By Noel Michaels
Betting the favorite in the Belmont Stakes (G1) has not been such a successful wager in recent history.
Discounting the 2020 Belmont, run as the first race of the Triple Crown and at a shortened 1 1/8 miles due to COVID-19 rescheduling, eight of the previous 12 Belmont winners paid $20 or more on a $2 win bet.
That’s a pretty good return considering two of the under-$20 payoff winners were Triple Crown champions American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.
In 2008, Da’Tara won at 38-1 and returned $79. The next three winners were Summer Bird ($25.40), Drosselmeyer ($28), and Ruler On Ice ($51.50). You get the picture. Union Rags (2012) and Tapwrit (2017) were the other Belmont winners paying less than $20. In 2019, Sir Winston returned $22.40.
With no Triple Crown on the line in Saturday’s Belmont, these numbers alone may indicate it’s a decent idea to take a few shots at beating the favorites. No matter how good Essential Quality or Preakness (G1) winner Rombauer look heading into the 1 ½-mile Belmont, let’s look at a few trends that support betting against the top choices.
In terms of winning running styles, a common perception is that since the race is 1 ½ miles (as far as most horses will ever run), closers usually benefit from the added distance. However, history has shown this to be false. Many assume that deep-closing horses that came up short at lesser distances in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness (G1) would be at an advantage. But it is tactical speed horses and middle movers that have the best results.
The recent trend favors horses able to stay close to the pace, or at least run in the front half of the field. Justify went wire-to-wire in 2018; so did Tapwrit in 2017; and so did Da’Tara in 2008.
The 2011 Belmont winner, Ruler On Ice, pressed Shackleford in second all the way before taking charge in the stretch. In 2010, Drosselmeyer came from mid-pack. Union Rags raced in the front-half of the field throughout, laying no more than four lengths off the pace at any point in the race. Palace Malice laid close to the pace early, running fifth at the first call and fourth at the second call on his way to victory. Tonalist had a similar running style in 2014, laying sixth but only three lengths back in the early stages, and then pressing from third just a length behind before getting up by a head in the late stages.
When evaluating contenders based on their running styles, keep in mind that there have been many more on-or-near-the-pace winners than far-from-behind winners like Sir Winston. If you decide to put your money on a closer, try to make sure the late runner will be able to launch his rally on the backstretch and make his way up close to the lead by the time the field reaches the quarter pole. Otherwise bet horses that have tactical speed or who can make middle moves into contention.
Dating back to Commendable in 2000, 13 of the last 20 Belmont winners had at least a four-week layoff going into the Belmont. Recent Belmont winners including Tapwrit, Creator, Palace Malice, Union Rags, Summer Bird, Jazil, Birdstone, Empire Maker, and Commendable all ran in the Derby and skipped the Preakness. Filly Rags to Riches had no race between the Kentucky Oaks and the Belmont. A quintet of recent winners of the Belmont made their Triple Crown debuts in the final leg, including Sir Winston, Tonalist, Drosselmeyer, Da’ Tara, Rags to Riches, and Sarava. Of those, Sir Winston, Tonalist, Drosselmeyer, and earlier, Lemon Drop Kid, all came out of the Peter Pan.
Two likely Belmont starters exiting the Preakness are winner Rombauer and seventh-place finisher France Go de Ina.
The perfectly positioned group of Belmont-bound horses that ran in the Derby and skipped the Preakness (a five-week break) include third-place finisher Hot Rod Charlie, Derby favorite Essential Quality, Known Agenda, Bourbonic and Rock Your World.
New shooters in their first Triple Crown race include UAE Derby winner Rebel’s Romance and Peter Pan third-place finisher Overtook.
See the chart below for a breakdown of recent 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes winners:
Year Belmont Winner Post Running Style 4+ Weeks $2 Payoff
2019 Sir Winston 7 Closer Yes $22.40
2018 Justify 1 Front No $3.60
2017 Tapwrit 2 Press Yes $12.80
2016 Creator 13 Closer Yes $34.80
2015 American Pharoah 5 Front No $3.50
2014 Tonalist 11 Stalk Yes $20.40
2013 Palace Malice 12 Stalk Yes $29.60
2012 Union Rags 3 Stalk Yes $7.50
2011 Ruler On Ice 3 Press No $51.50
2010 Drosselmeyer 7 Stalk Yes $28.00
2009 Summer Bird 4 Stalk Yes $25.40
2008 Da’ Tara 5 Front No $79.00
2007 Rags to Riches 7 Press Yes $10.60
2006 Jazil 8 Closer Yes $14.40
2005 Afleet Alex 9 Closer No $4.30
2004 Birdstone 4 Stalk Yes $74.00
2003 Empire Maker 1 Pace Yes $6.00
2002 Sarava 11 Press No $142.50
2001 Point Given 9 Pace No $4.70
So, to beat the favorite you’re looking for a horse with tactical speed or a close-up stalker, not exiting the Preakness, and going off at 10-1 minimum. Use these trends and you just may find yourself with a longshot winner. Best of luck.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.