This year’s Belmont Stakes is not the Belmont as we know it – far from it, by being run around one turn at a mile and an eighth with a testing pace likely down that long straightaway. Still, this version of the Belmont may actually be more attractive to breeders than the traditional Belmont Stakes, as it should resemble the Met Mile more than it resembles your typical two-turn classic race going longer.
Because of the oddity of this year's classic series of races, with the Santa Anita Derby in two weeks and the Belmont Stakes in four weeks, I will continue to provide an occasional rankings column through the end of July just to keep things interesting and updated. This is not the Derby Dozen, and will not follow the usual Derby Dozen format. So there will be no Knocking on the Door, as each week there will be a mob pounding on the door. But that doesn't mean other horses will not be discussed and there will be no set number of horses that will be ranked. It could be 10 or it could be 20. This week we're starting off with Sweet 16.
This week's top three horses are ranked in the same order they were on March 18. Yes, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve has favored speed in recent years, but almost all those Derbys won by speed horses were on wet, sealed tracks and came on the first Saturday in May when young horses are more precocious and few are truly experienced, thus giving speed more of an advantage. But with the Derby now run in September, we would imagine a much truer and competitive race with battle-tested horses who are more mature and more versatile and can adapt better to traffic and any kind of pace and surface. –Steve Haskin
1. Tiz the Law
He still holds on to the top spot based on his power, speed, dominance, and pedigree. And the only way he can lose his No. 1 ranking is for someone to take it away from him. I also rank him No. 1 for the Belmont Stakes based on his monster effort over the track in the Champagne Stakes last fall. But Maxfield, Nadal, and Charlatan are breathing down his neck, and the Belmont Stakes should be one of the best 3-year-old races in a long time. Barclay Tagg is keeping him sharp, working him five furlongs in :59 3/5 in company at Palm Meadows.
He couldn't have gotten more out of his first start back in the Matt Winn Stakes. He looked spectacular physically and showed he can get good position early and overcome a wide trip and traffic. Yes, the pace was slow, but his closing fractions of :23 4/5 and :06 1/5 were extremely strong, especially considering his eventful stretch run when he shied from left-handed whipping and was intimidated by Ny Traffic drifting out into his path. But he straightened himself out and was striding out beautifully late, winning with his ears pricked. This race will move him way forward and I definitely see him peaking at a mile and a quarter.
3. Sole Volante
I would rank him No. 5 for the Belmont Stakes, but still No. 3 for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. The one-turn mile and an eighth at Belmont favors speed and should help the Bob Baffert pair of Nadal and Charlatan if both run and even be more favorable if only one runs and is able to relax up front. But he desperately needs a race, and as long as he is closing and striding out with his usual smooth quick-footed action, he will move forward and be extremely tough to beat when he goes back to two turns. And watch out when he goes a mile and a quarter. I just love everything about this horse.
He would be ranked No. 2 or 3 for the Belmont Stakes, assuming he will be using the same stalking tactics he used in the second division of the Arkansas Derby. He is ranked No. 4 for the Derby mainly because of the plethora of top-class speed horses that should assure a fast pace on Sept. 5. But he is undefeated, is bred to go long, and after running three straight Thoro-Graph numbers of "3 ¾" while going fast early and slow late, he reversed that in his faster division of the Arkansas Derby and jumped to a “½” Thoro-Graph number. On pedigree, he is more likely to handle the mile and a quarter than the other two Bob Baffert speedballs, and he physically looked like a powerhouse at Oaklawn Park.
The biggest thing he has going for him is that we have no idea how good, or great, he may be. He is immensely gifted and does everything so easily, floating over the ground with smooth, effortless strides. Sure, you would like to see him show he can rate off the pace if necessary, but right now he is just having fun out there and is enjoying crushing his opposition as he did in the first division of the Arkansas Derby. A mile and a quarter is a question mark, but it wouldn't come as a surprise if he can carry his speed that far. He is one of those American Pharoah-type horses who is just a pleasure to watch run.
Inactivity is the only thing that has pushed him below his two stablemates, as it seems like ages ago we saw him run. I would love to see the speedy Shooters Shoot go in the June 6 Santa Anita Derby to either test him on the lead or more importantly force him to lay off a horse. Because of the odd scheduling of the Santa Anita Derby, he likely will not get an opportunity to compete in all three classic races. Like his two Bob Baffert stablemates, he would be a natural going one turn at Belmont Park. And like Charlatan, we have no idea how good he is. But those long gazelle-like strides should suit him well when the distances stretch out. He has displayed unsightly antics in the stretch, but showed no signs of it in his last start.
7. Honor A. P.
He is another who will not be able to compete in all three classic races because of the timing of the Santa Anita Derby. But the goal obviously is the Kentucky Derby and John Shirreffs is not quite ready to ship cross-country. Could he turn the tables on Authentic in the Santa Anita Derby? Certainly, if he takes a step forward as expected. But another good second-place finish to a loose-on-the-lead Authentic would not dampen his reputation, as he will hold the upper hand once he goes a mile and a quarter and once the fields get larger and more competitive. A hulking, muscular horse, he still has to fine tune all the parts, but Shirreffs has him dead-fit with long strong works.
He's been given a freshening on the farm and should return to serious training shortly. But we won't see him in the Belmont Stakes. I know he couldn't match strides with Nadal in the Arkansas Derby, but I loved the way he was moving in the stretch, and he proved his Lambhom South Tampa Bay Derby score was no fluke. I loved this colt's overall demeanor, from his finely-chiseled head to his near-flawless stride. He should be a tiger once he returns to action.
9. Ete Indien
I think the time off will help him and he will return fit and sharp for the July 18 TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes over a track that should suit his style of running. I still can't help but think of the huge effort he turned in against Tiz the Law in the Holy Bull Stakes and his impressive romp in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Patrick Biancone will have him primed for another big race at Monmouth Park. Of course, he is another who would benefit from being able to lay off the pace, and you can bet Biancone will be working on that.
I have stubbornly hung on to the belief that he will be a major Derby contender, but he has not made a lot of progress, mainly because he's had less than ideal trips, stuck in heavy traffic without the gears to extricate himself. I still believe with a clear outside stalking trip he can keep grinding away and run strongly to the wire. He showed me too much in his first two starts – one against Maxfield – to give up on him. He just needs to be given the chance to show what he can do.
He gets a slight nod over another up-and-comer Dr Post because he has a tad more stamina close up. I was not disappointed in his third-place finish in the Matt Winn Stakes, but I was very disappointed in his trip, breaking from the rail and getting involved in a speed duel with two horses, even though the fractions were slow. That's not the way he wants to run. What I loved about this horse was the way he sat back in fifth in his maiden score and the calculated way he picked off his opponents before drawing clear, and how professional and athletic he was. To be down on the inside battling for the lead with a seasoned stakes horse in Ny Traffic told me little about this horse. He never gave up and battled to the end, beaten less than two lengths, despite his rider continuously hitting him left-handed even as he was drifting out from the whip.
12. Dr Post
In the Unbridled Stakes on April 25 at Gulfstream Park, he showed a maturity and the ability to overcome adversity far beyond his years and experience when he shook off some trouble in early stretch to win going away. We know he can take a punch and still come back swinging. In short, he had every right to lose that race, but he not only managed to win, he did it the right way, with mind and muscle. He no doubt has the ability to be competitive with anybody, and we'll have to see if Todd Pletcher throws him into the deep water in the Belmont Stakes. There is not a lot of stamina in his first three generations, but sometimes talent and the right mind can take a horse farther than he's bred to go. There is a lot of royal blood in his fourth generation for whatever that is worth.
13. Max Player
I don't know if his running style will be conducive to a mile and an eighth at Belmont, but with so many six- and seven-furlong works in the past 3 ½ months he will certainly be fit enough. But it's been so long since he's run (Feb. 1 winning the Withers Stakes) we really don't know much about him other than he has a strong closing kick and a nice flowing stride. All we can do now is wait to see how competitive he can be coming back in such a tough spot.
He is one horse who really intrigues me, as I believe he has as much room for improvement as any of them. He definitely is still a work in progress. I would tend to think Bill Mott will skip the Belmont Stakes, and if he does I believe we will see a different, more complete horse when he does return. He is an attractive colt with a good way of moving, but with plenty of muscle and toughness. Throw out his third-place finish in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby when he was wide throughout. Definitely one to watch and a good bet at 50-1 in the most recent Churchill Downs Future Wager.
15. Ny Traffic
Give him credit in the Matt Winn Stakes for always being there and always running the same race, finishing second to Maxfield this time. My main question with him is, how do you get him to win one of these with his grinding, high-cruising style of running? I'm, not sure if he's a mile and a quarter horse, but right now he has to figure out a way to win being so one-paced. But he's never tiring and is always running hard to the wire, so for that he must be respected. He's the kind of horse any trainer would love to have in his barn.
This hard-knocking, one-eyed horse always shows up and is still only one of two horses who have finished ahead of Tiz the Law. He does possess a strong closing punch and ran a huge race to finish third in a division of the Arkansas Derby. He is one of those horses you don't see winning the Kentucky Derby, but can definitely see rallying to pick up a piece of it. And how can you not love his name?
Non-stakes horses to keep an eye on who are one race away from bursting on to the list are Mystic Guide, who is pointing for a 1 1/16-mile allowance race on June 4; Sonneman, a real eye-catcher with great potential and a powerful closing kick; the explosive Hunt the Front, who has a spectacular turn of foot and is bred to run all day; recent winner Art Collector, a vastly improved colt who looked impressive against a strong allowance field and should relish a stretch-out to two turns; and the aforementioned Shooters Shoot, who showed in his last start he has the speed, tenacity, and determination to at least make life miserable for any horse who looks him in the eye. All these horses look to have the talent to emerge as major contenders by September.
Right behind the Top 16 is a large pool of proven stakes horses such as the front-running Wells Bayou, who needs to show he can win from off the pace; Mr. Big News; Mischevious Alex, who is brilliantly fast, but likely has distance limitations; Shivaree, who surprisingly stretched his speed out to finish second to Tiz the Law in the Curlin Florida Derby; the late-running Farmington Road and Enforceable; Major Fed, who had to run seven-wide the entire mile and a sixteenth of the Matt Winn and deserves another chance; Attachment Rate, who still hasn't learned how to change leads and likely will never reach his full potential until he does; Basin, who is still trying to regain his 2-year-old form, but has made his presence felt in every start this year; and Azul Coast, who had a tremendous seven-furlong work on May 25, but has been tucked away in some corner of Bob Baffert's barn since mid-February. I would imagine Baffert will unleash him in the Santa Anita Derby to pick up the crumbs left by Authentic and possibly Honor A. P. or he will wait to take advantage of the long stretch in the Los Alamitos Derby on July 4.