THERE IS NO secret about tactics in tomorrow's Belmont Stakes. Preakness winner Shackleford will be in front and try to stay in front for a bit shy of 2 1/2 minutes. Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom will be somewhere among the other 11 horses trailing behind the front-runner and, at some point, will come with his patented run.
Beyond the obvious, there are the two questions that can't be answered for sure: Will the distance help or hurt the winners of the first two Triple Crown races? And is a third race in 5 weeks too much for either or both of them?
I certainly don't have those answers. I can make an educated guess, but I don't know.
You will never get anywhere in this game by not reading between the lines. If you back favorites all the time, you will lose over time.
Horse racing is a sport for outside-the-box thinkers. If you always go along with the crowd, you will eventually be parting ways with all your cash.
It is also a talent to recognize when what seems to make the most sense really does make the most sense.
Others will be betting on Master of Hounds, Santiva and Brilliant Speed tomorrow. Those three finished in photo, 5 1/2 lengths behind Animal Kingdom in the Derby. The connections of each passed on the Preakness, hoping the extra rest would matter in the Belmont.
Note I said others. I don't have any way of knowing which of those three might improve enough to beat Animal Kingdom. I could guess, but I prefer not to guess, if there is concrete evidence that suggests guessing is not necessary.
I don't think you have to guess how Animal Kingdom is going to run. Just watch the Derby and Preakness. This colt is not a superstar, but this is a colt with talent and a serious interest in finding the finish line before his opponents.
I thought his Preakness run was heroic. The colt was literally eating dirt early in the race, which was why he got so far back. Still, AK did not get discouraged.
"I've never seen a horse have the dirt that horse had in his face," said Graham Motion, Animal Kingdom's trainer. "It was caked in between his blinkers. I've never seen that before. It was extraordinary."
I think Animal Kingdom is going to win this race. And I think he is going to win more big races down the road.
Having said that, I think Shackleford is dangerous. Whenever you see a race where just one horse has a certain style of running, that horse is always worth a second look. When that horse has already proved his talent, that horse is worth a long look.
Shackleford has solid early speed. The other 11 have no early speed.
"Everybody expects us to be - and we expect to be - on the lead," said Dale Romans, Shackleford's trainer.
Still, can the colt lead all the way at a mile-and-a-half?
"All we're going to do is get him in stride and sit there," Romans said. "Don't fight him. Either way, don't be sending, and don't be taking hold. Just get him relaxed. He can be relaxed and still going fast."
Shackleford led the Derby until the stretch before finishing fourth. He was right with the pace in the Preakness, spurted away and held on to the wire.
One could make a case that the Preakness is 110 yards shorter than the Derby, so that is why Shackleford held on. The Belmont is 550 yards longer than the Preakness.
It might be counterintuitive, but I think Shackleford won in Baltimore because he went faster at the beginning than he did in Louisville. What that did was spread out the field and leave the Derby winner with too much to do and not enough time to do it.
The pace was so slow in Kentucky that all the closers were close enough in the stretch that they could outfinish Shackleford. The Preakness was run differently.
How the Belmont is run will determine whether Shackleford can hold on. If the field spreads out, I think he has a chance. If it does not, I think he does not last.
One could certainly make a case for Derby runner-up Nehro. The horse's connections thought about the Preakness, but passed in favor of the 5 weeks' rest. The colt has been second in three consecutive derbies (also Arkansas and Louisiana). If he gets there this time, nobody will be shocked.
What of Mucho Macho Man, third in the Derby, sixth in the Preakness?
For the second time this spring, Mucho Macho Man lost a shoe during the running of a race. So, a new blacksmith was hired after the Preakness.
The colt now has Polyflex glue-on shoes.
"He started with nail shoes, then we went to a glue-on regular shoe, now he has a glue-on Polyflex," said Kathy Ritzo, Mucho Macho Man's trainer. "I think that he's probably snatching it coming out of the gate, and he's not supposed to be able to get this one off."
The bottom line to this Belmont is if Animal Kingdom has held his form, he is the most likely winner.
"I have not seen a kink in this horse's armor," Motion said. "He's done great. I was a little worried immediately after the Preakness, but part of that was just because I had visually seen him have a hard race. But he's never given me any indications to say that he's backed up after these races."
The pressure, Motion said, is not like it was for the Preakness.
"You're almost holding your breath because you're the only one that can win the Triple Crown," Motion said. "You don't want anything to go wrong. You don't want the horse to get a temperature. You don't want the horse to step on a stone."
Motion was hoping to win the Derby, not expecting it.
"If someone could have told me when I was watching Animal Kingdom in January in Palm Meadows that I had the Derby winner in my barn, I never would have known it," Motion said.
Now, the expectations are different. Many are expecting Animal Kingdom to win the Belmont Stakes. I am definitely expecting it.
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