• The Test of Champions

    POSTED Jun 7, 2013
    In “An Essay on Man,” Alexander Pope coined the phrase “hope springs eternal.” And every winter, racing fans and insiders validate Pope’s observation, as first one three-year-old thoroughbred… then another… then another is anointed the next great thing.

    By this time of year, however, dashed hopes litter the Triple Crown trail like performance-enhancing drugs in the Seattle Seahawks’ locker room (hey, I’m a Seahawks fan, but enough already). While colts and fillies scramble for a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate, necessitating a point system to determine their eligibility and 19-20 final entrants nearly every year, the Belmont Stakes is typically business as usual — 10-12 horses; no points; no divine intervention required.

    And so it is again this year.

    With no Triple Crown on the line, there are more hopefuls than normal (14), but dreams have given way to reality. The 3-1 morning line favorite in the Belmont is Orb, the colt who wowed the crowd in Louisville. He’s followed by Revolutionary, one of — count ‘em — five Todd Pletcher trainees, at 9-2, and Preakness hero Oxbow at 5-1.

    Despite the logic of this line, though, I probably won’t be betting any of the "obvious" choices — primarily because I doubt they will offer any value. And as I noted on my June 5 podcast, finding overlays and avoiding underlays is crucial to Belmont Stakes success.

    Although favorites have won 55 of 130 editions of the race in which odds were recorded (42.3 percent), the top Belmont betting choice has produced a negative 22.24 percent return in those races — worse than favorites as a whole, even though favorites as a whole win a lot less often.

    What this implies, of course, is that the “best” horses are typically overbet, which I expect will be the case with Orb (in particular) this year. Not only does the son of Malibu Moon have a rabid following, but I suspect many of his more ardent fans will be anxious to prove that the Preakness was a fluke and that Orb is still the best sophomore in training by backing him in the Big Apple. Obviously, this is not a good betting strategy, but then again love is often irrational — just ask Rhianna.

    What is rational and what is fact is that overlays have performed very well in the Test of Champions. Since 2000, 63 horses have gone to post at odds equal to or in excess of their morning line in the Belmont Stakes: seven have won, six have finished second and eight have finished third. A $2 win ticket on each would have returned an average of $6.22 (210.79 percent ROI); a $2 place ticket would have averaged $2.87 (43.73 percent ROI); and a $2 show ticket would have returned around $2.33 (16.59 percent ROI).

    Here are some other points to consider before you plop your money down on Saturday:
    * Although it’s called “The Test of Champions,” recent winners of the Belmont Stakes haven’t exactly reminded racing fans of Nashua or Damascus. Since 1992, Belmont victors have won just 24.3 percent of their subsequent starts (28-115) — after having won 41.8 percent of their races beforehand (71-170).

    * Since 2000, only six Belmont champs had previously won a stakes race. Worse, four of them — Summer Bird, Da’ Tara, Jazil and Commendable — had won just once prior to scoring in the Belmont.

    * Despite all the talk about the benefits of rest, every Belmont winner since 1992 raced within the past 36 days.

    * It appears as though speed figures can safely be ignored in the Big Apple. Since 1998, 10 Belmont winners improved their last-race Brisnet speed figure by more than five points.

    * Since 1999, only two horses that competed in the Preakness — Afleet Alex (2005) and Point Given (2001) —were able to win in New York.
    So, with all that said, let’s take a closer look at this year’s “Test”:

    Fair Odds: 50-1

    This guy showed a ton of promise as a juvenile, but he simply hasn’t progressed as a three-year-old. I gave him a puncher’s chance in the Kentucky Derby, yet he ran another clunker. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice… no Frac-ing way.

    Fair Odds: 15-1  

    Colt is unquestionably talented, as he demonstrated in the Peter Pan, a race he won by a thousand lengths… well, 13 ¼ lengths if you want to be nit-picky. However, I’m concerned that the son of Malibu Moon may be a little too quick for his own good. The average early speed ration (ESR) in the Belmont Stakes is a -4; Freedom Child recorded a -8 last time (see scale below).

    Fair Odds: 12-1

    His Arkansas Derby victory was spectacular, at least visually, and he definitely has the kind of plodding style that plays well at Big Sandy. At the right price (around 12-1), he’s worth using.

    Fair Odds: 15-1

    His effort in the Kentucky Derby was actually better than it looked on paper. Although he was beaten by 13 ¼ lengths in that race, the Anthony Dutrow trainee ran very evenly — on a sloppy surface that he might not have relished (his only other sloppy track experience resulted in a similar 13 ¾-length defeat in the Damon Runyon on Dec. 9). He’s another worth using at 12-1 or better. 

    Fair Odds: 4-1

    As mentioned above, this dude has a lot of fans and, although it’s clear he has a ton of ability, I simply can’t see him offering an enticing price. Add to that the fact that a Derby winner hasn’t triumphed in the Belmont Stakes since 1995 and he’s a pass for me.

    Fair Odds: 40-1

    His class deficiencies don’t bother me — as I noted previously, several Belmont winners have lacked a pretty resume — but that effort in the Peter Pan gives me pause. Yeah, he might not have liked the gooey track, but is that an excuse for a 15 ¾-length thumping against lesser? I don’t think so.

    Fair Odds: 6-1

    To me, he’s a textbook case of why one shouldn’t fall in love with a racehorse. Although I adored him in the Preakness, I acknowledge that he got everything his own way that day. 

    While I agree with those who argue that Oxbow set a legitimate pace over the Pimlico strip — the track was very dull, so naturally the splits were slow — I vehemently disagree with the notion that the early tempo was, in any way, daunting as some have suggested. Oxbow recorded a -3 ESR in his wire-to-wire win in Maryland — that’s not fast (and my pace figures measure relative speed).

    Given that, I simply can’t take a short price on Oxbow in the Belmont.

    Fair Odds: 30-1

    Todd Pletcher charge is very light on experience (just three lifetime starts), but is improving.

    Fair Odds: 9-2

    I think this colt is among the most talented of his generation… yet I have this nagging suspicion that 1 ½ miles may not be his cup of tea. I also fear that, given his recent success as a one-run closer, he might be taken too far off the early pace on Saturday. In any event, I’d want a decent price to bet him.

    Fair Odds: 20-1

    He was the “wise guy” horse in the Preakness and he ran like doo-doo. Yes, I know he had traffic trouble in the Kentucky Derby, but it’s hard to overlook two terrible races in a row.

    Fair Odds: 10-1

    I’m not one that dismisses poor efforts very easily (see above), but I’m drawing a line through this guy’s Kentucky Derby try. Take a look at the following sequence of numbers and tell me which one doesn’t belong: -12, +5, +5 and -4.

    Those are the ESRs, in chronological order, recorded by Vyjack in his races as a three-year-old. A -12… in the Derby? Are you kidding me? 

    Jockey Garret Gomez said the horse was spooked by the large crowd and simply wouldn’t settle down in Kentucky, but, whatever the case, Vyjack is not that kind of animal. He’s a plodder — a methodical closer who does his best running late, as witnessed by the fact that he has the best overall LSRs in the field.

    As such, I give him a big shot to avenge himself for his Derby debacle.

    Fair Odds: 20-1

    This fella ran very well in the Kentucky Derby. He earned the second-fastest ESR in that race’s long and storied history, yet still finished in mid-pack. The blinkers, which may have contributed to his “take-the-ball-and-run-with-it” effort at Churchill Downs, come off on Saturday and if he can return to the form he showed in the Blue Grass Stakes and/or Louisiana Derby, he’s got a shot.

    Fair Odds: 15-1

    Todd Pletcher, who won his only Belmont (in 11 tries) with Rags to Riches in 2007, saddles another filly in 2013. I knew Rags to Riches; I saw her run; Unlimited Budget is no Rags to Riches.

    Still, she’s not without hope (although she’ll probably wind up being an underlay).

    Fair Odds: 12-1

    I thought very highly of this guy in the Derby and I believe he’s a legitimate contender on Saturday. That said, I worry that his excellent showing in Louisville might be as good as it gets.

    BETTING STRATEGY: My pari-mutuel plan of attack is very simple — bet the overlays and key Vyjack and Giant Finish in the exotics.

    (Click on image to enlarge)

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