Why the Belmont Stakes will be the best Triple Crown race of the year

National Treasure, with jockey John Velazquez, edged out Blazing Sevens, with jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., to win the 148th race.

National Treasure, with jockey John Velazquez, edges out Blazing Sevens to win the Preakness Stakes on May 20. National Treasure will race in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

It’s not often that the best of the Triple Crown races is the last, but that’s how it is this year with the 155th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. He has arguably Forte’s best 3-year-old, the winner of the Preakness Stakes in National Treasure and eight other horses who should be fresh enough to handle the always tricky 1½-mile course.

This year’s Kentucky Derby was clouded by a series of late horse deaths and scratches that watered down the field to 18 horses in the 20-gate field. Forte was scratched the morning of the Derby with a hoof bruise. California’s top two horses, Practical Move and Skinner, were retired before race day when they both developed a temperature. Saffie Joseph Jr. had to withdraw his horse, Lord Miles, after the trainer was suspended after two of his horses had sudden death incidents in the week before the Derby.

The Preakness field lacked appeal with only one horse that ran in the Kentucky Derby, the winner Mage. The field was reduced to seven, including two horses that automatically qualified despite less than impressive past performances.

And now we have the race shamelessly called “The Test of Champions” because of its length. This is perhaps the only time in a horse’s career that it has run this far on a dirt surface.

Forte will be the presumptive favorite having last raced in the Florida Derby on April 1. He was the favorite in the Kentucky Derby but took an awkward step at the weekend and rumors swirled about him on the growing list of scratch horses. State vets ordered him to jog the track the morning of the race, and after a heated argument with owner Mike Repole, he was scratched from the race.

Since being disbarred by the state, he has been placed on a “vet list”, which made him ineligible for 14 days, plus he had to take a blood test. This stopped him from running into the Preakness and he was directed to the Belmont. Its mere presence makes it a very interesting race.

Here are some other scenarios to watch out for this week.

Aren’t horses dying at an alarming rate?

Horses gallop during the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 6.

Horses gallop during the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 6. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

Racing has its biggest safety issue since 30 horses died at Santa Anita in 2019. Since April 27, 12 horses have perished at Churchill Downs, leading the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) to recommend that the races are suspended there. The track announced that it was doing so because of “an abundance of caution”. The caveat included running full maps on Saturday and Sunday while allowing training to continue on the track. Meanwhile, from Saturday racing will be moved to Ellis Park, owned by Churchill, about 130 miles away. Pimlico Racecourse had one in-race fatality during its short meeting surrounding the Preakness.

Now it’s Belmont’s turn to be in the spotlight. Since May 13, there have been four deaths in the race or in training on the last Thursday. For comparison, Santa Anita had its last race or training death on March 18. So the scrutiny couldn’t be higher on Belmont and the sport’s long-term survival could be at stake.

What tactics work in a 1½ mile race?

The start of the 154th edition of the Belmont Stakes on June 11, 2022.

The start of the 154th edition of the Belmont Stakes on June 11, 2022. (Vera Nieuwenhuis/Associated Press)

You would think that the longer the run, the better the trailing runners, because they have the better finishing kick. This is not the case. The last two Triple Crown winners, Justify and American Pharoah, led the entire race. The same goes for Secretariat, who never looked back after taking the lead early in the race.

To find out how to win the race, Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza, who rode American Pharoah, was asked how to come out on top.

“It’s a bit difficult,” Espinzoa said. “It’s easier to ride in the lead because you can slow down and control the pace, but not too much. If you can go slow enough, it will be difficult for other horses to catch up with you. I think you are making a mistake if you spend too much time thinking about a mile and a half.

“The horse will run 1½ miles like 1⅛ miles. You need to get the horse out of the gate and get to the first corner. This is when you set your pace. Then the only difference is knowing when to let your horse run. You have to be patient and don’t ask too soon.

Which Southern California Horses Should I Watch Out For?

Arabian Lion, with jockey John Velazquez, wins the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico Racecourse May 20.

Arabian Lion, with jockey John Velazquez, wins the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico Racecourse May 20. (Julia Nikhinson/Associated Press)

There are seven Southern California-based horses at Belmont Park this weekend, but only one in the big race. National Treasure, winner of the Preakness, will go for trainer Bob Baffert and will be ridden by John Velazquez. On Friday, Amy C, winner of three of her last four, including the Las Cienegas Stakes, will walk seven furlongs on the grass for coach Phil D’Amato. Baffert will have Arabian Lion, winner of the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico two weeks ago, and Fort Bragg, runners-up in the Pat Day Mile on Derby Day, in the seven-stage Woody Stephens Stakes for 3-year-olds. Coach Doug O’Neill has Anarchist, winner of the Jacques Carter Stakes at Woodbine, set for the 6½ furlong True North.

The best undercard race might be the Metropolitan Handicap, otherwise known as the Met Mile, with the Slow Down Andy trained by O’Neill, winner of the Del Mar and Sunland Derbies last year, and Dr. Schivel trained by Mark Glatt , winner of the Santa Anita sprint championship last year. Still, all eyes will be on Cody’s Wish, winner of eight of his last nine races, including the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

What is the best angle under the radar?

Kentucky Derby entrant Tapit Trice practices at Churchill Downs on May 2.

Kentucky Derby entrant Tapit Trice practices at Churchill Downs on May 2. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

With a race as long as the Belmont, one factor to consider is the horses whose sire excelled in producing distance-loving runners. A dominant name appears – Tapit. The 22-year-old has sired four Belmont Stakes winners in eight years. It started in 2014 with Tonalist and was followed by Creator (2016), Tapwrit (2017) and Essential Quality (2021). Of the 12 Belmont starters sired by Tapit, in addition to the four wins, there have been two seconds and two thirds.

The horseracingnation.com website did further research and found that seven of these horses raced in the Kentucky Derby but skipped the Preakness. All of these horses reached the draw by finishing with three wins, two seconds and two thirds.

So, how is it going this year? There’s Tapit Trice, who finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby but skipped the Preakness. Todd Pletcher’s trainee will have an extra look because of his name, as will Tapit Shoes, which runs for Brad Cox. Tapit Shoes has never run in graduated stakes. If you are looking for a small second generation Tapit, the mares of Arcangelo, Hit Show and Red Route One were all sired by Tapit.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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