Belmont Stakes: The Pre-Race Preview
Winning horses come in all sizes, genus, and species. This Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, the final race in the Triple Crown, has a colorful field, with plenty of championship horseflesh.
If you break down the Belmont Stakes’ motto, “The Test of the Champion,” and look at horses who’ve won the longest and perhaps most difficult of the Triple Crown races, one common theme emerges:
Outside of pedigree (more on that in a moment), there is no common theme. And perhaps that’s a good thing. Because champion horses come in all sizes, genus, and species. Not coincidentally, so do Belmont Stakes winners.
It takes a special horse to conquer not only his foes, but “Big Sandy’s” 1 ½ miles. Unlike their European counterparts, who run upwards of 2 ½ to 3 miles in “stayer” races, American horses are not bred to run 12 furlongs. It’s the outer limit of an American Thoroughbred’s running capacity, both in pedigree and in training.
Therefore, it’s a virtual certainty that all eight horses in Saturday’s 153rd Belmont Stakes will run those 12 furlongs for the first and last time. There isn’t another 1 ½-mile marquee event on the American racing calendar.
What Makes A Champion?
When looking at possible Belmont Stakes champions, two things do stand out, however. The first is pedigree. Stamina in a bloodline is crucial. This puts the spotlight on sires such as Tapit and Curlin. In fact, Tapit sired three Belmont Stakes champions in the last decade: Tonalist (2014), who denied California Chrome a Triple Crown; Creator (2015); and Tapwrit (2017). He’s one of five stallions in history to sire three or more Belmont Stakes winners.
The second element? Outside of pedigree, no typical running style wins Belmonts. The aforementioned Tonalist, Creator and Tapwrit were pace-pressers. As for Creator? He was a closer.
First, throw out last year’s pandemic Belmont, run in June at 1 1/8 miles as the first jewel of the Triple Crown. That outlier, won by Tiz the Law, reveals nothing practical here. Instead, a glance at the winner’s running styles from 2011 through 2019 reveals a smorgasbord of styles. Sir Winston (2019 at 10-1) and Creator (16-1) were closers. Triple Crown winners American Pharoah (2015, 4-5) and Justify (2018, 4-5) were pace-setters. Tapwrit (5-1), Tonalist (18-1), and Ruler On Ice (2011, 24-1) were pressers. Palace Malice (2013 at nearly 14-1) and Union Rags (2012, 5-2) were stalkers.
Detect a trend here? That’s right. There isn’t one.
And that’s what makes the Belmont Stakes the unpredictable “Test of the Champion.” Closers can win this race, even into a slow pace. Pace-setters can win this race. Stalkers and pressers are live. It all depends on the stamina factor each brings into the fray.
Loaded with Talent
There’s plenty of talent coming into this fray. Four of the eight horses own Grade 1 wins: Essential Quality, Rombauer, Known Agenda and Rock Your World. Two more, Hot Rod Charlie and Bourbonic, won Grade 2s.
Speaking of that stamina factor, that’s a great place to begin with this year’s field, the smallest since American Pharoah chased away most of his counterparts in 2015. Your 2-1 morning-line favorite is Essential Quality, who doubled as the Kentucky Derby’s 2-1 favorite. The son of Tapit finished fourth in that race, a length behind winner Medina Spirit.
Along with that Tapit pedigree, Essential Quality brings perhaps the most versatile running style to the race. He’s won his five races in a variety of ways: from the front, from just off the pace, and from further back. That fourth in the Derby came after EQ spent most of his trip around Churchill Downs hung out wide. He ran 68 more feet than Medina Spirit, yet finished barely a length behind him.
Essential Quality has the pedigree and the versatile running style. The question is: Can he sustain this ripe form? Only two horses—Easy Goer in 1989, and American Pharoah—won the Belmont as Champion 2-Year-Olds. Like teenagers, horses mature at different points, and there’s a school of thought that Essential Quality is as good as he’s going to be.
That brings us to Rombauer (3-1). You know him as the 11-1 upset winner of the Preakness Stakes. You also know him as a heretofore deep closer who displayed another dimension at Pimlico. There, the Twirling Candy product stalked pace-setters Medina Spirit and Midnight Bourbon, and blew by them in the final eighth.
It was an impressive display from Rombauer and an impressive display of tactics from jockey Flavien Prat. Alas, Prat won’t be aboard Rombauer Saturday. He moved back to his Derby mount, Hot Rod Charlie. It’s not like Hall of Fame jockey and two-time Belmont Stakes champion John Velazquez—Prat’s replacement—is riding chopped liver here. But the question for Rombauer is: Can he avoid a bounce from a career performance?
Flip the page and the question for two other contenders, Known Agenda and Rock Your World, is: Can they flip the page from their last outings at the Kentucky Derby? Connections for both horses certainly hope so, since both of them want to draw the proverbial line through that race.
Known Agenda (6-1) finished ninth in the Derby, a victim of his rail post, the Derby traffic flowing down on him and an indifference to dealing with all of it. He has Curlin as a sire and a strong closing style that seems perfect for the Belmont. Watch his Florida Derby (G1) victory from March, and it all makes sense.
Known Agenda also has Todd Pletcher conditioning him, which bodes well for any Belmont starter. Pletcher is a Belmont maestro. He’s won this race three times and makes this race a barn priority.
At the same time, Known Agenda also has a relative lack of tactical speed that could put him too far back and an inconsistent running pattern that drives bettors crazy.
Rock Your World
As for Rock Your World (9-2), his connections developed selective amnesia from their nightmare Derby misadventure. The Santa Anita Derby winner endured the equine version of the Malachi Crunch coming out of the Churchill Downs gate and never recovered. He finished a dismal 17th out of 19, Rock Your World’s first loss in four races.
“We always thought the longer the better for him,” trainer John Sadler said. “When we went from six (furlongs) to a mile and a mile and an eighth, we thought, ‘Oh boy.’ Then, we ran in the Derby and obviously, we got eliminated at the start. He’s come back and done real well since the Derby. We think he can run a long way. He’s got Candy Ride on top and with him being out of an Empire Maker mare, he’s got the stamina to go the distance.”
Rock Your World also has the speed. His 100 Beyer Speed Figure from that Santa Anita Derby win led the Derby contenders, and he’s one of four horses bringing a triple-digit Beyer to the proceedings. Expect him to set the early pace and attempt finding that comfortable rhythm all Belmont winners lock into.
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More Strong Contenders
Rock Your World will have likely company up front from Hot Rod Charlie (7-2). He joins Essential Quality, Rock Your World, Known Agenda and Bourbonic as Derby horses skipping the Preakness. According to Mike Shutty, author of the Super Screener, Derby horses bypassing the Preakness won half of the Belmonts over the last 20 years.
Hot Rod Charlie held off Essential Quality for third in the Derby, finishing only a length behind Medina Spirit and a half-length back of runner-up Mandaloun. Trainer Doug O’Neill zeroed in on a strategy with the Louisiana Derby winner: run him every six to seven weeks and marvel at the results. Hot Rod Charlie has equaled or improved his Beyer in each of his eight starts, peaking at the 102 he clocked in the Derby.
“I credit his improvement this year with the owners’ patience. There’s been a lot of time given to him between races,” O’Neill said. “With the distance, I think it will suit him well. He’s won going 1 3/16 in the Louisiana Derby. I think his gate speed and versatility will be an asset as well.”
The variety of style laid out here makes the Test of the Champion a test of the horseplayer.
Mark Your Calendar for the Belmont Stakes
What: 2021 Belmont Stakes
When: Saturday, June 5, 2021
Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, New York
Start Time: Post time is 6:47 p.m. ET.
Where: Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and from 5 to 7 p.m. on NBCSports.com.
Odds for the Field
Check the post position, horse, trainer, jockey, and odds below.
- Bourbonic, Todd Pletcher, Kendrick Carmouche, 15-1
- Essential Quality, Brad Cox, Luis Saez, 2-1
- Rombauer, Michael McCarthy, John Velazquez, 3-1
- Hot Rod Charlie, Doug O’Neill, Flavien Prat, 7-2
- France Go de Ina, Hideyuki Mori, Ricardo Santana Jr., 30-1
- Known Agenda, Todd Pletcher, Irad Ortiz Jr., 6-1
- Rock Your World, John Sadler, Joel Rosario, 9-2
- Overtook, Todd Pletcher, Manny Franco, 20-1
Dawn Harris knows her horseflesh. Follow her expert racing coverage at sportsquare.