TDN Belmont Preview

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Hot Rod Charlie | Susie Raisher

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The trend of skipping the GI Preakness S. after a losing run in the GI Kentucky Derby has evolved as a standard 21st Century preparation for the GI Belmont S. This Saturday, five of the eight entrants follow that pattern. Over the past 20 years (not counting the pandemic-altered 2020), the Belmont has been won by nine horses that ran in Louisville then opted out of Baltimore. During that same time frame, seven horses won the Belmont after not having run in either the Derby or Preakness (only one entrant will try that this year). Of course, we had two Triple Crown winners during that era (Justify in 2018 and American Pharoah in 2015). Two others–Afleet Alex in 2005 and Point Given in 2001–ran in the Derby, won the Preakness, then also won the Belmont.

This week's Triple Crown feature ranks the Belmont entrants in “likeliest winner” order.

1) HOT ROD CHARLIE (c, Oxbow–Indian Miss, by Indian Charlie) O-Roadrunner Racing, Boat Racing LLC & William Strauss; B-Edward A Cox (KY); T-Doug O'Neill; J-Flavien Prat. Sales
history: $17,000 Ylg '19 FTKFEB; $110,000 Ylg '19 FTKOCT. Equineline PPs.
This two-time Fasig-Tipton sales grad ($17,000 FTKFEB; $110,000 FTKOCT) has enough positive attributes to rate a narrow edge over the other top Belmont contenders. This son of Oxbow has a field-leading eight starts under his belt (last four Beyer Speed Figures: 94, 94, 99, 100), although his elite-level progression arc dates to lifetime start number five, a 94-1 runner-up effort in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile. His Jan. 30 GIII Lewis S. third (beaten a neck in a three-way photo after stumbling at the break and jostling in deep stretch) stamped him as a seasoned competitor who can handle varying levels of pace pressure and in-race chaos. And even though Hot Rod Charlie wired the GII Louisiana Derby (never outkicked in a prolonged duel over the final 2 ½ furlongs), this tactically versatile colt is not a needs-the-lead speedster. In the Derby, Hot Rod Charlie kept his cool when briefly trapped on heels in the first quarter mile then stalked the pacemakers. Even though he looked poised to pounce three-sixteenths out, he was simply bested by the top two while digging in to run a very credible third. His connections aimed him for the Belmont straight away, even securing a commitment from in-demand Flavien Prat to ride back, which means Prat will be getting off his long-shot Preakness winner to honor this call. There are some trainer-related stats that are a cause for pause—Doug O'Neill is just 2-for-27 with dirt horses racing 10+ furlongs over the last five years, and he is only 3-for-34 at Belmont during that time. But what an accomplishment it would be for Hot Rod Charlie's dam, Indian Miss, to produce a 12-furlong Belmont winner after already foaling the 2019 sprint champ, Mitole.

2) ESSENTIAL QUALITY (c, Tapit–Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality) O/B-Godolphin (KY); T-Brad Cox; J-Luis Saez. Equineline PPs
Maybe you can win a bar bet this weekend knowing that the last time the beaten Derby favorite even ran in the Belmont was all the way back in 2003, when Empire Maker (who had skipped the Preakness) denied Funny Cide the Triple Crown. TDN Rising Star Essential Quality, fourth in Louisville at 2.9-1 odds, will likewise come in off a five-week freshening for this year's renewal, and this juvenile champ and 'TDN Rising Star' stands to benefit off that break after two demanding performances in April and May. Essential Quality had largely coasted through four straight wins at the start of his career without facing true in-race adversity or a heated stretch battle. But this athletic Tapit colt's GII Blue Grass S. score far and away rated as the most impressive–and arduous–prep race this spring (a round-the-track duel with a final furlong in :12.53), and it might have sapped him a touch for what ended up being a no-spark final two furlongs at Churchill. While it's true that Essential Quality endured mild roughhousing at the Derby break, Luis Saez opted to give up ground on both turns in order to work out the type of trip Essential Quality usually covets, stalking in fifth, outside and in the clear behind fast fractions. And yes, this colt delivered some fight when roused for run turning for home. But the effort lacked the emphatic punch of his previous races, setting up the $1.5 million Belmont question of whether Essential Quality can revert to divisional dominance when tasked with 12 furlongs. Over the last five years, trainer Brad Cox has zero wins and two in-the-money finishes from 12 dirt-race starters at 1 ¼ miles or longer.

3) KNOWN AGENDA (c, Curlin–Byrama {GB}, by Byron {GB}) O/B-St Elias Stable (KY); T-Todd Pletcher; Irad Ortiz, Jr. Sales History: $135,000 RNA Ylg '19 FTSAUG. Equineline PPs
The narrative surrounding Known Agenda has always been that he's a longer-the-better colt who's cut out to be of Triple Crown caliber. And then there's the longer-term metric that shows trainer Todd Pletcher consistently knows how to spot Belmont-capable horses, with three wins and nine other in-the-money finishes in this race. But you have to buy into both of those lines of reasoning to forecast a Belmont win for this Curlin homebred for St. Elias Stable ($135,000 RNA at FTSAUG), because Known Agenda's ninth in the Derby doesn't yield many cogent clues that point to an obvious form reversal. Perhaps it's best to treat his blah Derby as a throwout—Known Agenda caught a super-clean gate break despite drawing the dreaded one hole in a 19-horse field, but jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. couldn't get him to settle, and the colt appeared uncomfortable parked inside while well back before passing only stragglers late. Known Agenda's GI Florida Derby win suggests he's capable of enduring a covered-up trip and finishing with gusto, but the difference in that race was that he nailed every single hole that opened with rail-skimming precision in what equated to a gift-trip type of run. Maybe in that respect the shorter field in the Belmont will work to Known Agenda's advantage. He should be able to establish a behind-the-speed position anywhere Ortiz wants him placed in the eight-horse pack, and Known Agenda's three wins already at nine furlongs provide a solid enough stamina base to build upon.

4) ROMBAUER (Twirling Candy–Cashmere, by Cowboy Cal) O/B-John & Diane Fradkin (Ky); T-Michael W. McCarthy; J-John Velazquez. Equineline PPs
A bet on Rombauer to win the Belmont is essentially a vote of confidence that his 11-1 Preakness victory was a career-defining turning point that elevated him to A-level status within the 3-year-old division. Turning point? Yes, most definitely–that was an efficient, sustained run he uncorked in Baltimore. But I'm not quite ready to commit to the “A-level status” part of that argument. This Twirling Candy homebred's Preakness score resonates more as a well-executed mid-pack stalking move that enabled Rombauer to collar two spent leaders 1 ½ furlongs from the wire while nobody else was firing with a fresh, serious challenge. The 102 Beyer that Rombauer earned for the effort looks sharp at face value, but it also represents a sizable 14-point jump above this colt's previous best, and improving upon that type of rating while stretching out to 12 furlongs against a deeper Belmont crew is going to be a much more difficult task. Having said all that, it's always worth respecting multi-surface stayers at any level of the game, and Rombauer has now won on grass, Tapeta, and dirt. John Velazquez gets the call because Flavien Prat had committed before the Preakness to ride Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont–not a bad pickup for the Rombauer team considering the vast Belmont Park oval is the Hall-of-Fame rider's home track.

5) ROCK YOUR WORLD (c, Candy Ride {Arg}–Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker) O-Hronis Racing LLC & Talla Racing LLC; B-Ron & Deborah McAnally (KY); T-John Sadler; J-Joel Rosario. Sales History: $650,000 Ylg '19 KEESEP. Equineline PPs
There's not much question that Rock Your World absorbed the worst of the multi-horse crunch out of the starting gate in the Derby. He got pinballed back to last (but righted himself professionally), picked off half the pack before the first turn, then gave up serious real estate on both bends. He covered 6,733 feet according to Trakus, the most in the 19-horse field and 90 feet more than the Derby winner. Rock Your World also got hip-checked pretty solidly at the top of the lane, and jockey Joel Rosario kept him in coast mode through the final furlong to save something for another day. This Saturday is the highly anticipated “reset” race for this $650,000 KEESEP colt by Candy Ride (Arg), but that horror trip in the Derby is sure to be baked into Rock Your World's underlaid pari-mutuel price, which I suspect will fall below his 9-2 morning line based on perceptions he could get away as the lone speed. Trainer John Sadler has said all along that Rock Your World is a smooth-energy horse whose maturity just needs to catch up to his large frame. And while the Kentucky Derby was an ambitious placement for a 3-for-3 colt who had only once won on dirt, that one non-turf victory in the GI Santa Anita Derby did come over Medina Spirit (Protonico), the next-out victor in the first leg of the Triple Crown.

6) BOURBONIC (Bernardini–Dancing Afleet, by Afleet Alex) O/B-Calumet Farm (KY). T-Todd Pletcher. J-Kendrick Carmouche. Equineline PPs
One theory going into the Derby was that if Bourbonic could close into such a pedestrian pace to win the GII Wood Memorial (the 1:54.49 clocking for nine furlongs was the slowest in the history of that stakes), he could be an off-the-tailgate threat in Louisville with a more robust pace to set up the tempo in his favor. It didn't work out that way. This Calumet homebred by Bernardini lagged in second-last behind closer-conducive fractions of :23.09 and :46.70 but never really fired, winding up 13th. Breaking from post one in the Belmont, it's unlikely that trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Kendrick Carmouche will want to alter the same save-ground-for-one-run strategy. But regardless of how the fractions unfold in front of him, Bourbonic is still going to have to come up with at least 15 points worth of Beyer improvement to be on par with the top contenders. Pedigree-wise though, it's hard not to notice that both of this colt's grandsires (A.P. Indy and Afleet Alex) were Belmont S. winners.

7) OVERTOOK (Curlin–Got Lucky, by A.P. Indy) O-Repole Stable, St. Elias Stable, Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier & Derrick Smith. B-Hill 'N' Dale Equine Holdings Inc. & Philip Steinberg (KY). T-Todd Pletcher. J-Manny Franco. Sales History: $1,000,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Equineline PPs
This $1-million KEESEP colt by Curlin sports one lifetime win in a one-turn MSW mile last December but has been luckless twice while second and third over nine furlongs in two Grade III stakes since then. He has a grind-it-out way of going but hasn't been able to string together consistent performances, and is now hiking way up in class in the hope that the added distance will awaken him at a huge mutuel. Trainer Todd Pletcher adds blinkers. He is 2-for-20 with that equipment change in all graded stakes over the past five years (while 0-for-3 in just Grade Is).

8) FRANCE GO DE INA (Will Take Charge–Dreamy Blues, by Curlin) O-Yuji Inaida; B-Betz, Kidder, B & K Canetti & Jim Betz (Ky); T-Ricardo Santana Jr.; J-Joel Rosario; Sales History: $100,000 yrl '19 KEESEP. Equineline PPs.
Prior to the Preakness, the connections of France Go de Ina had announced an intention to remain stateside and run in the Belmont if the colt came out of the race healthy. The presence of a Japan-based horse in a Triple Crown event means the race can be simulcast into that country, so there are financial implications that work in favor of the host tracks if they court these imports. But it's difficult to make a plausible case that this $100,000 KEESEP yearling (by Will Take Charge out of a Curlin mare) will improve drastically off his subpar Preakness seventh against a more daunting field in the Belmont. In Baltimore, jockey Joel Rosario tried an aggressive, mid-race rush to try and catch the leaders unaware. That strategy didn't do anything to aid France Go de Ina's chances, but it did help to soften up the leaders for Rombauer's winning run. Now three weeks later, Rosario will be riding expected Belmont pacemaker Rock Your World. It will be an interesting twist of fate if France Go de Ina's new rider, Ricardo Santana Jr., opts to apply similar mid-race pressure that could alter the complexion of the pace at a crucial point in the 12-furlong journey.

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