The 140th Belmont Stakes: Big Brown, Up or Down?

Dead game filly Rags to Riches grinds down Horse of the Year Curlin in the stretch of the 2007 Belmont

I have been here before.

Thanks at the beginning to a great friend of mine, I’ve been at the track for every Belmont Stakes since 1997.  I’ve seen six amazing horses toe the line and come up short.  Early on, I really didn’t know what was going on.  Jim would just tell me what to bet on and occasionally it would hit, much to my uninformed glee.  Now I’m a full-on handicapping junkie, with my own stupid opinions about all the outcomes, and for most of the day it’s about being smart and trying to win money, but around 6 o’clock, everything changes.  The air crackles, my heart races, and time stops.  And the horses line up for the Test of Champions.

Before you read my half-assed analysis, do yourself a favor and watch the replay of the 2004 Belmont.  It’s electrifying and relevant — the 2 to 5 favorite (Smarty Jones, the Philly phenom everyone loved) couldn’t lose, but did (and no, I’m getting no royalties for making you suffer through the preliminary ad):

http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/22825103/vp/5145794#5145794

Man, that one hurt.  I bet against War Emblem in 2002 (and hit the 70-1 shot Sarava, my lifetime top), and in 2003 I really wanted Funny Cide to do it but knew in my heart he was overmatched.  Smarty was supposed to do it.  But Jerry Bailey and Eddington cooked him on the backstretch, and Birdstone had just enough to run him down in the stretch.  Jerry Bailey, Policeman of the Triple Crown (I forget who said that).  Where will Jerry Bailey be this Saturday?

Well, I know where I’ll be on June 7, 2008: watching another super horse – not beloved like Smarty Jones, but with two overwhelming Triple Crown performances under his belt and a spotless record after 5 starts – with the only suspect part of his portfolio being his foot.  He has a sore foot, and it’s not the first time.  It kept him from racing from his maiden win at Saratoga on September 3rd of 2007 until an off-the-turf allowance win at Gulfstream on March 5th of 2008.  And that, my friends, is enough for me to bet against him.

All of the news from the Big Brown barn is that the foot’s doing great and will have no impact on his performance Saturday.  They may be right.  And only a fool would root against being on hand for the first Triple Crown in 30 years.  But I don’t trust that foot.  We’re talking about a mile and a half at Belmont Park.  This is the longest, most grueling two-and-a-half minutes in horse racing.  Horse nuts will immediately think of Spectacular Bid, the 1979 phenom who stepped on a pin the morning of the big race and finished 3rd.  Can he get around that great big sandy track after all the stress of the spring campaign and hold off late-running challengers in the stretch to claim the title held 30 years now by valiant Affirmed?

This is why the Triple Crown is the most exciting series in sports.  This is why I’ve become an idiot savant misanthrope, neglecting job and family to study those data-packed sheets every year, looking for patterns like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.  I am ruined, and I urge you to join me in my glorious disease.

Let’s get to the particulars:

  • If you want to bet Big Brown (1), do two things.  Sure, get your $2 win ticket you’ll never cash, but bet him to place.  Everyone and their grandmother will be betting him to win, and you’ll get paid more for the place ticket!  Then, if you want to hit him in the exotics, do the “bet and chuck”.  Toss out Casino Drive (5), the 7-2 second choice.  The horse is out of the same mare as the last two Belmont winners (Jazil and Rags to Riches), and ran a huge Peter Pan four weeks ago at Belmont, but the horse is only running his third race and is a huge underlay at that price.  If you bet horses like Denis of Cork (4), Icabad Crane (10),  Tale of Ekati (7), and even Preakness runner-up Macho Again (3) underneath Big Brown in your exactas, trifectas, and superfectas, you’ll make some reasonable money.  The stupid 1,5 exacta is going to pay something like $6 on $2.  What’s the point?
  • If you’re with me (famous last words), you’ll be on Denis of Cork (4) to pick up the pieces when Big Brown’s foot flares up.  Denis of Cork was an early Kentucky Derby wise-guy horse, and then was completely mismanaged by his connections.  He barely got into the Derby and ran a smart, ground-saving race under Calvin Borel (who won the Derby in 2007 with Street Sense).  Denis of Cork came from dead last to pass 17 horses and finish a reasonable 3rd, and he was still running at the wire.  Curlin’s jockey, Robby Albarado, gets the mount, and I like the karma.  He’ll be at least 12 to 1 at post time.
  • The scenario I have in mind is this: Da’ Tara (6) really has no business being in this race.  The horse hasn’t run genuinely fast in 7 races, and shows no inclination to get the mile-and-a-half, and has a front-running style.  I’m guessing that trainer Nick Zito and upstart young jockey Alan Garcia have decided to be the Policemen of the 2008 Triple Crown.  They’ll take Da’ Tara out on the pace and hope that Big Brown gets boxed up on the rail.  Big Brown will then have to work too hard to get into the proper position, and between that and the bum foot, he’ll come up flat on the final turn.  Then Denis of Cork will kick into gear and fly by them all down the stretch.  The horses I mentioned above (and feel free to toss in another longshot or two underneath in your exotics) will slop in for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, and we’ll have a five-figure trifecta and a six-figure superfecta to talk about.

Before I give you suggested tickets, do yourself a favor and read the analysis of a real handicapper, Steve Crist, who blogs on the Daily Racing Form:

http://cristblog.drf.com/crist/2008/06/picking-against.html

We agree on the winner, but he has more of a Smarty Jones outcome in mind.  I’m thinking about Big Brown’s mercenary owners, and that they’ve probably told Kent Desormeaux to ease Big Brown if it becomes clear that he’s not going to win.  Remember, he’s worth a minimum of $50 millski in the breeding shed even if he comes in dead last.  These guys are businessmen: the traditionalists don’t like that, but that’s the way it is.

If you were inclined to part with another $50, you might consider the following stabs:

  • $5 win on 4 ($5)
  • $2 exacta box with 3,4,7,10 ($24)
  • $2 exacta part wheel, 4 over 3,7,10 ($6)
  • $1 trifecta part wheel, 4 over 3,10 over 1,3,4,5,7,10 ($10)
  • $1 trifecta part wheel (saver), 1 over 4 over 3,5,7,9,10 ($5)

Here are the essential Past Performances: http://www.drf.com/tc/belmont/2008/pps/belmontstakes08.pdf

And yes, I’ll have a bunch of $2 Big Brown tickets in my pocket no matter what.  If you’re nice to me and post a comment about how great I am here, maybe I’ll send you one.  Especially if he loses.

Here’s to a memorable 2008 Belmont Day.  I wish you all 147 seconds of transcendence.

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3 Responses to “The 140th Belmont Stakes: Big Brown, Up or Down?”

  1. david Says:

    Enjoyed your piece….had me laughing due to…been there done that.
    I like Cort too…maybe he can get it done and suprise us all financially.

  2. Mark Esswein Says:

    “There are few things in sport as exciting or beautiful as two strong thoroughbreds, neck and neck, charging toward the finish.”

    - Jim McKay 1921-2008
    R.I. P.

  3. Timothy Peach Says:

    He was a Loyola of Baltmore grad…. one of their great claims to fame. I always loved him on “Wide World of Sports” as a kid…. “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat…”

    Quick clarification: for those of you who may have been confused….. when I said, “Da’ Tara (6) really has no business being in this race,” what I meant, of course, was, “Da’ Tara (6) will go wire-to-wire and win by 5 lengths as the longest shot in the field.”

    Sorry if anyone misbet because of this linguistic nuance.


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