Racing Had Momentum After the Kentucky Derby. Now What?

In the aftermath of the Kentucky Derby, I firmly believed that there was a chance for racing to capitalize on mainstream attention.

Everyone was talking about it, and Maximum Security and Country House, forever linked by a disqualification among the most controversial in racing history, could lock up again in the Preakness. Such a rematch would be one of the most anticipated in the game, and the sport would have two weeks to market to an intrigued fan base eager to know more about it.

Swing and a miss.

Maximum Security is being held out of the Preakness. Country House got sick and is now being pointed to the Belmont. As a result, public interest for the Preakness is at a low, and the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown has a decidedly “meh” feel to it among prospective fans the sport cannot afford to lose.

Please don’t get that statement twisted. The Preakness could be a fun betting race, with lots of different directions to go in if you’re not crazy about likely favorite Improbable. Preakness week also features an array of high-quality races that provide plenty of attractive wagering options for handicappers like me (and, I surmise, like most of my audience).

However, the general public could not possibly care less about the makeup of the Preakness, nor could they care less about the cornucopia of graded stakes races on Friday and Saturday at Old Hilltop. Saying otherwise is naïve, at best.

Casual fans of the sport have likely heard of four or five horses over the past year and a half: Justify, Accelerate, City of Light, Maximum Security, and Country House. The first three are retired, and the other two are on the bench. Stars make racing much easier to promote, but when horses run less and less (due to radical changes in the ways horses are bred and managed), there has to be a fallback plan in place.

Therein lies a bigger problem nobody is talking about. While the debate following the Kentucky Derby was endless, vicious, and unnecessarily vile at times, debates about how to actually grow the game in the wake of it have drawn crickets on social media. It shows a distinct lack of focus on what should be the biggest focus in racing: Getting new fans, drawing them in, and educating them so they have the most chance of coming back.

What are we, as a sport, doing to ensure that such a plan is in place? This question holds doubly true now that two of the biggest racing days of the year are without any sort of a Triple Crown storyline. We can talk about concerts, and food trucks, and hat contests, and things that look pretty on social media, but how does any of that affect racing for longer than one afternoon? More bluntly, how does any of that affect handle, AT ALL?

Now that Maximum Security and Country House are both out of the Preakness, I challenge you to find a bigger public interest storyline than, “The Stronach Group wants to leave Pimlico behind and move the Preakness to Laurel.” Meanwhile, the Met Mile on Belmont Day could draw McKinzie, Mitole, and Coal Front, which for my money makes it the main event on that program (as opposed to a race for 3-year-olds going a distance they are not at all bred to handle). Tell that to the general public, and the response is, “why should I care?”

What are we, as a sport, doing to answer that question? We did a lot in the 72 hours after the Kentucky Derby to try to convince people that the DQ was either the right call or the wrong call. If we channeled half of that energy into actually marketing the sport the way it should be marketed, I’m convinced we’d see substantial results long-term. Combine that with breeding horses for stamina and soundness instead of pure speed, and we may actually have ways to market both the sport and the best horses in it.

It’s naïve to think the Preakness matters as much as it did to the novice racing fan before Maximum Security and Country House defected from the field. It doesn’t. We can be as positive and optimistic as we want about how it still holds historical significance as the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown, but such statements fall on deaf ears to a public conditioned only to care about the sport on its biggest days. That isn’t me being negative, or pessimistic. That’s a fact, one that racing has brought onto itself as top-notch horses transitioned from running 10 to 12 times per year a generation ago to running four to six times per year while their connections said, “We’re training him up to…”.

The answer to the, “now what?,” question should be, “well, this coming week has a lot of really good horses in action that you could see later this year.” Except it doesn’t. There are five stakes races Saturday at Belmont Park, and they boast a combined total of 31 entries. Only one of those races (the Man o’ War) will have more than six horses going postward.

I’ve worked in marketing at a number of different businesses. The keys to a successful campaign are capitalizing on momentum created from prior steps in the process. Racing had chances to do that this time around, and it didn’t.

I’m worried about how many more chances the industry will have to do that.

Country House, Maximum Security, the Kentucky Derby, and the Question Nobody’s Asking

“What is a foul that merits disqualification?”

Like everyone else, I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around what happened Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs. It’s something we’ve never seen before: The winner of the Kentucky Derby was disqualified for interference during the running of the race.

As the social media age dictates, reaction to the decision has been mixed and loud, and it’s not expected to quiet down anytime soon. Many people I like and respect voiced support for the unanimous decision that disqualified Maximum Security and elevated Country House to the top spot. Many people I like and respect also thought it was a terrible, awful, no-good, very-bad call that disgraced the biggest race of the year.

My opinion is that the DQ was warranted. We can go on and on about this, but while Maximum Security didn’t bother Country House, his drifting nearly caused War of Will to clip heels, and Long Range Toddy was sandwiched as a result. Maybe neither horse was winning, and maybe Country House was never getting by, but I don’t think any of that matters.

However, I’m writing this not to take one side or the other, but to put forth an alternate hypothesis. With all due respect to the writers, handicappers, and pundits that have voiced their opinions…I don’t think it matters what any of us think of the decision.

Why? Because there’s a bigger elephant in the room nobody wants to address that was front and center Saturday afternoon.

“What is a foul that merits disqualification?”

Ask that question to officials in Kentucky, New York, Florida, and California, and you’re going to get four different answers. By the letter of the rules in each state, infractions that merit disqualification in one state don’t necessarily merit disqualification in another. This is even before the human element of the story comes into play (as a former TVG colleague states often, horse racing is the only sport where officials consult the athletes on whether or not to call a penalty).

If you bend or break the rules in any other sport, you know the penalty. If you’re a basketball player and you steamroll a defender whose feet are set, you lose the ball. If you’re a catcher on a baseball team and you inch up to where the batter has no chance to hit the ball, the batter gets first base. If you’re lined up on the football field and move before the ball is snapped, your team loses five yards.

“What is a foul that merits disqualification?”

Four states.

Four different answers.

One big problem.

A national racing commission is not the answer to horse racing’s abundance of issues. There are logical questions about who would run such a commission, and what groups would or would not be represented within it (any idea being floated around about this seems to shut out bettors; consciously done or not, that’s a big problem).

However, there is no reason why circuits cannot come together and implement one consistent code with regard to how races are ridden by jockeys and policed by stewards. At a time when racing is under a microscope for a variety of reasons, enacting such a code in the name of consistency, transparency, and fair play could only serve to benefit racing in any number of ways.

Gamblers would know what to expect in every single situation involving an inquiry or objection. Jockeys would know what not to do on the track, and how they would be punished for breaking the rules. The general public would see an effort to protect horses and riders, at a time when many concerned with safety are holding their collective breath every time fields go postward.

If circuits don’t trust one another (and let’s be honest, if they did, race scheduling would never be an issue), let the NTRA handle it. Put such a code into the guidelines of the safety accreditation process that every establishment goes through each year. If you’re a track, and you want that accreditation, you’re going to play by these rules. If you don’t want those rules in place, that’s fine, but members of the public are going to know where you stand and draw their own conclusions.

My issue isn’t whether or not Maximum Security deserved to come down. My issue is that there was no clear, concise answer about how to attack this situation. By the count of Horse Racing Nation editor Jonathan Lintner, it took 10 times longer to decide the outcome of the inquiry than it did to run the race. If there’s a code in place that everyone has to follow, from jockeys to stewards, there’s no subjectivity to the process, we all know what’s going to happen, and everything becomes much easier.

Following the race, one steward at Churchill Downs read a statement. She did not answer questions from the media or the public, and I do not have an issue with that. Stewards should not be spokespeople, just as referees should not speak to media covering their respective sports. Leave that stuff to the suckers in marketing and public relations (hi, Ed DeRosa!).

Having said that, in the scrum of unanswered questions involving such entities as Kentucky taxpayers, to the best of my knowledge, nobody asked the one question I wanted answered.

“What is a foul that merits disqualification?”

Your guess is as good as mine.

Isn’t that a problem?

Justify, Accelerate, Horse of the Year, and Unfair Conundrums

A few days ago, top-notch turf writer and all-around good guy Jeremy Balan attempted to get a constructive dialogue going about Justify, Accelerate, and the voting for Horse of the Year. As most such attempts do, this went haywire quickly, with many respondents on Twitter unable to engage in basic discourse without resorting to tactics often seen during elementary school recess (seriously, folks, we’re better than this).

It’s no secret that I’m passionate about what I believe in when it comes to this issue. I respect Accelerate and what he accomplished this season, but I firmly believe an undefeated Triple Crown winner trumps anything any other thoroughbred could do in a single season. As such, when it comes time for me to submit my Eclipse Award ballot, Justify will earn my Horse of the Year vote.

I understand that others disagree with me on this, and I even get a few of the arguments. Justify didn’t run after the Belmont, and in the back half of the year, Accelerate captured three Grade 1 races (including the Breeders’ Cup Classic). Justify never raced against older horses, and this year’s crop of 3-year-olds (which looked promising at the start of the season) fizzled as the months went by.

However, I can’t help but feel like Justify is paying for something else. Let’s head to Peabody and Sherman’s WABAC Machine and travel all the way back to 2015.

mr-peabody-and-sherman

No horse had won racing’s Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and the sport had suffered through several agonizing close calls. Silver Charm never saw Touch Gold. Real Quiet was nosed by Victory Gallop (and may have been taken down had the photo gone the other way). Smarty Jones was several hundred pounds overweight, with half of the riders in the field ganging up on him before Birdstone picked up the pieces.

Out of the darkness came American Pharoah, a four-legged wrecking ball that had demolished two overmatched fields in Arkansas ahead of the Kentucky Derby. Despite being kept extremely wide on the first Saturday in May, he prevailed over Firing Line. A torrential downpour couldn’t stop him two weeks later in the Preakness, and the next month, he made the Belmont Park grandstand shake.

(Relevant tangent: I get a lot of arguments in favor of Accelerate, but the “we’re emphasizing the Triple Crown too much” argument needs to go the way of the dodo bird. In 2015, many of us were wistfully wondering if we’d ever see a Triple Crown winner again, and some in the industry openly wondered if the sequence needed to be changed to make it easier. We’ve gotten two since then, good for a mere 13 in a century, and suddenly it doesn’t matter as much? This is inconsistent at best and flat wrong at worst.)

American Pharoah was instantly revered as a legend. It didn’t matter what he did after that, or who he beat, or that he lost the Travers, or that Beholder scratched ahead of a highly-anticipated showdown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Because he accomplished something no equine had in nearly four decades, the public was grateful for his presence and didn’t ask questions.

Justify got no such favorable treatment. It was only a three-year gap between Triple Crown winners, and the same guy who trained the last one got to do it again. Even considering Justify’s defiance of the Apollo Curse, his journey to racing’s pantheon seemed…almost ho-hum by comparison. As impressive as it was, there was a hint of, “we saw this movie three years ago, and that one was better.”

For purposes of this exercise, let’s assume American Pharoah either never existed or retired after the Arkansas Derby. In this alternate reality, Firing Line wins the Kentucky Derby, Tale of Verve wins the Preakness, and Frosted wins the Belmont. Racing continues to be without a Triple Crown winner until 2018, when Justify goes from an unraced maiden to the horse that snapped a 40-year drought in less than five months.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that such a scenario would make Justify one of the most beloved horses in history. He’s not seen this way because another Bob Baffert trainee won the same series of races while Justify was nursing.

I submit that such a conundrum is unfair to the horse’s legacy, and that this perception has altered the way some are approaching Horse of the Year balloting. If you’re more impressed by Accelerate’s resume given his year-long campaign and number of Grade 1 victories, I respect that (though I’ll exercise my right to amicably disagree). If you’re voting for Accelerate because of a distorted perception of the Triple Crown, its degree of difficulty, and what another horse did several years ago, I find that ridiculous.

CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: The Ballad of Big Brown

Even though I was there, I don’t remember much about the 2008 Belmont Stakes. My main memory of that day is picking out a spot on the third level of the Belmont Park grandstand an hour before the race. The crowd began packing everyone in like sardines, and in an effort to hold my position across from the sixteenth pole, I clutched a sign advertising the section below it for dear life. It wasn’t pretty, but after a few minutes of pushing, people got the idea that I wasn’t moving.

It’s taken me 10 years, but I’ve realized that’s a heck of a metaphor for the way racing fans hold on to certain beliefs. We hold on tight, with white-knuckled grips that signify either deeply held convictions or immense fears of being wrong, but either way, when such a topic arises in conversation, we’ll speak our respective pieces as loudly as we can.

I was a college student then. I’d just finished my sophomore year at Ithaca College, and much as I had for Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, I had successfully persuaded a parent (in this case, my father) to take me to the Belmont.

I watched with baited breath as Big Brown, the easiest of winners in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, strolled into the starting gate. The crowd’s buzz was audible, as it had been during my prior ventures to cancelled coronations in both 2003 and 2004.

The horses settled in the starting gate, among them the undefeated Big Brown, with Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux in the irons.

The race started.

And then, an instant later, it was over.

– – – – –

I got the inspiration to write this column from a brief discussion with Desormeaux on Twitter Wednesday morning. I’d just woken up, 45 minutes before the start of my work day, and I saw that he’d retweeted something saying he was online and answering questions.

Having heard several theories on what happened that muggy Long Island afternoon, and having not yet acquired the filter that comes with consciousness, I asked if any of the conspiracy theories about that afternoon held water. Desormeaux, predictably, was not amused.

There was, however, an ulterior motive to my line of questioning. If you ask a group of racing fans who the top horse of the mid to late-2000’s was, you’ll get a fair variety of responses. Many fans will say either Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra. Some will say fellow Hall of Famer Curlin, or even Rags to Riches (the filly who edged the two-time Horse of the Year in the 2007 Belmont). Barbaro will also be fondly remembered, if only for the memories of what might have been if not for his catastrophic injury in the Preakness. Big Brown’s name likely doesn’t come up in that conversation. For various reasons, the bay son of Boundary isn’t seen as one of the best of his generation, despite wins in every single race he finished.

Much of this is undoubtedly due to the horse’s connections, which seemed to be under an interminable cloud of controversy. Big Brown was owned by IEAH Stables, which operated as horse racing’s version of a hedge fund. They had achieved considerable success with horses like 2007 turf champion Kip Deville and eventual 2008 champion sprinter Benny the Bull, but something about the enterprise did not mesh well with the racing establishment.

As the excellent Deadspin article on IEAH cited, perhaps it was the “new money” aspect of the organization that rubbed some the wrong way. What did not help the public perception of the enterprise, though, was IEAH’s trainer of choice. Rick Dutrow was one of the most gifted horsemen on the NYRA circuit, one that many feel was railroaded when he was slapped with a 10-year suspension. He was also brash, opinionated, and never afraid of a microphone, especially when the topic of conversation was one of his fastest trainees. As gifted a conditioner as he was, Dutrow did himself no favors when it came to public relations.

Horses cannot choose their connections. Many of the four-legged immortals whose form we admire were so talented that their owners and trainers were, in some way, bystanders to their brilliance, just like the rest of us. Man o’ War was that way. So was Secretariat. A case could be made for Zenyatta as well, given her personality and tendency to prance around walking rings as if she owned them (with one exception, she may as well have).

Even if he had cruised to victory in the Belmont Stakes, Big Brown would have never had that luxury. His owners were not the “happy to be there” types, nor was his trainer. A sect of the racing industry would have viewed Big Brown as the black sheep of the Triple Crown winners, horse racing’s equivalent to the cousin or uncle that never gets invited over for Thanksgiving dinner. In no way is this the fault of a supremely talented racehorse that was on the verge of greatness, but such is the legacy of Team Big Brown.

For these reasons, Big Brown has been given the short end of the stick for a decade. In no way is this more evident than when you compare the 2008 standout to a horse of more recent vintage that hit a similar wall (or, more accurately, was hit by a similar hoof) when going a mile and a half in New York.

– – – – –

The year was 2014. A California-bred of humble beginnings had taken the horse racing world by storm, and was now one Big Sandy lap away from doing what Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, and Big Brown could not.

California Chrome walked into the starting gate beneath Victor Espinoza, whose career the son of Lucky Pulpit almost singlehandedly revived. Once again, I was there. This time, I was on assignment for HRTV, and I was watching not from the grandstand, but from the Long Island Railroad platform near the top of the stretch, less than 100 yards from the HRTV trailer.

Chrome broke a bit awkwardly, but settled into what seemed like a fine trip. Turning for home, he looked like a winner, and Espinoza began pumping his arms. However, when the eventual Hall of Fame reinsman stepped on the gas pedal, he found that the tank was empty. California Chrome hung and settled for fourth behind Tonalist.

Within 24 hours, former HRTV and TVG colleague Scott Hazelton had unearthed a reason for Chrome’s flat performance. Matterhorn, a hopeless longshot in the race, had stepped on the Triple Crown hopeful out of the gate, causing a massive gash that took social media by storm. In the eyes of the racing world, California Chrome’s effort went from disappointing to borderline heroic, and followers eagerly waited to see when the fan favorite would return to the track.

He raced three more times that year. He was once again one-paced in the Pennsylvania Derby, which was unapologetically viewed by his connections as both a prep and a paid workout given the incentives offered by Parx. He then ran a strong third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race marred by Bayern’s antics out of the starting gate and a non-disqualification that’s even more indefensible now than it was at the time, before cruising home in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby on turf at Del Mar. Despite losing to Bayern twice, and despite failing to win a Grade 1 on dirt after the Preakness, California Chrome was voted the 2014 Horse of the Year.

All of this goes in stark contrast to what took place six years earlier. Big Brown was stepped on coming out of the gate by a horse named Guadalcanal, a horse for whom Joe Nevills’s “no times 17” haiku would’ve been appropriate. As Desormeaux said, ESPN followed the trail of blood all the way back to the barn. Big Brown bounced back to win twice more before being retired prior to a highly-anticipated Breeders’ Cup Classic showdown with Curlin…and yet could finish no better than third in Horse of the Year voting. Curlin had done enough to earn the trophy despite a fourth-place finish in the Classic, but the real shock was that Zenyatta, who hadn’t yet run against males, finished second. The four Grade 1 wins, two of which came in Triple Crown races, as well as a win over older horses on turf in a $500,000 race…earned Big Brown 13 first-place votes.

Why does history make Big Brown pay for the sins of his connections? Separate the horse from the humans around him, and you have one of the most brilliant horses since the turn of the millennium, one that may have been even better on turf than he was on dirt. Racing’s lineage is filled with imperfect characters of the human variety, whether any of us want to admit it or not. The way we perceive Big Brown, 10 years after his failed Triple Crown bid, reflects the ever-selective “character clause” that’s so popular in other sports. I’m of the belief that one can separate the horse from the people associated with it, and that this is the way we should approach the 2008 dual classic winner.

2018 Belmont Stakes: Analysis, Selections, Tickets, and Unpopular Opinions

Let’s get one crucifixion-inducing opinion out of the way right now: If Justify loses the Belmont Stakes, thus failing to win horse racing’s Triple Crown, there’s a chance I make a LOT of money.

In my heart, I want Justify to channel Secretariat and guzzle the field with the type of performance where he could stop at King Umberto’s for a slice and a Jay Privman handshake going around the first turn, chow down on the backstretch, burp a few times around the far turn, and win by 20. If I’ve said this once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Horse racing needs stars, and if Justify can go from an unraced maiden to a Triple Crown winner in less than four months, he’ll ascend to a level few equines of the past century have reached.

From a gambling standpoint, though, I think it’s worth trying to beat him (as I also explained following the Preakness). The old gambling adage says to never bet a horse, as the favorite, to do something it’s never done before. The Belmont will be Justify’s sixth start in less than four months, and it will be contested at the grueling distance of a mile and a half against a sizable field, some of whom are bred up and down for this trip (more on two of them later). His Preakness wasn’t atrocious, but it was certainly a step back from his prior efforts. If he brings his Kentucky Derby form with him Saturday, maybe the race is for second. If he brings his Preakness form, where he edged two longshots by less than a length (one of which he dusted two weeks prior), then the race is much more wide-open than the odds board will say it is.

For those reasons, I think it’s prudent to take a swing against Justify in the Belmont. If Justify wins, I’ll consider my $40 money well-spent to ensure racing’s pantheon of greats opens its doors to another one, and I’ll cheer right along with the racing public. However, if one of the two horses I’m using in the all-stakes Pick Four wins, I stand to make, to quote former TVG colleague Todd Schrupp, racks on racks on racks (hi, Todd!).

We’ll dive into that Pick Four later, but first, we’ll talk about the races that comprise the early Pick Five. I like that sequence, and it’s one where you may be rewarded handsomely even without the presence of big prices. Let’s take a look!

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1

R1: 1,6
R2: 2,3,6,7
R3: 4,6
R4: 3,7
R5: 3,9

64 Bets, $32

I don’t have singles on my ticket, and that’s by design. I think many of these races can be whittled down to just two horses, with the second being the most wide-open of the bunch.

I couldn’t get past the two likely favorites in the opener, as #1 LA MONEDA and #6 WAR CANOE look like the ones to beat. The former comes back to turf after a race she probably needed off the long layoff, while the latter outran her 38-1 odds when third in a state-bred stakes race last month and gets class relief here.

The second race is the Easy Goer, which last year was won by eventual champion West Coast. I can’t see a horse in here getting that good by year’s end, but it’s a solid group. #2 MASK looks imposing if you can forgive his clunker in the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile, which was in a bog off of a four-month break. I’m using him, but I don’t think he’s any sort of a cinch. #3 RUGBYMAN graduated by a city block last time out, #6 BREAKING THE RULES is 2 for 2 and bred up and down for distance, and #7 DARK VADER comes in off a lifetime-best effort in a classy optional claimer (the third-place finisher came back to win a Cal-bred stakes race).

Race #3 is the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps for older fillies and mares. #6 ABEL TASMAN is a must-use. She’ll be favored and appears to be working with a purpose since her seasonal debut, where she ran fourth in the Grade 1 La Troienne. We know she can handle Belmont, and Bob Baffert may have her fully cranked. However, I also need to use #4 PACIFIC WIND. She’s 2 for 2 since coming to the Chad Brown barn, and one of those wins came in the Grade 2 Ruffian. If you toss out last year’s Grade 2 Bayakoa over a quirky Los Alamitos surface, she’s undefeated on dirt, and I think she could give last year’s Champion 3-Year-Old Filly all she can handle.

The fourth is the Grade 1 Acorn. #3 MONOMOY GIRL may be the shortest-priced favorite on the card, and that includes Justify in the Belmont. She’s emerged as the top 3-year-old filly in the country, but I have enough reservations here to where I cannot single her and move on. I think she’s a two-turn horse, and her lone one-turn race on dirt, while a win, came over a soft field. The other one I need to have on my ticket is #7 TALK VEUVE TO ME, who ran really well when second in the Grade 2 Eight Belles. She was nearly five lengths clear of the third-place finisher that day, and I don’t think this distance will be a problem. The outside post helps her, and she’ll certainly be a playable price.

The payoff leg is the Grade 2 Brooklyn for older horses going a mile and a half. #9 WAR STORY won this race last year and has done tremendous work when placed in the right spots (also known as steering clear of Gun Runner). He was very impressive in this race a season ago, and a repeat effort would make him tough. The only horse I could see beating him is #3 HARD STUDY, who is a perfect 6 for 6 over fast dirt tracks and exits a runaway win in the Flat Out, which serves as Belmont’s local prep for this event.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #8

R8: 1,3,4,5,7
R9: 2,4,10,11
R10: 1,10
R11: 4,8

80 Bets, $40

Yep, not only am I tossing Justify, but I’m also trying to beat Mind Your Biscuits in the Grade 1 Met Mile. I’ll talk a bit more about that when we get to that race.

The eighth is the Grade 1 Just a Game, and I don’t have a clue. I spread pretty deep in here, and if I could’ve afforded to buy the race, I would have done so. Chad Brown’s got a few strong runners in here, as both #3 OFF LIMITS and #7 A RAVING BEAUTY could win. Depending on how the turf course is playing, though, #4 LULL could be dangerous. She’s the main early speed in this race, and Belmont’s turf course tends to be very kind to horses that are forwardly-positioned. If she’s allowed to dictate terms, she could forget to stop, and if that happens, we’ll start this wager off with a mild upset.

The ninth is the Grade 1 Met Mile, and as mentioned, I’m against #1 MIND YOUR BISCUITS. Yes, he ran a colossal race in Dubai, when he rallied from well back on a track that had been favoring speed for weeks. Having said that, his record at this distance isn’t great. He was second in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile last year, and he ran OK that day, but he actually lost ground to Sharp Azteca late, which isn’t what you want to see from a closer. The rail draw also presents a problem, and it’s not like there’s much early speed signed on.

I’m going four-deep without using that one, and my top pick is a big price on the morning line. That’s #4 MCCRAKEN, who’s perfect at this distance, has been pointed to this race for months by his connections, and could be sitting on a big performance second off of the long layoff. #10 BEE JERSEY seems like the main speed, and #11 AWESOME SLEW never seems to run a bad race, so I had to use them both. Finally, I threw #2 BOLT D’ORO on my ticket as well. If you toss out the Kentucky Derby, where he was not persevered with late, he fits with this group, and he’s been working lights-out at Keeneland since that effort.

I couldn’t get past the two Chad Brown trainees in the 10th, the Grade 1 Manhattan. #1 ROBERT BRUCE and #10 BEACH PATROL look like the best horses in here, and while the former can certainly win, I prefer the latter. The Grade 1 Turf Classic at Churchill Downs was contested over one of the wettest turf courses we’ve seen over the past several years, and Beach Patrol ran a game second in a race that doubled as his first start in six months while going shorter than he probably wants to go. This trip should be more to his liking, and if he’s fully-cranked, I think he’ll be tough to beat.

This brings us to the Belmont Stakes. You already know that I’m taking a stand against Justify. Instead, I’ll rely on top pick #4 HOFBURG, who’s bred up and down for this trip and had a ton of trouble in the Kentucky Derby, and #8 VINO ROSSO, whose one-paced style and distance-oriented pedigree make him a natural fit for this race. Perhaps they need Justify to regress, but if that happens and this ticket hits, it’s entirely possible we’re looking at a massive score by my modest standards.