Fri. Jun 2nd, 2023

Race day for the 2022 Belmont Stakes brings the predictable spike in the volume and clarity of what the money says. It’s a diplomatic way of saying that for the top tier of the cast of characters vying for the $1.5 million purse — the white-hot best-boy-in-training We the People, the somewhat frustrated Irish slugger Mo Donegal, and the 80-1 Derby phenom Rich Strike — the questions have only been sharpened.

Plenty of room out there on the ultra-taxing Big Sandy, as the track has aptly and hilariously been nicknamed by the thousands of horsemen whose mounts its long turns and sticky surface it has bested. The 154th running of the Belmont Stakes has an only moderate field of eight. So, down to business: Can Mo Donegal get up and shake off the heebie-jeebies from his herky-jerky Derby start and put together one whole, good run?

For his part, odds favorite We the People has been looking especially frisky over the track, but looking good is one thing, and with a horse this lightly raced, race day is another very different thing. So how’s the cometlike We the People going to meet the best horses he’s ever faced in the longest race he will ever run? Can he just take it by streaking across the sky as he seems to do, or will grinding through Belmont’s punishingly long turns cause him to flame-out like Icarus?

Nobody knows, but chunks of the track money will definitely be having a hard time wrestling with We the People’s Icarus problem, so players will have to step lively if that causes a race-day money-migration over to the next-best only-slightly-better option, Mo Donegal, who’s at least run in a Triple Crown race before.

It’s flat strange to have a Derby victor seated in the Belmont morning line as third-favorite, but Kentucky homeboy Rich Strike arrived from Churchill at his Belmont barn and promptly set about letting everybody know that — contrary to the conventional wisdom that he wouldn’t much like New York or its long track — he seemed at home. That admittedly small exhibition of psychological robustness has come as a relief to his trainer Eric Reed, who, like the rest of us, didn’t know what to expect of the dashing longshot. How did the colt manufacture that Derby run again? Did that really happen? Like every other athlete out there, he’s just three. When’s he going to head off into the corner, pout, and ask for his blanky? Apparently, he’s not doing that.

Note: London’s own beloved gimlet-eyed bookmakers are not thinking that Rich Strike’s newbie/phenom/longshot credentials are as meaningful his American backers do. William Hill, for instance, has We the People and Mo Donegal dead even, at 5-2, and Rich Strike, much further back, at a shockingly high 5-1. The London boys weren’t bowled over by that Derby run.

To help us parse these and other questions faced by the Belmont Stakes runners, we’ll bring in the Bluegrass Wise Man ™, a lifelong Kentucky horseman and long a trusted advisor for many Triple Crown seasons, but first, the odds picture, which we will update regularly in this space until post time.

(Post Position, Horse, Morning Line)

  1. We the People, 2-1
  2. Skippylongstocking, 20-1
  3. Nest, 8-1
  4. Rich Strike, 7-2
  5. Creative Minister, 6-1
  6. Mo Donegal, 5-2
  7. Golden Glider, 20-1
  8. Barber Road, 10-1

(Source: NYRA, June 11, 2022)

With no further ado, herewith, the Bluegrass Wise Man ™.

So, you’re going big on We the People’s nose.

Bluegrass Wise Man ™: No, but with an asterisk. Way of saying, he’s mighty good, trackside chatter has been overwhelmingly positive, and we probably can’t avoid him, right? But his questions are mighty big. He’s been hot as a pistol, and we like everything about him, gets over the track well, solid athlete, likes Belmont, seems to have his mind together, all that. Let’s put it this way, it’s been a while since a Belmont morning line top favorite has been as inexperienced as this horse. I mean, a long while, so, what’s he gonna do? Despite what the money says, or what the touts think, or what his connections are hoping for, nobody can answer that question about this horse. What I’m saying is, he’s gonna have to answer it.

Which brings us to the track. We’ve done it, but it’s race day. Hit it again.

Bluegrass Wise Man ™: Let’s start by talking turns. The “big” in the track nickname Big Sandy is real. So is the sand, but as America’s longest track, the Belmont has long turns. Their math is deceptive to the horses, and to the jockeys who don’t know the track. By definition, the big track means that the turns are less sharp, but their length means that trying to overtake anybody on the outside is gonna cost you more ground and more effort, and that cost will be much higher for a longer amount of time than any of these horses are used to. If you’re used to a shorter track, you sense when the turn will end. At Belmont, the turns seem to have no end. The race is already far longer than any of them have run, and there’s a peculiar math to that, too. But the real secret to the Belmont is figuring out how to work through the turns. And, there’s not just one of them. You have to do it twice.

Which is why the Belmont is such a jockey’s race.

Bluegrass Wise Man ™: Exactly. They’ve got to be able to know what’s under them, meaning, they have to know their horses to the extent that they can gauge just how much is left in the tank and be able to do that at any given point. If in the far turn I make a move two lanes to the outside, will I have enough to make that last quarter-mile?

How’re we betting the jockeys today?

Bluegrass Wise Man ™: Same way you bet the trainers, only more so today, a combination of what we know about them and who they’re riding. For instance, Irad Ortiz is a god, and he knows Belmont like the back of his hand, so having him on Mo Donegal is gonna drive Mo Donegal’s price down. With reason. Because Mo Donegal, who did have a kind of stutter-start in the Derby, has every chance to get in there and grind down We the People. But now let’s take Sonny Leon. He knows Rich Strike like no other person alive. His ride in the Derby was a master class. But Sonny does not have a clue about what the Big Sandy will take from you on Belmont Stakes days. He’s a great jockey, and he’s trying to know it. But he’s going to learn a lot more of what he needs to know today.

Give us the breakdown on the Pletcher horse.

Bluegrass Wise Man ™: Let’s start with Todd Pletcher. There have only been three fillies to have ever won the Belmont, and one of those three was trained by Pletcher. Which is to say, he’s serious and he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t think Nest had a chance. Nest does have a chance. She was great in the Oaks, but I think going up against Mo Donegal and Rich Strike, what we know of them, is going to require her to step up. But it’s a long race for every horse out there, and she could just be there to mop up if one or the other of the odd favorites cancel each other out. I’d play her in an exotic or two precisely for that scenario.

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