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Belmont Report (May 24)
If I'll Have Another carries his form forward, he's poised to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. But the difficulty of the Belmont Stakes can not be understated.
It's arguably the most elusive goal in all of sports, a 34-year drought that is difficult to explain. I'll Have Another is the 12th horse since 1979 to reach this position, on the cusp of the Thoroughbred racing immortality, and like so many before him appears to be in an optimal position to grab the prize.
But the grueling 1 1/2-mile Belmont, the third race in a five-week period for three-year-olds, always finds a way to shatter the dream.
Granted, there were some unworthy candidates -- Funny Cide and War Emblem are the most recent examples -- but four members of the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame (Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Sunday Silence and Silver Charm), as well as seemingly invincible runners such as Big Brown and Smarty Jones, all failed to meet expectations in the final leg of the Triple Crown.
Maybe this year will be different; Thoroughbred racing fans are ready to celebrate.
Here are some quick thoughts on Saturday's Preakness:
* I'll Have Another got a little close to the backside of Creative Cause as they entered the stretch drive and ducked out slightly while Bodemeister was rolling into the stretch on a clear lead. At this point, the pacesetter was threatening to run away from his rivals, but the dynamics quickly changed as I'll Have Another instantly found another gear and started to reel in Bodemeister.
* The Preakness was an awesome display of I'll Have Another's push-button acceleration and he possesses the right running style regardless of the pace scenario, with the ability to race close before finishing strongly if necessary. His BRIS Speed ratings are increasing (109 in the Preakness after a 108 in the Derby) and the Doug O'Neill-trained colt has netted BRIS Late Pace ratings of 109 (twice) and 108 in four starts this year.
* Once again, Bodemeister distinguished himself in defeat; the main track wasn't geared toward front runners, with stablemate Paynter, who towered over a field of entry-level allowance rivals, recording the only wire-to-wire victory on the undercard, and Bodemeister ran his eyeballs out in a top-class performance. The Preakness was squarely a two-horse race, with nearly a nine-length gap back to third-placer Creative Cause.
* I'll Have Another heads to New York looking extremely formidable; he's still a relatively fresh horse with potentially another bullet left in the chamber (pardon the cliché).
Bodemeister will bypass the Belmont and Creative Cause is considered 50-50; the latter could probably use a vacation as well. The top challengers will be a couple of Derby runners who skipped the Preakness -- Union Rags and Dullahan.
Union Rags will receive a rider switch from Julien Leparoux to John Velazquez and we can count on him being involved early after a Derby fiasco in which he was shuffled back after a bad start. The Dixie Union colt doesn't own a favorable pedigree for the 1 1/2-mile trip, but he's built like a horse who will relish longer distances. And the Michael Matz trainee has displayed flashes of brilliance, winning the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes earlier this year and the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes last fall in spectacular fashion.
Troubled trips are the big issue: Union Rags has put himself in difficult situations in four of his last five starts. He's so big and long-striding that he can't stop and go like a more athletic horse (I'll Have Another is at the opposite end of the spectrum) and that figures to force his hand in the Belmont. Union Rags appears more comfortable stalking the action, but his connections probably feel that they have to send him in order to avoid trouble.
Dullahan lost a ton of ground exiting the far turn in the Kentucky Derby, but finished up full of run to be third, only a neck back of Bodemeister. He is still winless on dirt (both career victories were Grade 1 scores over Keeneland's Polytrack), but the Derby was a very encouraging performance that netted him a career-best 106 BRIS Speed rating.
Trainer Dale Romans is quite comfortable in this environment, saddling runners in the last eight Triple Crown races, including 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford, and has a fresh horse in Dullahan, who opened the year with a second in the grassy Grade 3 Palm Beach on March 11 before winning the April 14 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. The well-bred colt is a candidate to keep moving forward off the Derby and will look to rally from off the pace with new rider Javier Castellano.
There are half-dozen prospects that could make their first Triple Crown appearance in the Belmont Stakes, including Paynter and Street Life.
Paynter brings speed to the equation and is an interesting storyline from the Bob Baffert stable; the Hall of Fame trainer could not defeat I'll Have Another with the speedy Bodemeister but will sub another front runner in hopes of pulling off a major shocker. And the lightly-raced son of Awesome Again will bring improving form into the Belmont. After finishing fourth in his second career start, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, Paynter just missed winning the Grade 3 Derby Trial on the front end, finishing second in a game performance. The bay colt exits a confidence-building 5 3/4-length win, registering a whopping 107 Speed rating for the aforementioned allowance tally at Pimlico.
Street Life is a late-developing colt from trainer Chad Brown who turned heads with his fast-closing third in the Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont Park May 12, passing nearly the entire field in the stretch before falling 1 3/4 lengths short in third. He notched his first triple-digit Speed figure (100) that afternoon and looks like a runner with a potentially bright future. The last two Belmont winners to prep over the track -- Drosselmeyer in the 2010 Dwyer and Lemon Drop Kid in the 1999 Peter Pan -- both finished third in that start.
We will continue to take a look at the Belmont field next week.