015:
• Preakness winners have won the Belmont Stakes five times from 19 attempts in the last 25 editions. (Six Preakness winners did not contest the Belmont)
• Preakness winners have placed in the top three 11 times in those 19 attempts.
• Of the 15 Preakness winners from 1991 through 2015 who did not also win the Kentucky Derby—Exaggerator's profile this year—10 went on to compete in the Belmont Stakes with four (40 percent) earning victories.
The history of prep races for Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winners is frequently discussed leading up to the first jewel of the Triple Crown, but the final prep race of Belmont Stakes winners isn't often discussed. Let's take a look at where the last 25 years of Belmont Stakes winner started in their race immediately preceding the final jewel of the Triple Crown:
• Nine Belmont Stakes winners made their previous start in the Preakness Stakes.
• Seven Belmont Stakes winners made their previous start in the Kentucky Derby. This is especially interesting because none of those seven won the Derby as those victors almost always go on to the Preakness—the only Kentucky Derby winner in the last 25 years who did not contest the Preakness was Grindstone in 1996.
• Five Belmont Stakes winners came directly out of the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II).
• Nine times in the last 25 years the Belmont Stakes winner entered the race off of a win.
• Seven of the last 25 winners entered off of unplaced finishes. Of course, six of those came in the Kentucky Derby, where traffic and 20-horse fields can lead to finishes that aren't necessarily indicative of talent.
• Of the 75 horses who finished in the top three in the Belmont Stakes between 1991 and 2015, 27 of them entered the race off of a victory while 50 entered off of a top-three finish in their previous race.
There also is a great misconception that because the race is so long, closers who do their best running late should do especially well. In reality, the opposite has been true.
• Twenty of the last 25 winners of the Belmont Stakes were within five lengths of the pace after the first half-mile.
• Only three times in the last 25 years was the winner more than five lengths back with a half-mile remaining in the race.
If you expand to the top three finishers, there is a little bit more reason for optimism for closers, but not for the deep closers.
• Twenty of the 75 top-three finishers during the last 25 years were five lengths or more off the pace after the first half-mile.
• Only eight horses rallied from more than 10 lengths back after the first half-mile to hit the board.
• Nineteen horses were five lengths or more off the pace with a half-mile remaining and rallied to finish in the top three.
• Only three of those 19 came from 10 lengths or more back—2000 runner-up Aptitude, 2000 third-place finisher Unshaded and 2004 distant third-place finisher Royal Assault—and none was able to win.
It's somewhat surprising how close the Belmont Stakes winning margin has been in the last 25 years, given it's the longest jewel of the Triple Crown at 1 1/2 miles. Six times in the last 25 years, the Belmont Stakes has been won by a margin of a neck or less and 14 times the victor prevailed by a length or less.
So, what does this data mean for this year's race? That's for each individual to determine, but I think it's fair to say deep closers are up against it in the Belmont Stakes and there is a pretty good chance you'll get one or two decent prices in the top three spots.
As for Exaggerator, look for him to be a little bit nearer to the front than he's been in some of his recent races. He'll be tough if he runs his race, but history tells us that no horse is a slam dunk in the Belmont Stakes.