On Track with Johnny D: Belmont Headache Grows

The Belmont Stakes is still a week away and it’s already giving me a headache.

In fact, this Triple Crown season has been one aggravation after another. The pain in my head started on the first Saturday in May and gained ferocity with the Preakness. Now, as the Belmont approaches, it’s even more intense. And that’s a shame because, each year, I look forward to this trio of races as much as Rover does dinner. And like Rover I bury my face in the bowl and lick it clean.

I prepare for the Kentucky Derby and subsequent Triple Crown legs like I’m studying for the bar exam. No stone unturned. No page unmarked. No video unwatched.

This season’s Kentucky Derby preliminaries produced a pair of interesting longshot contenders in Suddenbreakingnews and Creator. The former hit my radar when he left Whitmore in the Grade 3 Southwest dust. Suddenbreakingnews’ previous five starts suggested he was a talented sort with three wins and two seconds—on dirt, turf and slop from seven-eighths to one mile. Obviously, he was a force to be reckoned with at Remington Park, where he won a $101k stakes race and missed by a nose in a $250k affair. With the Southwest victory, a subsequent troubled fifth in the Grade 2 Rebel, and then a closing second in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, all at Oaklawn Park, he proved he could act on any stage.

I used him extensively in my Kentucky Derby superfectas at over 24-1 odds! And you know how that turned out. The top four Kentucky Derby favorites finished first through fourth in the exact order of favoritism. Suddenbreakingnews was flying at the finish and wound up fifth, beaten for third less than the length of one of Danny DeVito’s trouser legs. He wasn’t going to catch Nyquist or Exaggerator, but if he had gained the show spot I would have cashed several nice superfecta tickets.

Creator caught my eye when third in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes in March. At the time, a look at his previous efforts suggested that he was the type of colt likely to improve with racing. His deep-closing style seemed to work against him early in his career--he had managed four seconds in five starts before winning his first race. As with Suddenbreakingnews, Creator had experience with main, turf and sloppy tracks at distances from a mile and one-sixteenth to a mile and one-eighth. Fortunately, I was on his bandwagon when he won the Arkansas Derby at over 11-1. Suddenbreakingnews, second at over 5-1, made for a scrumptious exacta, too!

Perhaps, because I had cashed so handsomely on Creator and ‘News in the Arkansas Derby, I was what horseplayers would call ‘stuck’ on them in the Kentucky version. In other words, because they had been so good to me in the Arkansas Derby, I couldn’t see past the duo a few weeks later in Louisville.

Maybe.

At the time, I respected Nyquest—an appreciation earned when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile while racing so wide he was almost in the Keeneland parking lot. However, I wasn’t about to put all of my eggs inside a short-priced, unbeaten Louisville basket. Exaggerator’s sloppy Santa Anita score was strong, but his San Felipe hang job still nagged me. Again, the Derby price at 5-1 on him wasn’t especially appetizing either. Gun Runner seemed determined, but the mile and one-quarter distance loomed problematic. I didn’t find Mohaymen particularly appealing at all.

In the Kentucky Derby, in addition to using Suddenbreakingnews extensively, I also swung from the heels with Creator, making a large win wager on him and keying him in just about every other opportunity I could find.

You know how that turned out. Creator finished a troubled 13th. He was making an encouraging, stride-for-stride move along the rail directly behind Exaggerator through the final turn. As the duo straightened out for home, Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux continued to hug the rail with Exaggerator and, instead of playing ‘follow the leader,’ veteran reinsman Ricardo Santana, Jr. angled Creator outward. That proved to be a mistake because there was no room anywhere for Creator to advance. He was bumped, jostled and molested. Exaggerator, on the other hand, continued under Desormeaux for a few more rail-skimming strides before angling out off the rail toward a runner-up finish.

I know. Bad things can happen when horseplayers back deep closers always at the mercy of pace and traffic. That’s about as lethal a one-two combination as cancer and heart disease. If one doesn’t get you, the other sure as hell might!

Usually, I’m a speed guy. My formative handicapping tutelage came in Southern California where speed is king. I hate backing closers. So why on earth would I fall in love with two horses that in each race, after a quarter-mile, are further from the front-runner than they are from the ambulance?

Because the prices were right. I’m a sucker for ‘value.’ Although some would argue that there’s less ‘value’ in tearing up tickets on fifth and 13th place Derby finishers than there is in cashing on a winning 5/2 favorite.

Ouch! I suppose I deserve that one.

But, you know what they say, ‘Live by the sword, die by a pocketknife.’ I’ll continue to search for price horses that can win or might complete an exotic payday. And when I find one, two or three of them and the racing gods smile on me…lookout…Uncle Sam just yelled ‘Bingo!’

And that’s also why, in this space, I touted 17-1 Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine in my suggested superfecta. Of course, in that piece I also keyed Nyquist on top and played against eventual winner Exaggerator.

Hence the banging in my head!

Suddenbreakingnews, Creator and Cherry Wine are expected to compete in the Belmont Stakes. Will I back one, two or all three of them, even though a blind man can see that there’s no pace in the race? At this point, trainer Todd Pletcher, as successful in the Belmont as he is fruitless in the Kentucky Derby, draws to a pair of pace aces in Tampa Bay Derby winner Destin and back-to-back, double-digit winner and Preakness fourth Stradivari. Shouldn’t they control the race up front and make it nearly impossible for anyone to come from behind? Yes.

And, contrary to popular belief, isn’t the one mile and one-half Belmont Stakes usually won by a horse that races on or near the lead? Yes.

So, knowing all that, how in the world can I possibly rely on several deep closers in the Belmont Stakes?

How can I not?

No wonder my head aches.

If you think my noggin hurts now, imagine the agony if I permit Suddenbreakingnews or Creator to win the Belmont Stakes at a huge price without my money on the nose?

Please, excuse me; I’ve got to swallow a few aspirin.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Belmont Headache Grows

On Track with Johnny D |