The right mix of speed and stamina is needed to capture the longest dirt race many Belmont contestants will ever run.
Once upon a time, American thoroughbred racing was all about stamina. In the 19th century, it was not unusual for races to be contested in back-to-back two-mile heats, and even as recently as 1975, the venerated Jockey Club Gold Cup tested horses going two miles. Consequently, breeders once focused on developing speed that could be carried over significant distances.
However, the dearth of true staying races today has altered American breeding (or vice versa) to the point where few horses regularly race over nine furlongs—a fact that makes the Belmont Stakes unique in American racing, as it is the only remaining 1 1/2 mile Grade 1 stakes run on dirt. In part, that’s also what makes this the most difficult of the Triple Crown races, and the one that, ironically, breeders have historically valued most.
In this race, pedigree plays a critical role in who can and cannot get the distance, even more so than in the Kentucky Derby. A poor post position can be easily overcome, and more experienced horses don’t necessarily hold an advantage over those more lightly raced. A slow pace can adversely affect deep closers, but only if those on-pace can carry their speed over a mile and a half. Knowing which horses, no matter how lightly regarded, possess the potential to run 12 furlongs can lead to big payoffs at the betting window.
Case in point: Da’ Tara’s upset victory in the 2008 Belmont. Notwithstanding Big Brown’s inexplicable poor performance, there were significant questions about the colt’s distance breeding, as both his sire Boundary and broodmare sire Nureyev were sprinters/milers. On the other hand, Da’ Tara’s sire Tiznow had twice won the 10-furlong Breeders’ Cup Classic, not to mention that Tiznow’s broodmare sire Seattle Song (son of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew) also won the 12-furlong Washington D.C. International. So, with only a maiden win to his name, Da’ Tara went off at 38-1, but his pedigree held up, as did his wire-to-wire front running speed.
At even longer odds, 70-1 Sarava won the 2002 Belmont. His sire Wild Again was a multiple Grade 1 winner at 10 furlongs, including the 1984 Breeders’ Cup Classic, while his damside included the likes of Belmont Stakes winner Gallant Man, who captured the Jockey Club Gold Cup when it was run at two miles. Where Sarava’s pedigree also hinted at brilliance was in the fact that his unraced dam was a half sister to Grade 1 winner Wilderness Song, a filly who finished second behind her stablemate Dance Smartly in the 10-furlong Queen’s Plate against males. Both Wilderness Song and Sarava shared the same sire. When considering serious Belmont contenders, class in the damside matters.
In 2010, two of our top four stamina pedigree selections—Drosselmeyer and Fly Down—ran one-two, with First Dude (exactly as predicted) dangerous on the lead and able to hang on for third. In 2011, a sloppy sealed track added another dimension to handicapping, allow a front-runner like Ruler on Ice to stay on for the victory, but three of the top four finishers—Stay Thirsty, Brilliant Speed, and Nehro—were among the four horses mentioned pre-race as having the best stamina pedigrees.
So, while nearly all of this year’s Belmont contenders have some evidence of stamina breeding, who among them appears a step above, especially when you factor in both damline class and back class? In alphabetical order:
(Even the Score, out of Mining My Own, by Smart Strike)
Even the Score won multiple times at 1 1/8 miles on dirt, including the Grade 2 Californian; he also finished third, within two lengths of winner Total Impact, in the 10-furlong Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup in his career finale. His damsire Smart Strike has given us (on the same Northern Dancer cross as Dullahan) Belmont runner-up Curlin, Breeders’ Cup Turf victor English Channel, and Grade 1 Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky. Dullahan’s half brother Mine That Bird wasn’t that far back in finishing third in the 2009 Belmont. Physically, the two look nothing alike, with Dullahan being much larger, but his push-button ability to maneuver in traffic, not to mention his high, sustained cruising speed, give him a big chance to upset I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown chances. The jockey change to Javier Castellano and the chestnut colt’s lightning-fast workout this week are also positive indicators.
I’ll Have Another – SCRATCHED!
(Flower Alley, out of Arch’s Gal Edith, by Arch)
After his disappointing ninth-place finish in the 2005 Kentucky Derby, Flower Alley skipped the next two legs of the Triple Crown, aiming for a late summer campaign that culminated in a victory in the 10-furlong Travers, followed in late autumn with a runner-up finish behind Saint Liam in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Flower Alley’s sire Distorted Humor produced 2010 Belmont Stakes winner Drosselmeyer, as well as 2003 Belmont third-place finisher Funny Cide, so there’s every reason to believe—at least on his sireside—that I’ll Have Another can get 12 furlongs. So, how does his damside look? His lightly raced damsire Arch won the 10-furlong Grade 1 Super Derby, and he followed that effort with a victory in the Grade 3 Fayette Stakes going 1 3/16 miles; at 10 furlongs, his second damsire Pleasant Tap won both the Grade 1 Suburban and the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, and was just beaten by A.P. Indy in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Even more impressively, I’ll Have Another’s third damsire Caucasus was a stamina monster, winning the 14-furlong Group 1 Irish St. Leger before racing in the U.S. where he won or placed in six Grade 1 stakes between 10- to 14- furlongs. Oh, and the fourth damside of I’ll Have Another is 12-furlong Group 1 Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe victor Sea-Bird. What’s not to love? I’ll Have Another’s dam Arch’s Gal Edith won her first (and only start) going six furlongs on dirt, but her dam Force Five Gal broken her maiden in a 9-furlong turf race before repeatedly finishing second in 10-furlong turf allowance events. Other family members include 12-furlong Grade 3 Bewitch runner-up Noble Cause, and French listed place-getter Bylaw, who won or placed at distances from 12 to 18 furlongs. If I’ll Have Another doesn’t win the Triple Crown, it won’t be due to his pedigree.
Paynter – PLACE (2ND)
(Awesome Again out of Tizso, by Cee’s Tizzy)
1997 Queen’s Plate victor Awesome Again won three more 10-furlong races during his 12-race career, including the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic. As a sire, he’s produced a host of 10-furlong winners: Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Ghostzapper; Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup victor Awesome Gem; Grade 1 Personal Ensign victress Ginger Punch; Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap winner Game On Dude; and Grade 1 Dubai World Cup runner-up Wilko. As if that weren’t enough reason to like Paynter, how about the fact that his dam is a full sister to two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow, sire of 10-furlong Grade 1 winners Well Armed and Colonel John, not to mention Belmont victor Da’ Tara? After bobbling at the start, Paynter finished less than four lengths back of I’ll Have Another in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby—in only his second lifetime start! After a narrow runner-up performance to Hierro in the sloppy Grade 3 Derby Trial, Paynter rebounded with an easy Pimlico allowance win. He’s run fast, he’s relatively fresh, and you better bet that after Bodemeister’s two heart-breaking defeats, Bob Baffert would savor a win with this colt.
Street Life – FOURTH
(Street Sense out of Stone Hope, by Grindstone)
2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense’s Triple Crown aspirations ended when nosed out by Curlin in the Preakness, thus he skipped the Belmont Stakes and never attempted 1 1/2 miles. Still, there are lots of reasons to think his son Street Life may have just the right combination of speed and stamina. His Kentucky Derby-winning damsire Grindstone has given us Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone, who in turn sired two classic winners in his first crop: Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Belmont victor Summer Bird. Stone Hope’s half brother Brilliant twice captured 9-furlong graded stakes on turf—and just missed by a nose defeating the great Sky Conqueror in the 9-furlong Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. Other tremendous stamina influences present in his damline include Roberto and Round Table. This is also the family of 9-furlong Grade 2 Bernard Baruch victor Furiously, who equaled a course record in that effort. Street Life’s eye-catching late move in the Grade 2 Peter Pan will garner him some support on Saturday, maybe even enough to be considered a wise-guy pick. If he continues on his current trajectory, a top three finish isn’t out of the question.
Union Rags – WINNER
(Dixie Union, out of Tempo, by Gone West)
Although he won the 9-furlong Grade 1 Haskell, Dixie Union was more of a sprinter-miler and has thus far produced mostly similar progeny, so it’s difficult to imagine him producing a Belmont Stakes winner. However, Union Rags’ damline is intriguing. While his dam Tempo only raced three times (all sprints), her dam Terpsichorist won the 10-furlong Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay Handicap and the 12-furlong Grade 3 Long Island Handicap; she even defeated males (including Grade 1-placed Darby Creek Road) in the ungraded 11-furlong Rutgers Handicap. As a broodmare, Terpsichorist also produced 10-furlong Grade 2 New York Handicap runner-up Dancing Devlette, so there appears to be plenty of stamina damside. Additionally, Union Rag’s second damsire Nijinsky was the last English Triple Crown winner, while his third damsire High Hat captured the 13-furlong Oxfordshire Stakes in England. As he won the Grade 1 Champagne over this track last October, Union Rags should prove a major player, especially with John Velazquez climbing aboard.
(Pleasantly Perfect out of Silent Justice, by Elusive Quality)
A late bloomer, Pleasantly Perfect ran only once as a 3-year-old, but as an older horse he won three Grade 1 10-furlong events, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup. His progeny include 11-furlong Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner Shared Account, two-time 10-furlong Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap runner-up Setsuko, and multiple-graded 10-furlong placed Cozi Rosie. Although My Adonis’ damsire Elusive Quality was a sprinter/miler, he’s given us Belmont Stakes runner-up Smarty Jones, Breeders’ Cup Classic victor Raven’s Pass, and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Quality Road. While his unraced dam is a half sister to Grade 2-placed sprinter Lakota Brave, there’s also evidence of stamina through another half brother Silverdale, runner-up in the 16-furlong (2-mile) Group 3 Queen’s Vase. This is also the family of 11-furlong Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap runner-up Myrmidon, so My Adonis isn’t without potential. After his disappointing finish in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial, he skipped the Kentucky Derby, instead running a close-up third in the Canonero II at Pimlico on Derby day. Owners George and Lori Hall must be feeling good about their Ruler On Ice’s Belmont victory last year—and gaining the services of Ramon Dominguez certainly doesn’t hurt—but you have to wonder about such a late decision in entering him.
(Invasor out of Third Street, by Salt Lake)
Many remember Invasor from his dominating 2006 American campaign that included a victory in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and then his career-culminating win in the 2007 Dubai World Cup. He was never tested beyond 1 1/4 miles in the Northern Hemisphere. However, he began his racing career capturing the Uruguayan Triple Crown, including a win over 1 1/2 miles in the Grade 1 Gran Premio Nacional-Uruguayan Derby. Five Sixteen is from his first crop, so we have yet to see how successful Invasor will be passing on his stamina. Five Sixteen’s lightly raced dam never ran beyond six furlongs, but she’s produced 9-furlong allowance winner Doc’s Doll who also won the 1 1/16 miles Florida Breeders’ Distaff. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of stamina close-up in his damside, but his unraced second dam is a daughter of Belmont Stakes winner Quadrangle. Back in January, Five Sixteen nearly broke his maiden going nine furlongs and subsequently accomplished that feat over the same distance in March. In his last start, he got worked up in the gate and ended up a non-threatening and distant fourth in a first-level allowance race. He’s just not run fast enough yet, but, boy, I love Rosie Napravnik aboard!
(English Channel out of Indy Pick, by A.P. Indy)
Strictly from a pedigree perspective, Optimizer’s bloodline is impeccable. His sire English Channel won three Grade 1 turf races at 12 furlongs, including the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Turf, while his damsire A.P. Indy captured the 1992 Belmont Stakes. There are two more Belmont Stakes winners in his damline: Riva Ridge and Sword Dancer. A direct damline descendent of 10-furlong Coaching Club American Oaks winner Lady Pitt through her multiple Grade 1-placed daughter Blitey, Optimizer‘s dam Indy Pick ran exclusively on dirt in her brief six-race career, including a dominating 11-length victory in a 9-furlong allowance race at Saratoga. Optimizer’s second dam Fantastic Find won the 9-furlong Grade 1 Hempstead Handicap; as a broodmare she produced a three-quarter sister to Indy Pick named Finder’s Fee, winner of the Grade 1 Acorn and third-place finisher in the 9-furlong Grade 1 Mother Goose; Fantastic Find also birthed 9-furlong Grade 2 Peter Pan runner-up Treasure Island. Among the many high-quality members in this family are: 10-furlong Grade 1 Suburban winner Dancing Spree; 12-furlong Grade 2 Long Island Handicap victress Dancing All Night; and 14-furlong Grade 2 San Juan Capistrano runner-up Warning Zone. That all said, it’s virtually impossible to seriously consider Optimizer hitting the board on Saturday. The last race he won was his maiden effort at Saratoga last August—and that was on turf which is probably his preferred surface. For a major longshot chance, this D. Wayne Lukas trainee is worth throwing away a couple of bucks.
Atigun – SHOW (3RD)
(Istan out of Rimini Road, by Dynaformer)
A decent Grade 3-winning miler, Istan is represented in his first crop by Atigun whose dam Rimini Road only ran once, a third-place finisher in a 1 1/16 miles maiden special weight race. However, Atigun’s second dam Evangelical, who won the 9-furlong Grade 3 Gardenia, was a half sister to the oh-so-promising Grade 1 Laurel Futurity winner Cure The Blues. Interestingly, his damsire Dynaformer and second damsire Devil’s Bag are both by sons of Hail to Reason that won at 12-furlongs: Roberto and Halo. Does that mean Atigun has the right mix of speed and stamina? While no one was catching Bodemeister in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, Atigun wasn’t far back from a placing, but he’ll have to improve a lot to be a serious Belmont contender.
Guyana Star Dweej
(Eddington out of Special Feeling, by Pine Bluff)
In 2004, Birdstone dashed Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown hopes; Eddington finished fourth in that race and then later that summer ran third in the 10-furlong Grade 1 Travers. As a 4-year-old, though, he twice won at 1 3/16 miles, in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap and in the Grade 1 Pimlico Special, so there’s much to suggest that Guyana Star Dweej may get 12 furlongs. Add to that the fact that his damsire Pine Bluff just missed winning the 1992 Belmont Stakes, finishing third, less than one length behind A.P. Indy and My Memoirs, and his chances look even better. His dam’s Grade 1 winning half sister Fara’s Team is the dam of 1994 Breeders’ Cup Classic victor Concern, while another half sister produced multiple Australian Group 1 sprinter/miler Mentality. A $5,500 Keeneland yearling purchase, Guyana Star Dweej even beats I’ll Have Another in terms of being acquired for a bargain-basement price, yet it’s hard to take seriously a horse that took eight tries to break his maiden and has never even run in a stakes race. Is a Da’ Tara scenario possible? Not unless new jockey Kent Desormeaux guns him to the lead and he can stay there. Is that likely? No.
(Lawyer Ron out of Dance Tune, by French Deputy)
As a 4-year-old, Lawyer Ron hit his stride, first capturing the 9-furlong Grade 1 Whitney (setting a Saratoga track record that still stands), then the 9-furlong Grade 1 Woodward, and finally finishing a narrow second to Curlin in the 10-furlong Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. While he never attempted 12-furlongs, Lawyer Ron demonstrated a promising degree of stamina to pass on to his offspring, so the question remaining about Ravelo’s Boy is, does his damside further his chances? His stakes-placed dam Dance Tune was a sprinter, but his second dam’s three-quarter sister Term Limits was champion juvenile filly in Canada after winning both the Mazarine and Princess Elizabeth stakes going 1 1/16 miles. His lightly raced damsire French Deputy was a speedy type but never won beyond a mile, and despite his third-place finish in the 10-furlong Travers, his second damsire Fly So Free was really a sprinter/miler. Since Ravelo’s Boy has yet to run beyond 1 1/16 miles (let alone hit the board in a stakes race), I’m just not seeing his pedigree rising above some of the others.
(Exchange Rate out of Naseem, by Point Given)
While his sire Grade 2 Tom Fool winner Exchange Rate only once won over a mile—a victory in the 1 1/16 miles Risen Star-Unstoppable U is blessed with a stamina-rich damline including not only his Belmont Stakes-winning damsire Point Given and Triple Crown victor Seattle Slew as his second damsire, but also Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Black Tie Affair, who was a half brother to his second dam. This is also the family of Grade 1-placed turfster Kiss the Kid who finished third in the 12-furlong Grade 2 W. L. McKnight Handicap after leading much of the way, not to mention 10-furlong Italian Group 1 winner Great Palm. Being so lightly raced, Unstoppable U is a relatively unknown entity, but as one that has yet to run over a mile, by Exchange Rate, I’m willing to set him aside.
The highest wet Tomlinson figure belongs to Paynter (a whopping 435), and he ran brilliantly over a sloppy track in the Derby Trial. Second-best is Union Rags (400), who won the Grade 2 Saratoga Special over a sealed sloppy track last August. The third-highest wet Tomlinson figure belongs to Optimizer (392), followed by Guyana Star Dweej (382) with two runner-up efforts on wet tracks. Unstoppable U (375) broke his maiden on a sloppy track, while Street Life (380), Dullahan (370) and I’ll Have Another (364) have yet to be tested over an off-track. Ravelo’s Boy (362), Atigun (340) and Five Sixteen (323) round out the field.
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