The field for the 2012 Belmont Stakes won't be finalized until Wednesday, June 6th when the entries and post positions are drawn, but we have a good enough idea of what the field is going to ultimately look like that we can start to form a few handicapping opinions. I'll Have Another's question for Triple Crown glory will face a serious challenge from a filed comprised of Kentucky Derby holdovers and new shooters.
The New Shooters
The Belmont Stakes will feature several new shooters to the Triple Crown, all of which are trying to play the spoiler role to I'll Have Another's quest for history. Like the Preakness a couple of weeks ago, most of the new shooters appear to be at a severe class disadvantage when compared to the Derby and Preakness winner, or even when compared to Triple Crown holdovers Union Rags and Dullahan. However, there are a few of new faces that players should definitely keep an eye on next Saturday.
Paynter: Trained by Bob Baffert and owned by Zayat Stables (the same combination as Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister), Paynter looks like the most talented of the new shooters to grace the Belmont Stakes this year. His last two races were quite strong, including a second place finish in the one mile G3-Derby Trial at Churchill Downs in late April. Paynter dominated in his last start, taking a field of Allowance horses gate-to-wire at Pimlico on the Preakness undercard.
Paynter has displayed enough talent in his last three races to suggest that he's a legitimate upset threat to I'll Have Another in the Belmont. Three races back he was just 3 ¾ lengths behind I'll Have Another in the G1-Santa Anita Derby, so it's not a huge leap to think he might be able pose a significant challenge to the Derby and Preakness winner.
Atigun: Like Paynter, Atigun beat a field of Allowance horses in his last start after failing to qualify for the Kentucky Derby due to insufficient graded stakes earnings. Atigun is a "grinder" in every sense of the word; he doesn't have a ton of early speed and he doesn't possess a powerful late kick, but he can continue to gallop around the track and pick off tired horses in deep stretch. If his rivals start to hit the wall at the end of their mile and half journey in the Belmont, it's possible that Atigun could pick up the pieces in deep stetch.
Atigun doesn't look like a serious candidate to win the Belmont, but horses with his running style always pose an upset threat when there are questions of stamina in a race.
Mark Valeski: A nice looking colt that ran well in Louisiana this spring and recently won the G2-Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont in mid-May. Mark Valeski is one of the stronger colts of the new shooters but he's facing some severe distance limitations in his pedigree. Both Mark Valeski's sire (Proud Citizen) and dam sire (Fortunate Prospect) tend to produce offspring better suited for races between six furlongs and a mile. It might be asking a lot of this colt to stretch out to 12 furlongs in the Belmont.
Early Picks And Predictions
Regardless of the post position draw on Wednesday, we can feel confident in forecasting a soft early pace in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister is skipping the Belmont, which leaves new shooter Unstoppable U as the only speed horse in the field. And while lone speed is always dangerous in American dirt racing, it's difficult to envision a scenario where Unstoppable U is able to take this Belmont field gate-to-wire for the victory.
The key to I'll Have Another's chances is the ability of jockey Mario Gutierrez to get his mount to relax in the early stages. Post position is almost irrelevant in the mile and a half Belmont; what's more important is a horse quickly settling into a good, relaxed rhythm in order to avoid wasting energy in the early stages. In both the Derby and Preakness, I'll Have Another was content to sit anywhere from three to eight lengths behind the early speed. In the Santa Anita Derby and Robert Lewis Stakes earlier this spring, I'll Have Another was only a couple of lengths behind the leaders.
The versatility that I'll Have Another has displayed in his previous races is what makes him such a difficult horse to defeat at this time. In a race at a mile and a half at Belmont Park - unquestionably the longest race that I'll Have Another and the rest of the field will ever run in their careers - the ability to relax early is paramount to success.
The only serious blemish on I'll Have Another's record was a 6th place finish (beaten 19 lengths) in the G1-Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga last September. That race was run over a sloppy and sealed race track and is the only race of the colt's career where he raced over an off track. The weather, more than the other horses in the starting gate, could be a key factor whether I'll Have Another is able to win the Belmont Stakes.
On paper, I'll Have Another towers over the Belmont Stakes field; he's run the fastest races against the best competition and he's been as consistent as a horse can be over a period of four months. But as we've seen with the Triple Crown over the last three decades, they don't run the Belmont Stakes on paper. Kentucky Derby holdovers Union Rags and Dullahan are talented colts and both will be fresh after skipping the Preakness at Pimlico.