As racing fans know all too well, the Belmont Stakes is a vastly different animal in a Triple Crown year compared with a non-Triple Crown year.
Any Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown hopeful generates significantly more buzz than years when there is no chance for a sweep, but what does it mean for the actual race itself? Are we more or less likely to see a longshot? What should we expect as far as pace scenario?
Looking over the last 20 editions of the Belmont Stakes, there were eight years in which there was a Triple Crown on the line — 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2014, 2015, 2018 (I did not count 2012 because I’ll Have Another did not actually compete in the race) — so let’s take a closer look at the other 12 editions and see how they compare and if there are any common threads to help when handicapping the race.
The first thing that jumps out to me is that no front-runner has won the Belmont in a non-Triple Crown year during this 20-year span.
Four of the 12 were second or third after the opening quarter-mile and half-mile, within two lengths of the pace. Ten of the 12 were within five lengths of the pace after a quarter-mile and nine of the 12 were within 4 ¾ lengths after a half-mile.
Twice the race was won by deep closers: Creator in 2016 and Jazil in 2006.
The median for these 12 editions of the Belmont places the winner in fifth, 3 ¼ lengths off the pace, after the opening quarter and fifth, three lengths off the pace, after a half-mile.
For comparison purposes, the median for Belmont Stakes in which there was a Triple Crown on the line places the winner of those eight editions 2.125 lengths back after the opening quarter and 2 ½ lengths back after a half-mile.
The average margin for these eight editions is a bit tighter at one length and 1 ¼ lengths behind after the first quarter- and half-mile, respectively, thanks in part to three front-running winners: Triple Crown victors Justify (2018) and American Pharoah (2015) and Da’ Tara (2008), who upset Big Brown after setting an uncontested pace as a 38.5-1 outsider.
As for the actual pace of the race, the non-Triple crown Belmonts have been remarkably similar to the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line over the last 20 years. For the 12 non-Triple Crown Belmont Stakes, the average half-mile is 48.49 seconds with a median of 48.64 seconds, while Triple Crown editions have been slightly faster with an average of 48.35 seconds and a median of 48.41 seconds.
Refocusing on only the 12 non-Triple Crown Belmont Stakes, nine of the 12 winners competed in at least one of the previous two Triple Crown races. Two of them, Aleet Alex (2005) and Point Given (2001), lost in the Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness before dominant performances in the Belmont Stakes. Note that War of Will fits this profile.
Seven other Belmont winners during non-Triple Crown races in this 20-year stretch were Derby runners (ranging from fourth to 17th) who skipped the Preakness and came back and won the Belmont Stakes. That group includes Tapwrit (sixth in Derby) in 2017 and Creator (13th in Derby) in 2016. Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Tacitus, sixth-place finisher Master Fencer, 14th-place finisher Tax, and 18th-place finisher Spinoff fit that profile.
The other three — Ruler On Ice (2011), Drosselmeyer (2010), and Rags to Riches (2007) — did not compete in a Triple Crown race before winning the Belmont, although Rags to Riches was a dominant 4 ¼-length winner of the Kentucky Oaks. Ruler On Ice and Drosselmeyer entered off runner-up finishes in the Federico Tesio Stakes and Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes, respectively. Belmont Stakes hopeful Sir Winston enters off a runner-up finish in the Peter Pan, while Intrepid Heart ran third in that race after a troubled start.
Two horses who look left out in the cold are Preakness runner-up Everfast and third-place finisher Owendale as none of the previous 20 Belmont winners missed the Derby, ran in the Preakness, and then won the Belmont Stakes.
Three of the 12 races were decided by a neck or less, five by a length or less, and eight by two lengths or less. The only two true blowouts were by the aforementioned Afleet Alex (seven lengths) and Point Given (12 ¼ lengths), who also happen to be the only two favorites to win in the last 12 non-Triple Crown editions of the Belmont Stakes.
Six of the 12 winners struck at double-digit odds with Creator (16.4-1), Commendable (18.8-1), and Ruler On Ice (24.75-1) helping bring up the average winner’s odds to just a tick under 10-1.
For comparison purposes, average payout for Belmont Stakes in Triple Crown years since 1999 is actually much higher due to six failed bids by dual classic winners. Four times the winner was 29.75-1 or higher, topped by Sarava at 70.25-1 in 2002, for average win odds of 23.4-1.
We could be looking at a dominant performance from War of Will that allows him to join Afleet Alex and Point Given as Preakness-Belmont Stakes winners, but I’m also going to look very closely at all of the Derby runners who skipped the Belmont with Tacitus a serious win candidate while Tax could be interesting at what should be very appealing prices.