It’s called “The Test of a Champion" -- that’s because the race is contested at a mile and a half, a distance that will challenge even the greatest of horses.
And this Saturday at historic Belmont Park, the third jewel of racing’s Triple Crown will take center stage. It’s the 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes.
Once again this year, there’s no Triple Crown on the line. But there’s still bragging rights up for grabs – plus the inside track on the three-year-old Eclipse Award. And for just the fifth time since 1990, both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winners will be on the grounds in Elmont, N.Y.
Animal Kingdom, the horse that won the Run for the Roses, is the morning line favorite at 2-1. Half a length is all that separates him from gunning for racing immortality on Saturday. But unfortunately, his stunning come-from-behind charge in the Preakness still resulted in a second-place finish.
“We won’t be that far behind this time,” trainer Graham Motion told me on Wednesday.
Animal Kingdom has never been worse than second in six lifetime starts, and I don’t expect him to be off the board this weekend.
Owner Barry Irwin stopped short of calling the horse special this week, but did say: “I think he’s a very good horse.” And he called a recent workout “phenomenal.” Animal Kingdom will try to become the 12th horse in history to capture the Derby-Belmont double.
Shackleford, the Preakness winner, is the third choice at 9-2. The horse has speed, which believe it or not, is a huge plus in the Belmont.
Racing aficionados call it tactical speed. They are basically saying a horse can steal the race, which is what Bet Twice did in 1987. Shackleford could not hold his speed in the Derby but was able to do so in the Preakness. I just think this field is too talented for him to run away from the pack. And I think he will show some fatigue after three big races at three different distances over three tracks in a five week period.
So where is the value in this year’s Belmont? Long shots have won this race several times in recent years.
In 2010, Drosselmeyer paid $28 to win. In 2009, Summer Bird returned $25.40 for the victory. In 2008, the Nick Zito trained Da’ Tara lit up the tote board to the tune of $79.00. And back in 2002, long shot Sarava shocked the racing world by bringing his backers $142.50 for a $2 investment.
So here are three horses that deserve an extra look: Master of Hounds, from the rail, is trained by Aidan O’Brien. Hey, I know this horse was fifth in the Kentucky Derby as he worked his way through traffic. But his trainer has probably won more races at this distance than anyone else on the planet. And the horse is bred for the distance. Plus his grand sire is Mr. Prospector. So in case it’s a wet track, he moves up significantly.
Then there is Stay Thirsty, listed at 20-1 in the morning line odds. He is trained by five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher. He’s owned by Queens native Mike Repole, a self-made billionaire who attended St. John’s University.
Repole made his fortune by selling his company called Glaceau, that he developed himself. Anyone ever hear of Vitamin Water or Smart Water? How can you not root for the charismatic Repole, who had the Kentucky Derby favorite, Uncle Mo, until an illness knocked him out of the Triple Crown series.
Stay Thirsty, 12th in the Kentucky Derby, has won twice and finished second two times in his career. All of those results were accomplished in New York – including a second-place finish at Belmont Park. The horse is training extremely well. But does he have the talent?
Brilliant Speed is the other horse to consider at long odds. He is 15-1 in the morning line. Trained by Tom Albertrani , this three-year-old colt raced evenly in the Derby but finished in seventh place, fewer than six lengths back. He skipped the Preakness to prep for this one.
Albertrani says “he doesn’t have brilliant speed, but he does have late speed.” Brilliant Speed was a last-to-first winner in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 11, and I think he is going to run well.
Oh, don’t forget Nehro, 4-1 and listed as the second choice. This horse seems to have seconditis. Is that a word? He was second in the Kentucky Derby, second in the Blue Grass Stakes and second in the Louisiana Derby. But trainer Steve Asmussen is capable, and this son of Mineshaft has history on his side. That’s because six of the last eight Belmont winners skipped the Preakness – just like Nehro.
Time for the Beck selection. I think Animal Kingdom will be in the money and Shackleford will not. I think Stay Thirsty could get a piece but don’t expect him to win. And I think Nehro will be off the board.
I am picking Brilliant Speed. I know people think he is just a turf- or synthetic-surface specialist. But he needed that race on dirt at Churchill Downs and now he has been freshened. The son of Dynaformer has the pedigree and the ability to close impressively – that is, if he’s not too far behind.
Remember, I pride myself in trying to beat the favorite and this year that’s Animal Kingdom – who no doubt will be the favorite of the betting public. But the champion in the 143rd running of the Test of a Champion will be Brilliant Speed, which will make me look brilliant if I finally get this one right!
Follow me on Twitter @BruceBeck4NY and @NBCNewYork.