The Test of Champions 2014
Who has the pedigree to win the 2014 Belmont Stakes?
Level: Intermediate
By Valerie Grash, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor

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 that few horses regularly race over 9 furlongs-a fact that makes the Belmont Stakes unique in American racing, as it is the only remaining 1 1/2 miles Grade 1 stakes run on dirt. That’s also what makes this the most difficult of the Triple Crown races since, even more so than in the Kentucky Derby, pedigree plays a critical role in who can and cannot get the distance. A poor post position can be more easily overcome than in a shorter race, 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. 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, allowing 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.

In 2012, the pre-race scratch of I’ll Have Another was particularly disappointing, as his damline breeding strongly suggested that he could be our first Triple Crown winner since 1978. Instead, the well-bred Union Rags validated the importance of a strong female line while defeating the equally well-bred Paynter. In 2013, Palace Malice vindicated his sire Curlin‘s Belmont loss to the filly Rags to Riches; the next four finishers (Oxbow, Orb,Incognito and Revolutionary) represented the strongest stamina breeding in the field.

This year offers a unique challenge, as California Chrome attempts to become the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years. He may be in the midst of a 6-race win streak, but the notable lack of stamina in his pedigree close-up has both experienced challengers and new shooters lining up to take him on. Which of these contenders possesses the necessary stamina breeding along with strong damline performers to upset the final leg of the Triple Crown? In alphabetical order, let’s break them down into three groups, beginning with those whose pedigrees strongly suggest they should handle the 1 1/2 miles distance, even if their racing record doesn’t recommend them:

Best Bets for an Upset…

Commissioner – PLACE (2nd)
(A.P. Indy, out of Flaming Heart, by Touch Gold)

By a Belmont Stakes winner (A.P. Indy) out of mare sired by another Belmont Stakes winner (Touch Gold),Commissioner is absolutely bred for 12 furlongs. When A.P. Indy has been bred to mares from theDeputy Minister line, the results have been outstanding in terms of 12-furlong stamina, including 2-time Grade 1 Sword Dancer victorTelling; Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks runner-up Fircroft; and Grade 1 Belmont Stakes winnerRags to Riches. Commissioner‘s stakes-winning dam Flaming Heart once ran a narrow second to the talented Fleet Indian going 9 furlongs in the Grade 3 Next Move; as a broodmare, she’s produced (in addition to Commissioner) 6-furlong Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up Laugh Track, a son of Distorted Humor. Like last year’s Belmont winnerPalace Malice, Commissioner‘s second damsire (Lear Fan) is a son of 12-furlong Epsom Derby winner Roberto.

(Bernardini, out of Golden Sonata, by Mr. Prospector)

He may have only one victory in eight starts, but in terms of pedigree, this colt has what it takes. A two-time Grade 1 winner at 10 furlongs, his sire Bernardini was never tested at the 1 1/2 miles distance, but the Preakness-winning son of Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy has already sired 2009 Belmont Stakes runner-up Stay Thirsty. The cross of A.P. Indy with Mr. Prospector mares has produced some tremendous 10-furlong Grade 1 performers (Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Mineshaft; Personal Ensign winnerTomisues Delight; Hollywood Gold Cup runner-up Congrats; and Coaching Club American Oaks runner-upLittle Belle), not to mention 9-furlong Grade 1 Florida Derby runner-up Pulpit, sire of the red-hot sire Tapit. Matuszak‘s second damsire is Breeders’ Cup Mile victor Royal Academy, while his third damsire is the great Buckpasser who as a 3-year-old won the 2-mile (16 furlongs) Jockey Club Gold Cup. The tipping point isn’t the stamina found in the male members of his family, or in the fact that his third dam Pass a Glance was twice a Grade 1 runner-up at 10 furlongs. It’s Matuszak‘s own dam Golden Sonata who began her racing career in England, where she broke her maiden by defeating 11 open-company rivals going 12 furlongs on Polytrack.

Well Above Average…

General a Rod
(Roman Ruler, out of Dynamite Eyes, by Dynaformer)

An eventful trip where he was steadied several times when in close quarters saw him finish 11th in the Kentucky Derby; a similarly problematic journey in the Preakness resulted in a more respectable fourthth-place effort. Does he possess the stamina breeding to traverse the 12 furlong distance? Considering that his sire Roman Ruler has already produced 2011 Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice, the answer is “yes.” There’s no doubting the stamina found in his damsire Dynaformer, nor his second damsire Meadowlake, who was particularly good at producing Grade 1-winning fillies such as six-time Grade 1 winner Meadow Star, victress of the 9-furlong Mother Goose and 1990 champion 2-year-old filly; Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up Meafara and 6-furlong Grade 1 Prioress winner Wildcat Bettie B. General a Rod‘s second dam Buckeye Search did not rise quite to that level, although she did run second in the 9-furlong Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan. Her best foal was 1 1/16 miles Grade 3 Selene runner-up Angel On Watch. General a Rod‘s dam Dynamite Eyes only broke her maiden via disqualification and didn’t hit the board again. Even though close-up his female family members may not be Grade 1 winners, there’s a lot of quality going back further, with his fourth dam being a half sister to 1969 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince, and his third dam being a half sister to 12-furlong French Group 1 Prix du Jockey Club victor Caracolero.

Medal Count – SHOW (3rd)
(Dynaformer, out of Brisquette, by Unbridled’s Song)

The question prior to the Kentucky Derby was whether or not Medal Count could run as well on dirt as he had in the Grade 1 Blue Grass. A problematic trip resulted in an eighth place finish, but he was running on well at the end. That fact, along with two strong workouts and his stamina-rich pedigree, gives hope to his connections that he can traverse the 12-furlong distance successfully. There’s no question about his stamina-rich sire Dynaformer, as his progeny include 2-time 12-furlong Grade 1 turf winner Point of Entry and 16-furlong (2-mile), Group 1 Melbourne Cup winner Americain. Medal Count‘s two-time Grade 1 winning damsire Unbridled’s Song never raced beyond 9 furlongs, but as a sire, he’s produced the likes of Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles and 10-furlong Grade 1 Travers winner (and Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up) Will Take Charge. Interestingly, the second damsire of Medal Count,Pirate’s Bounty, is also the damsire of 2008 Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara. His third damsireNorthern Dancer finished third in the Belmont; the winner that year, Quadrangle, was a son ofMedal Count‘s fourth damsire Cohoes. There’s also a lot of quality in his female line. His Grade 3-placed dam Brisquette was solely a sprinter, and she produced a terrific half sister to Medal Count in 6-furlong Grade 3 Debutante winner Garden District, whose greatest claim to fame is defeating Rachel Alexandra. Medal Count‘s second dam Pirate’s Glow, twice a Grade 1 runner-up as a juvenile, was disqualified from a narrow runner-up finish in the 9-furlong Grade 2 Del Mar Oaks and placed fourth. In addition to Brisquette, she produced Grade 2 placed Quake, an allowance winner going 10 furlongs on turf, and Grade 3 runner-up Amorously, who was stakes-placed at 9 furlongs on dirt.

Ride On Curlin
(Curlin, out of Magical Ride, by Storm Cat)

A change in jockey (and tactics) resulted in an impressive runner-up performance in the Preakness for Ride On Curlin. With yet another jockey change looming (to two-time Belmont Stakes winner John Velazquez), can he legitimately challenge California Chrome going further? His sire, two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, won four Grade 1 races at 10 furlongs-and who can forget that dramatic runner-up finish to the filly Rags to Riches in the 12-furlong Grade 1 Belmont Stakes? Plus, Curlin has already sired a Belmont Stakes winner, last year’s Palace Malice. There’s no question of sire stamina here, and on the bottom, Ride On Curlin’s damsire is the legendary sire of sires (not to mention top broodmare sire) Storm Cat. Ride On Curlin‘s second damsire, 10-furlong Grade 1 Super Derby victor Seeking the Gold (who finished just a half-length behind Alysheba in the sloppy 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic) has produced some nice 9-furlong and 10-furlong Grade 1 winners, including Alabama winner Heavenly Prize; Breeders’ Cup Distaff victressPleasant Home; and Wood Memorial victor Bob and John, not to mention two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup runner-up Wanderin Boy. Ride On Curlin‘s third damsire Flying Paster was twice a 10-furlong Grade 1 runner-up behind Spectacular Bid. Beyond Curlin, there isn’t a whole lot of 12-furlong experience, but consider the solid graded stakes performers in his immediate family line, including his Grade 2-placed dam Magical Ride and his second damVictory Ride, who defeated Hall of Fame finalist Xtra Heat in the 7-furlong Grade 1 Test. A half brother to Victory Ride, River Flyer captured the 9-furlong Grade 1 Hollywood Derby as well as the 10-furlong Grade 2 San Marcos, both on turf, but he was also a stakes winner on dirt. More importantly, this is also the family of 10-furlong Grade 1 Personal Ensign runner-upTranscendental (dam of 10-furlong Grade 3 Dominion Day victor Don Cavallo), and 14-furlong English Group 3 winner Admiral’s Cruise.

Wicked Strong
(Hard Spun, out of Moyne Abbey, by Charismatic)

Hampered by the far outside post position in the Kentucky Derby, Wicked Strong endured a rough trip around the Churchill Downs’ oval, only to finish strongly in fourth place. After skipping the Preakness, he returns to the track where he broke his maiden last year, having most recently posted a sharp bullet 5-furlong workout. Can he get the 12-furlong distance? His sire Hard Spun was one of the gutsiest racehorses of his generation, a Grade 1 King’s Bishop winner who had the ill-fortune to have been born the same year as champions Street Sense and Curlin. He was a game runner-up at 10 furlongs in both the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic-and those stamina genes were apparently passed on to his daughter Questing, who won the 10-furlong Grade 1 Alabama. However, Hard Spun tired to finish fourth in the 1 1/2 miles Belmont Stakes, behind Rags to Riches, Curlin and Tiago. On his damside, Wicked Strong also possesses strong stamina influences, with his damsire Charismatic winning both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before finishing third in the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes on a broken leg. The second damsire of Wicked Strong is With Approval, who not only captured the Canadian Triple Crown (the final leg of which is the 12-furlong Breeders’ Stakes), but also set a world record on turf going 11 furlongs and was a runner-up in the 12-furlong Breeders’ Cup Turf. Wicked Strong‘s damMoyne Abbey broke her maiden routing, while among her half siblings is 10-furlong Grade 3 Dominion Day runner-up Approval Rating. This is also the immediate the family of 10-furlong Grade 1 Pacific Classic winner Student Council and 10-furlong Grade 1 Manhattan runner-up Roman Envoy, so every indicator suggests that Wicked Strong may be able to stretch out to 12 furlongs.

Solid, but with some questions…

Commanding Curve
(Master Command, out of Mother, by Lion Hearted)

The Kentucky Derby runner-up has already answered some stamina questions-an examination of his pedigree suggests that stepping out another 2 furlongs is a hurdle that he may be able to overcome. A son of Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy, Master Command was a four-time graded stakes winner going 9 furlongs, so it’s not surprising that in his first crop he produced 10-furlong Grade 1 Hollywood Derby victor Unbridled Command. Both his damsire Lion Hearted and his second damsire Topsider were sprinters, as was his dam Mother and his stakes-placed half sister Hot Roots. The best of Lion Hearted‘s offspring were also sprinters, but Topsider counts among his top runners 10-furlong Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon runner-up Top Corsage and 10-furlong Grade 1 Vanity runner-up North Sider, as well as 12-furlong Italian Group 1 winner Assatis and 12-furlong Australian Group 1 Caulfield Cup winner Fraar. Interestingly, Commanding Curve and Tonalist share similar breeding, with A.P. Indy in their sireline and Topsider as their second damsires. Commanding Curve’s third damsire is Belmont Stakes runner-up Tom Rolfe, but also like Tonalist, the great Buckpasser is found in his pedigree, both top and bottom.

(Tapit, out of Winter Garden, by Roy)

At first glance, nothing in his pedigree strongly advocates for 12-furlong stamina. The current “hot” sire with four Breeders’ Cup winners to his name, Tapit has yet to produce a Grade 1 winner beyond 9 furlongs (although his Kentucky Oaks winning daughter Untapable certainly possesses the damline stamina breeding). Brilliant speed horses, yes, but none that have demonstrated tremendous stamina. The damsire of Matterhorn, Grade 2 Sanford runner-up Roy, was primarily a sprinter, but sent to South America, he’s produced several champion stayers including Chilean Horse of the Year Gran Ducato, a 7-time Group 1 winner between 10 and 12 furlongs, and Brazilian-bredCagney, who just missed winning the 12-furlong Grade 2 Sunset Handicap on turf. Matterhorn‘s Grade 1-placed damWinter Garden was twice a Grade 3 winner in Canada sprinting, but she’s also produced a three-quarter brother to Matterhorn, Grade 3 Ohio Derby winner Title Contender (by Pulpit) who won the 9-furlong Grade 3 British Columbia Derby before a runner-up finish in the 11-furlong Grade 3 BC Premier’s Handicap. Only a maiden winner, Matterhorn was closing nicely to just miss a placing in the 9-furlong Grade 2 Peter Pan, but until he’s done it, it’s difficult to envision him beating either Tonalist or Commissioner, who finished well ahead of him in that race.

(Noble Causeway, out of Little Indian Girl, by Indian Charlie)

After running as close-up as second behind California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby, Samraat faded to finish a respectable fifth. After skipping the Preakness, can he rebound to run a strong 12 furlongs? He’s already broken his maiden over “Big Sandy,” so the track itself probably won’t be an issue. The distance, however, might be. As a son of the great turf stamina sire Giant’s Causeway, the recently deceased Noble Causeway surprisingly found his greatest success on dirt, breaking his maiden going 9 furlongs before his runner-up finish in the 9-furlong Grade 1 Florida Derby. A foal from his third crop, Samraat is far and away the best runner Noble Causeway has produced to date. Samraat‘s damsire is the speedy 9-furlong Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby winner Indian Charlie, who also finished third-behindReal Quiet and Victory Gallop-in the 10-furlong Grade 1 Kentucky Derby. His second damsire is the obscure Light Idea, son of four-time Grade 1 winner Majestic Light, who not only won the 12-furlong Grade 1 Man O’ War, but was also a game second to the great Exceller in the 13-furlong Grade 1 Canadian International. However, seemingly none of that racing ability was passed on to Light Idea or his daughter Brighter Than Gold, Samraat‘s second dam-she won only two races in 35 starts. Brighter Than Gold‘s second foal, however, was 9-furlong Grade 1 Mother Goose victress Nonsuch Bay.

Tonalist – WINNER
(Tapit, out of Settling Mist, by Pleasant Colony)

In 1981, Tonalist’s damsire Pleasant Colony captured the first two legs of the Triple Crown before finishing third in the Belmont. As a sire, he produced several 10-furlong Grade 1 dirt winners, including Breeders’ Cup Classic/Dubai World Cup winner Pleasantly Perfect; two-time Gulfstream Park Handicap victor Behrens; and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Pleasant Tap. It may have taken Tonalist‘s dam Settling Mist 15 starts before she broke her maiden, but when she did, it was going 9 furlongs-and she won by over 14 lengths. Prior to that, she’d narrowly missed victory at 9 1/2 furlongs. Her black-type rich immediate family includes two-time 9-furlong Grade 1 winner Plugged Nickle, as well as 10-furlong Grade 1 Flower Bowl victress Christiecat and 10-furlong Grade 2-placed Key to the Bridge. Like Matuszak, Tonalist has Buckpasser as a third damsire, so while nothing guarantees he’ll get the 1 1/2 miles distance, there does appear to be plenty of promise. He’s already twice won at 9 furlongs, including a dominant win last out in the Grade 2 Peter Pan, but can he get the additional 3 furlongs?

And, as for the potential Triple Crown winner…

California Chrome
(Lucky Pulpit, out of Love the Chase, by Not For Love)

The California-bred Grade 1 dual classic winner has done nothing wrong since coming East, winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown with ease. At every turn, California Chrome defies his breeding; he has beencalled by many a “fluke” or a freak of nature, but the racing gods have certainly shined down on him. So the question is, can that racing luck last, propelling him beyond what his breeding suggests is possible? His sire Lucky Pulpit was mainly a turf sprinter/miler that, after racing on the lead early, weakened in the stretch to finish dead last in the 9-furlong Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. Prior to California Chrome, Lucky Pulpit‘s most successful progeny was Rousing Sermon, who as a juvenile was a Grade 1 runner-up behind Liaison in the 1 1/16 miles CashCall Futurity and who ran third in the 9-furlong Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. As a racehorse, California Chrome‘s damsire Not For Love was mediocre, an allowance winner as a dirt sprinter but also going 9 furlongs on turf and 9 1/2 furlongs on a sloppy dirt track. As a sire, he has produced solid racehorses with good earnings, but none that have made him a household name beyond the Mid-Atlantic region where he stands. Like Not For Love, California Chrome‘s second damsire Polish Numbers was arguably better as a sire than racehorse, particularly in producing turf runners. California Chrome‘s dam Love the Chase hit the board in only one of her six career starts, a maiden-claiming victory going a mile over Golden Gate’s all-weather surface. Her dam Chase It Down won only once as well-a 6 1/2-furlong sprint over Charles Town’s bullring track. To find some quality runners in his damline, you have to go back to California Chrome’s third dam Chase the Dream, a New York-bred stakes winner whose best effort was a third-place effort in the 1 1/16 miles Grade 3 Tempted as a juvenile. Her daughter Amourette (by 12-furlong Group 1 Irish Derby winner El Gran Senor) twice won 11-furlong turf stakes races before producing the 13-furlong Grade 3 Stars and Stripes turf runner-up Lemonade Kid. You have to look way back, at California Chrome‘s third and fourth damsires, to find indisputable stamina. His third damsire is Sir Ivor, a 12-furlong turf mainstay with victories in the English Derby and Washington D.C. International, as well as runner-up performances in the Irish Derby and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, while his fourth damsire Vaguely Noble also captured the prestigious Arc. Additionally, as mentioned earlier in relation to Matuszak, the cross of the A.P. Indy line topside with mares descended from Mr. Prospector has produced quality stamina horses. Maybe, just maybe, California Chrome will draw upon the stamina of his distant ancestors to produce some Triple Crown magic.

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