Here we have it.
Four years later after an almost assured Triple Crown with Big Brown, I’ll Have Another attempts to become the 12th horse in history to capture all 3 major spring three-year-old races to stay undefeated in his sophomore season. While the field is relatively light, there will be plenty of challenges ahead for both horse and rider with at least two competitive opponents who will be fresh for the 1 1/2 mile lap around Old Sandy.
I considered practically everything in handicapping this race, with a lot of weight on preparation, class, running style, and predicted course of action with consideration toward pedigree (hey, less well-bred horses have won this in the past). The forecast for Saturday is sunny and warm with a chance of isolated thunderstorms for this must-see event.
$1 million Belmont Stakes (I) - 3-Year-Olds. 1 1/2 miles on dirt at Belmont Park. Post Time: Saturday, June 9 at 6:40pm EST.
[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]
1) Street Life - Jose Lezcano, Chad Brown - I insist the Street Sense colt would have won the 1 1/8 mile Peter Pan (II) a few weeks ago at Belmont had he not broken from the far outside. He closed beautifully at the end of that race to grab the show, and outside of a troublesome trip in the Wood (I), he’s been strong in New York. Solid work schedule. A wildcard for the exotics, he’s on the improving path and I like him a lot.
2) Unstoppable U - Junior Alvarado, Ken McPeek - McPeek calls this Exchange Rate colt “talented,” but has admitted he’s still green with lead change issues. He’s 2-for-2 so far, both while setting the pace with his most recent win being a mile-long allowance by more than 6 lengths over Guyana Star Dweej. This being a McPeek interest horse, I would not be shocked if Unstoppable U is here to butter up the field as a rabbit for Atigun.
3) Union Rags - John Velazquez, Michael Matz - The Dixie Union colt was favored in the Derby, where he finished a very troubled 7th with Julien Leparoux. His record reads like a traffic accident report, with road blocks a plenty keeping him from the win. He gets veteran jockey Velazquez this time and plenty of room in the stretch should all fare well. I still have every confidence in this colt and the change over to Velazquez was a good one.
4) Atigun - Julien Leparoux, Ken McPeek - The Istan colt looked good while winning a confidence-booster allowance at Churchill Downs closing down on the field. I favored him on a stale day for the Rebel (II), and he had some traffic issues while closing for 5th in the Arkansas (I). A good horse who needs some time to improve, he’ll need luck and a boost in speed to reach contention.
5) Dullahan - Javier Castellano, Dale Romans - The Even the Score colt was a moderate upset winner of the Blue Grass (II) and was a strong, fast-closing, very wide third in the Derby, reminding me an awful lot of 2010 runner-up Ice Box. He swaps riders for the talented Castellano, and has been glowing in his works at Belmont. This guy just needs room in the stretch to reach fast, and dare I say is more than game to upset this year coming in fresh.
6) Ravelo’s Boy - Alex Solis, Manuel Azpurua - 5th in the Tampa Bay Derby (II), the Lawyer Ron colt is 0-for-3 this year with mostly off-the-board finishes in paltry competition. He’s ready for the distance test and passes easy in the stretch closing, but is nonetheless a huge longshot with the long layoff and the looming class test.
7) Five Sixteen - Rosie Napravnik, Dominick Schettino - The Invasor [ARG] gelding broke his maiden back in March by a head over the troubled Suns Out Guns Out in a 1 1/8 mile race, but then fell off the board to finish 4th after some bad gate behavior in an unimpressive allowance. Distance likely won’t be an issue as he progresses, but the class jump is a big deal. Napravnik is a nice step up, but there’s a lot of ground to make up.
8) Guyana Star Dweej - Kent Desormeaux, Doodnauth Shivmangal - By Belmont runner Eddington and out of a Pine Bluff mare (‘92 Preakness winner and 3rd in the Belmont), the one with a weird name has some tricky roots as a longshot in this big race. Winning just his maiden in 9 total starts, Shivmangal once again presents an unconvincing case for his entry this year (last year’s Isn’t He Perfect finished dead last in the Preakness and Belmont). Dweej won his maiden going all-out at the end of a mile race, beating the troubled Desert Storm by just a half-length. Short, unimpressive works and invalid experience makes this a pretty easy toss-out.
9) Paynter - Mike Smith, Bob Baffert - Baffert considered this Awesome Again colt as possibly the better of Zayat’s duo which included Derby/Preakness runner-up Bodemeister. Lightly-raced, Paynter logged a confidence boosting, emphatic allowance win on Preakness Day, winning by almost 6 in a bouncing hand ride over 1 1/16 miles. He looks to be near the pace this race with connections who have won this race before. Belmont works have been great with a :59 1/2 bullet and 7 furlongs in 1:25. A great classic background, Paynter might still be a little too green to win this race but it’s not impossible with his talents and breeding. A colt with a good head on his neck, he’ll be on the improving cycle (triple digit Beyers).
10) Optimizer - Corey Nakatani, D. Wayne Lukas - A horse bred for the distance, the son of English Channel has yet to duplicate his scary closing move he showcased as the runner-up in the Rebel Stakes (II). He closed moderately in the Preakness to finish 6th and has been logging steady breezes at Churchill Downs. I said he needed a break in the Rebel, and look what happened there. I’m too chicken to just toss him out like I should with his last win being his maiden break last August.
11) I’ll Have Another - Mario Gutierrez, Doug O’Neill - All eyes are bound to be on the champ, and the son of Flower Alley has his work cut out for him as he tries to reach for 12 furlongs with fresh company bearing down on him. Winner of three G1s and a G2 with the most solid, the classic Distorted Humor/Arch influence in his pedigree, and the best staying prep work over Belmont I could dream up, this race is ultimately going to be up to him and Gutierrez. We might have a Triple Crown winner. Might.
12) My Adonis - Ramon Dominguez, Kelly Breen - The Pleasantly Perfect colt missed the Derby gate just barely as an also-eligible, being runner-up in the Wood (I) and Gotham (III) stakes to Hansen and Alpha. His races suggest he’s best for miling and he’s a likely pacesetter. Pretension beat him in the Canonero II Stakes where he finished 3rd, and that horse finished dead-last in the Preakness. A big pace-setting “nope.”
Top Picks in Order:
1) Union Rags
3) I’ll Have Another
Yes, I’m shelving IHA from winning again! While he’s a great horse, I feel strongly (and appropriately in my opinion) that this race is going to be centered around beating him, looking more like 2004’s Smarty Jones where the field basically ganged up on the favorite the whole trip. My top three are all seasoned, excellent horses I think will last the full 12 furlongs, and I envision Union Rags coming out on top with his stretch-running speed and Belmont experience. Dullahan I’m not 100% on despite feeling he was the horse to beat most of this week; I don’t like his dirt record but the wide Belmont turns will appeal to him and he looks marvelous. I value-picked Street Life for his nice-looking closing move in his best races this year in New York.
Value Pick(s): Street Life