By James Scully
I’ll Have Another is easy to root for in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, but any sentimental desire for a Triple Crown winner must be left out of the equation when handicapping the race. There is no pleasure in doing so, but I will take a stand against the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner with Dullahan.
The Belmont Stakes will be televised on NBC from 4:30-7 p.m. (ET) on Saturday.
The final leg of the Triple Crown offers the most extreme test in the series with its 1 ½-mile distance and timing, the third hard race in a five-week period for 3-year-olds, and I’ll Have Another looks like a strong candidate to regress following massive performances in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
And he will need to be at his best against Dullahan, who appears ready to turn the tables following a fast-finishing third in the Kentucky Derby.
Dullahan is the top pick based in part on his preparation – the classy chestnut signaled his readiness and affinity for the oval with a sizzling half-mile workout (:45 4/5) last Sunday at Belmont Park. He did it easily and the workout is significant because it’s the same way that Dullahan trained prior to his outstanding win in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes two starts back.
Dullahan did not impress onlookers with his morning drills prior to the Kentucky Derby (Churchill Downs is not his favorite track), but proved talented enough to finish a good third despite losing a lot of ground when forced to rally wide into the stretch. His connections wisely bypassed the Preakness; Dullahan’s running style and breeding are better suited to the 1 ½-mile Belmont distance.
The five-week freshening between the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes helps, with two of the last three winners, and five of the last nine, utilizing the same pattern, and Dullahan’s increasing BRIS Speed ratings (96-98-102-106) add to his appeal.
The colt will receive a positive switch to big-race jockey Javier Castellano, who knows Belmont Park as well as any rider with a 24-percent win rate during the current meet, and trainer Dale Romans is becoming an experienced Triple Crown veteran, saddling horses in the last eight events. He has every reason to be confident Saturday with Dullahan.
"I wouldn’t trade places with anyone," Romans said. "I want to walk out of here with 120,000 people booing me."
Dullahan is set to play the role of spoiler.
I’ll Have Another rates as a worthy Triple Crown candidate. Unbeaten from four starts this year, the sensational chestnut possesses an ideal pedigree for the 1 ½-mile distance and the tactical speed to overcome any kind of pace scenario. And the colt is a fighter, displaying tremendous grit in his Preakness and Santa Anita Derby victories, who promises to lay it all on the line in the Belmont.
But the likelihood remains that I’ll Have Another will take a step back in the Belmont Stakes.
The current Triple Crown format was established in the 1960s, but the five-week schedule no longer makes sense given that modern-day Thoroughbreds are far less durable than their predecessors. I’ll Have Another is no exception, making only five career starts prior to the Kentucky Derby, and lacks the foundation of previous Triple Crown winners.
Like so many Derby winners, I’ll Have Another bounced forward in the Preakness, becoming the 12th horse in the last 34 years (35 percent) to capture the first two classics. It’s the next short gap — three weeks — between the Preakness and Belmont that exacts an extreme toll on Triple Crown hopefuls.
Doug O’Neill bypassed a workout after the Preakness, a sign that I’ll Have Another is feeling the effects of the hard campaign.
The trainer did not baby his charge this spring, training him hard at distances from six furlongs to a mile during the mornings, and logic suggests that if I’ll Have Another bounced out of the Preakness in good shape, O’Neill would have worked him during the interim to maintain his fitness. This is the biggest race of his career – there will be plenty of time to recuperate afterward – and the decision to only gallop him into the Belmont Stakes is a legitimate concern.
Mario Gutierrez will be riding his first Belmont Stakes, but the talented rider fits perfectly with I’ll Have Another. And regardless of the recent drug controversies surrounding him, O’Neill has proven his worth as an excellent horseman over the years.
It would be foolish to dismiss his chances outright and I will applaud I’ll Have Another if he ends the Triple Crown drought, but do not believe he will have enough left in the tank to withstand Dullahan’s challenge.
Paynter will be on or very close to the lead from the start and enters on the upswing for Bob Baffert. The Hall of Fame trainer has always been high on the $325,000 yearling purchase, but Paynter did not make it to the races until mid-February, winning his debut at Santa Anita. Following a pair of encouraging efforts against stakes rivals, the late-starting colt posted a confidence-building victory in his last effort, an allowance on the Preakness undercard at Pimlico, and received a whopping 107 Speed rating for the 5 ¾-length decision.
Paynter may continue to develop into a high-class performer and appears to be training well at Belmont Park in preparation, recording a seven-furlong workout last weekend. He looms as a threat to carry his speed a long way on the front end with further improvement, but a minor award is probably more realistic.
Union Rags entered 2012 as the early Kentucky Derby favorite, but never appeared comfortable finishing third in the Florida Derby two starts back and exits a troubled seventh in the Kentucky Derby where he lost all chance at the start. The Michael Matz-trained colt likes Belmont Park, rolling to an impressive win in the Grade 1 Champagne last fall, but his Speed ratings are a little low compared to his main rivals Saturday. A top-three finish may be within his grasp, but Union Rags does not look sharp enough presently to offer a serious challenge.
Street Life will look to capitalize upon a solid effort over the track, offering an eye-catching stretch move to pass eight rivals when third in the Grade 2 Peter Pan May 12, but it’s difficult to envision his late-running theatrics proving successful in this difficult spot. The promising Chad Brown trainee is still an intriguing option for the bottom of the exotic wagers.
Optimizer joins I’ll Have Another as the only horses to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown, but he has his work cut out for him, finishing out of the money in seven of his last eight starts. A multiple Grade 2 runner-up, Optimizer did show signs of life when rallying belatedly for sixth in the Preakness and is well-suited for the 1 ½-mile distance with his pedigree. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him come running late for a small piece given his stellar connections, but the D. Wayne Lukas-trained colt is likely overmatched.
My Adonis flashed talent earlier in the year, but must rebound from a disappointing effort in a minor stakes at Pimlico.
The remaining Belmont contestants – Atigun, Five Sixteen, Guyana Star Dweej, Ravelo’s Boy and Unstoppable U – look too slow to factor in the outcome.
Everything is built around Dullahan; I will bet him to win and recommend exacta and trifecta wagers with him on top.
$40 win 5 (Dullahan)
$20 exactas: 5 over 9 (Paynter) and 11 (I’ll Have Another)
$1 trifecta part-wheel: 5 over 1,3,9,10,11 over 1,3,9,10,11
Enjoy the Belmont Stakes!
James Scully is a writer for Brisnet.com. James is also the editor of the Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal daily newsletters for the site. He was also featured as one of the panelists at the Churchill Downs-hosted Breeders’ Cup Handicapping Summit in 2010.