In contrast to the Preakness (G1), where “new shooters” rarely win, the Belmont (G1) has been a relatively more congenial hunting ground for newcomers to the Triple Crown races.
Before delving into the historical stats, one big caveat: a great deal depends on the context of each running, including the strength of the classic establishment and the profile of the new shooters. This year, Exaggerator heads a solid looking group of Triple Crown veterans, while the best new shooter, Governor Malibu, is a state-bred alum who has yet to win a graded stakes.
Over the past 50 years, 17 new shooters have won the Belmont, for a strike rate of 34%. This list comprises:
Stage Door Johnny (1968), who was making his stakes debut off an allowance win
Pass Catcher (1971), exiting a second in the Jersey Derby
Coastal (1979), victorious in the Peter Pan
Temperence Hill (1980), previously successful in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby but coming off a third in a turf allowance
Summing (1981), victorious in the Pennsylvania Derby in his prior start
Conquistador Cielo (1982), conqueror of the Met Mile
Creme Fraiche (1985), second in the Jersey Derby
Danzig Connection (1986), won the Peter Pan
Go and Go (1990), fourth in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial in Ireland
A.P. Indy (1992), won Peter Pan
Colonial Affair (1993), second Peter Pan
Sarava (2002), won Sir Barton
Rags to Riches (2007), won Kentucky Oaks
Da’ Tara (2008), second Barbaro
Drosselmeyer (2010), second Dwyer
Ruler on Ice (2011), second Federico Tesio
Tonalist (2014), won Peter Pan
Of these 17, 11 came in years when there had been a split decision between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness – as we have this season. (I’m including 1968 in this category, since Dancer’s Image was first-past-the-post in the Derby, and Forward Pass was promoted via DQ).
Focusing on the overall profile of Belmont winners since 2000, a distinct trend against competing in all three jewels of the Triple Crown is evident. In this time span, only three accomplished the feat — Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005), who won the Preakness after unfortunate losses in the Derby, and Triple Crown star American Pharoah (2015). All were by far the best of their respective generations, and two (Point Given and American Pharoah) were also voted Horse of the Year.
This isn’t necessarily a knock on Exaggerator or Lani, the only two in the 2016 Belmont who will have competed in the entire Triple Crown. The trend rather reflects the contemporary fashion of giving horses a longer spacing between races, resulting in a flurry of recent Belmont winners coming off Derby losses – Commendable (2000), Empire Maker (2003), Birdstone (2004), Jazil (2006), Summer Bird (2009), Union Rags (2012) and Palace Malice (2013).
Since 2000, the “run in the Derby, skip the Preakness” angle is responsible for seven Belmont victories, one more than the six successful new shooters over the same time frame. A handful of 2016 Derby also-rans – Suddenbreakingnews, Destin, Brody’s Cause, Creator, and the maiden Trojan Nation – will take some courage from that trend.
Two other Belmont candidates represent a much rarer case – Cherry Wine and Stradivari, second and fourth respectively as new shooters in the Preakness. In the past 50 years, just one Preakness new shooter went on to win the Belmont, Touch Gold (1997).
To sum up, trends are in favor of fresh legs in the Belmont, whether from rested Derby competitors or new shooters. But the very best Triple Crown gladiators can swim against the tide.