TDN Belmont Stakes Preview: 'Test Of A Champion' Gets A Spa Treatment

Sierra Leone | Sarah Andrew


The field for the GI Belmont S., ranked in “likeliest winner” order:

1) SIERRA LEONE (c, Gun Runner–Heavenly Love, by Malibu Moon). 'TDN Rising Star'. O-Mrs. John Magnier, Michael B Tabor, Derrick Smith Westerberg, Rocket Ship Racing LLC & Peter M. Brant; B-Debby M Oxley (Ky); T-Chad Brown. Sales History: $2,300,000 Ylg '22 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: GISW, 5-3-2-0, $1,918,000. Last start: 2nd May 4 GI Kentucky Derby.

This relentless, long-striding closer looms as the most logical choice to be draped with a blanket of white carnations Saturday at Saratoga. Yet the field Sierra Leone is facing in the truncated (12 furlongs to 10) Belmont S. isn't a collection of creampuffs, and there is a point beyond the hype and endless scrutinization of his roughly run stretch finish in the GI Kentucky Derby when you have to wonder if this colt is “too obvious” to be bettable at or below his favored 9-5 morning-line ranking.

Most handicappers will concede that this Chad Brown trainee is going to unleash one of his trademark, locomotive-like closing kicks, and that is he is probably going to have an easier time doing so in the 10-horse Belmont S. than he did in the chaotic 20-horse Derby. That off-the-tailgate strategy has been Sierra Leone's mode for four straight graded stakes routes, and it's earned him two impressive wins and two narrow defeats by a nose while riding an ascending arc of lifetime Beyer Speed Figures to 99.

In the Derby, Sierra Leone rated while third or fourth from last for most of the backstretch run, advanced with authority entering the far turn, gathered momentum weaving through the pack, then got stalled behind a wall of rivals three-eighths out. He then swung eight wide off the turn, built up serious late-race torque, and was leaning all over eventual third-place finisher Forever Young (Jpn) (Real Steel {Jpn}) the entire length of the stretch, culminating in a frenzied three-way photo for the win.

Sierra Leone | Sarah Andrew

Brown has had five weeks to freshen this colt. According to DRF's Formulator, his benchmark win rate is 24% for all starters over the past five years. That number rises to 26% when you only count horses running back between 33 and 35 days at all levels. It drops to 20% for starters in graded stakes within that 33-to-35-day layoff frame, and dips to 14% when the parameter is narrowed to just Grade I stakes starters running back between 33 and 35 days.

Despite his power and prowess, bettors have reason to be concerned that Sierra Leone will continue to be his own worst enemy in the stretch because of his career-long habit of leaning in for his stretch runs.

To that end, Brown is employing both a new steering bit in Sierra Leone's mouth and a new jockey on his back (from Tyler Gaffalione to Flavien Prat). Will it be enough to set Sierra Leone straight?

2) DORNOCH (c, Good Magic–Puca, by Big Brown). O-West Paces Racing LLC, R A Hill Stable, Belmar Racing and Breeding LLC, Two Eight Racing LLC & Pine Racing Stables; B-Grandview Equine (Ky); T-Danny Gargan. Sales History: $325,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 7-3-2-0, $552,275. Last start: 10th May 4 GI Kentucky Derby.

Dornoch enters the Belmont S. coming off the two worst performances of his career, a fourth-place try, beaten 6 1/4 lengths, in the GI Blue Grass S., and a tenth-place trouncing by 18 lengths in the Kentucky Derby. Yet both races are complete, cross-a-line-through-'em tactical misfires that are masking this colt's true ability, and the bet here is that Dornoch's 15-1 morning-line price overlays his actual chances of winning.

After this full brother to 2023 Derby winner Mage wired a scratch-decimated GII Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream, trainer Danny Gargan pressed on with a late-prep-season plan to teach Dornoch to rate from off the pace in the Blue Grass S. at Keeneland. Dornoch never looked comfortable while taking copious dirt kickback in that Apr. 6 race, and Gargan's strategy then reverted to just letting this colt roll to the front end in Louisville.

Yet that plan never panned out either. Dornoch drew the one post for the Derby, and his also-ran fate was sealed when he got bumped and brushed early and never settled while pegged down inside for most of the trip. Luis Saez eventually positioned him for a decent far-turn bid by coming free from cover, but Dornoch checked hard when the hole Saez was aiming for closed as the field careered off the far turn.

Dornoch managed to spark to life with mild, upper-stretch interest. But when he encountered more roughhousing, and it was obvious the colt wouldn't attain a top placing, Saez didn't hammer on him for run.

From post six at Saratoga, Dornoch figures to put outside pressure on GI Preakness S. upsetter Seize the Grey (Arrogate), who drew the rail and looms as the race's other likely early speed threat. How taxing any internal pace battle might be is what will determine if Dornoch can hold off waves of very capable pressers and closers.

Dornoch is one of only two horses ever to finish in front of No. 1-ranked Sierra Leone. But that GII Remsen S. victory is now six months in the rear-view mirror, and Dornoch–even after hitting the rail in the stretch of that December stakes–had the advantage of being on the best part of a speed-conducive track that helped him re-rally against a not-ready-for-prime-time Sierra Leone.

If Dornoch is to rekindle their rivalry in the Belmont S., he will have to do so on distinctly different terms as a stronger, faster colt.

Mystik Dan | Sarah Andrew

3) MYSTIK DAN (c, Goldencents–Ma'am, by Colonel John). O/B-Lance Gasaway, Daniel Hamby & 4G Racing, LLC (Ky); T-Kenneth G. McPeek. Lifetime Record: GISW, 8-3-2-1, $4,141,360. Last start: 2nd May 18 GI Preakness S.

No reason to micro-analyze the Derby winner's second-place showing in the Preakness: A 9-1 frontrunner who relished a muddy track went straight to an unopposed lead, and the hard-trying Mystik Dan, despite enjoying a no-excuse trip, simply had too much work to do to reel him in.

It is rare these days to see any colt contest all three legs of the Triple Crown, and even more of an unexpected treat for a Derby winner who lost the Preakness to attempt it. And since trainer Kenny McPeek has earned a reputation for not running horses where they don't belong, you can go ahead and make the logical leap that Mystik Dan is benefitting from the seasoning that is transforming him from a speed-centric sprinter to a formidable stalker who punches above his weight in Grade I routes.

Mystik Dan won the Derby by popping out on top for the first sixteenth, conceding the lead, rating at the rail, then edging up despite continually being locked into that inside position. He ranged within two lengths of the lead four furlongs out, continued to race “on hold” through the turn, then Hernandez won a risky gamble by shooting Mystik Dan through a narrow inside gap at the head of the lane that required his colt to skim the fence while shouldering aside a spent pacemaker.

Mystik Dan opened up by two lengths three-sixteenths out, but with two legit closers zeroing in as the line loomed, that lead got whittled away. There's a difference between “tiring” and “quitting,” and while Mystik Dan was losing steam in the final sixteenth, he never packed it in, surviving a three-way bob to prevail in one of the most exciting Derby finishes in decades.

Mystik Dan's trip in the Belmont S. ideally unfolds with Hernandez–like in the Derby–securing inside positioning from post three, about four or five lengths behind dueling leaders. A sustained run from the half-mile pole home is well within this colt's scope of ability over 10 furlongs against this level of competition.

4) ANTIQUARIAN (c, Preservationist–Lifetime Memory, by Istan). ($250,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP). O-Centennial Farms; B-Brereton C. Jones (Ky); T-Todd A. Pletcher. Lifetime Record: GSW, 4-2-1-0, $173,000. Last start: WON May 11 GIII Peter Pan S.

Antiquarian was unfazed when pinballed at the break of the GIII Peter Pan S., then gave up ground three wide around both turns before responding to energetic hustling from jockey John Velazquez. That rousing produced a long, grind-down stretch run that resonated as a nice visual, especially when this colt became emboldened in response to favored rival The Wine Steward (Vino Rosso) digging in and re-rallying at the sixteenth pole.

The result was a three-quarters of a length victory that came back as a 92 Beyer, matching the same figure Antiquarian earned when sixth (but only beaten four lengths) in the Mar. 23 GII Louisiana Derby.

Antiquarian | Sarah Andrew

Antiquarian had broken through the gate prior to the Louisiana Derby, so perhaps more important than any statistical analysis is the fact that he was much more polished given the benefit of seven weeks of development between his Fair Grounds and Aqueduct starts. This colt, after all, didn't truly turn three until May 11, the date he took flight in the Peter Pan.

A wet track could move up Antiquarian. He broke his maiden in the slop at Fair Grounds Feb. 17 in a race that yielded two next-out winners.

Velazquez has won the Belmont S. twice, and any time you get him at 12-1 on the morning line for a Grade I stakes, you have to consider including his mount purely from a value perspective.

5) MINDFRAME (c, Constitution–Walk of Stars, by Street Sense). 'TDN Rising Star'. O-Repole Stable and St. Elias Stables LLC; B-R. Larry Johnson (MD); T-Todd A. Pletcher. Sales History: $600,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $87,360. Last start: WON May 4 allowance.

The 2-for-2 Mindframe carries himself with an assertive panache that belies his light experience and May 13 foaling date.

His emphatic 103 and 97 Beyers, earned in a seven-furlong maiden race and a 1 1/16-miles allowance, respectively, are what earned him lofty status as the 7-2 second favorite on the morning line for the Belmont S.

And those numbers (or comparable values from any other figure-maker) are what will propel this colt to wise-guy contention as the new-face wild card with sky's-the-limit potential making his first start against stakes company.

In Mindframe's unveiling on the undercard of the Mar. 30 GI Florida Derby, he blasted out of gate, planted himself in a primo outside stalking spot while fourth behind a blistering pace, then opened up at will to apply a 13 3/4-length beatdown to a shell-shocked field of foes.

Start number two was on the May 4 undercard for the Kentucky Derby, and Mindframe seized control straight from the outermost post, established a measured mid-race tempo (while always appearing as if he was cruising faster), and only had to effortlessly swat back a single bid from a 30-1 shot before running up the score by 7 1/2 lengths.

Mindframe is aiming to become the first Maryland-bred winner of the Belmont S. since Caveat in 1983. They'll be partying like it's 1877 in the Free State if this colt joins the 19th Century's Cloverbrook as the third Maryland-bred winner of the third leg of the Triple Crown.

Seize the Grey | Sarah Andrew

6) SEIZE THE GREY (c, Arrogate–Smart Shopping by Smart Strike). O-MyRacehorse; B-Jamm, Ltd. (KY); T-D. Wayne Lukas. Sales History: $300,000 Ylg '22 FTSAUG). Lifetime Record: GISW, 10-4-0-3, $1,819,938. Last start: WON May 18 GI Preakness S.

If you judge Seize the Grey solely by his Preakness upset that was orchestrated under extremely favorable conditions (as the lone speed over a muddy surface that other contenders didn't handle), it's tough to project that he'll be able to produce another forward leap like the one that added 12 points to his best lifetime Beyer (from 88 to 100).

But if you widen the lens to account for the overall progress he's made since breaking his maiden on Feb. 24, and then factor in trainer D. Wayne Lukas's enthusiasm for how well this colt bounced out of the Preakness three weeks ago, you have to give this this gray son of Arrogate more than a dark-horse chance of building on that momentum.

Although Seize the Grey seems likely to be asked for speed from post one based on what we saw in his most recent effort, a glance at his past performances shows that only in two of his 10 races has he totally committed to winging it on the lead.

“This horse is very manageable,” Lukas said earlier this week. “You could lay him anywhere in the race and he would be effective. He is not at all a one-dimensional horse.”

Two starts back, when Seize the Grey upset the GII Pat Day Mile S., he stalked in a tight pack behind very quick fractions, rallied four wide, then survived some bumping and split foes to score by 1 1/4 lengths.

Lukas has won four editions of the Belmont S., sweeping the race between 1994 and 1996. He last won in 2000 with 18-1 pace-presser Commendable.

7) RESILIENCE (c, Into Mischief–Meadowsweet, by Smart Strike). O-Emily Bushnell & Ric Waldman; B-Pam & Martin Wygod (Ky); T-Bill Mott. Lifetime Record: GSW, 7-2-1-1, $494,630. Last start: 6th May 4 GI Kentucky Derby.

This son of Into Mischief beat 14 horses in the Derby, which is no small feat. He raced at the back of the first flight while three wide through the initial turn, then vaulted into contention off the far bend while seven deep, making his move at the same time a large number of rivals were either surging or regressing. He was in the mix chasing Mystik Dan between the quarter pole and the three-sixteenths marker, then tired.

It took Resilience four starts to break his maiden, but the horses who won those first three at Saratoga and Churchill all eventually became stakes winners, so he didn't exactly have an easy path to the winner's circle when he finally graduated Jan. 1 at Gulfstream. He subsequently ran fourth behind Sierra Leone in New Orleans, then capitalized off of a no-excuse, ground-saving go behind 52-1 and 80-1 shots who were sparring on the front end of the GII Wood Memorial S.

Resilience | Sarah Andrew

This colt wore blinkers in both the Wood and Derby. That equipment was added by trainer Bill Mott because Resilience was previously hesitant to pass horses. Will he be a passive player or more aggressive off a five-week freshening? Even with Mott's well-established mojo at the Spa, I'd still want higher than Resilience's 10-1 morning-line odds.

8) HONOR MARIE (Honor Code–Dame Marie, by Smart Strike). O-Ribble Farms LLC, Michael H. Eiserman, Earl I. Silver, Kenneth E. Fishbein and Dave Fishbein; B-Royce Pulliam (Ky); T-D. Whitworth Beckman. Sales History: $40,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW, 6-2-2-0, $526,175. Last start: 8th May 4 GI Kentucky Derby.

Although I have Honor Marie ranked here as the eighth-likeliest winner, his chances of making a sustained move to snag a minor placing in exotics is a much more likely possibility.

This $40,000 KEESEP son of Honor Code isn't a large-framed stayer, but he's been described by trainer Whit Beckman as a smart horse who “keeps himself where he needs to be.” His style of making one determined, even-keeled run will serve him well over 10 furlongs, especially if he gets a little help from an overheated pace.

A legit concern is that Honor Marie is now past the six-month mark since his last trip to the winner's circle. When he captured the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. at Churchill back on Nov. 25, it came under the unusual circumstances of five horses dueling early and two others taking failed late-race runs at the lead before this colt swooped by from last.

In the Derby, Honor Marie was jostled early, then had to steady to get out of the way of a veering-out rival on the clubhouse turn. He passed faders to finish eighth but never established the type of positioning that would have enabled him to launch into a better-planned closing kick.

9) THE WINE STEWARD (c, Vino Rosso–Call to Service, by To Honor and Serve). O-Paradise Farms Corp. and David Staudacher; B-Sequel Thoroughbreds LLC, Lakland Farm & Mark Toothaker (NY); T-Michael J. Maker. Sales History: $70,000 Ylg '22 SARAUG; $340,000 2yo '23 OBSMAR. $40,000. Lifetime Record: SW, 6-3-3-0, $467,260. Last start: 2nd May 11 GIII Peter Pan S.

The Wine Steward and Seize the Grey are the only two Belmont S. entrants to have won a race at Saratoga. After capturing a stakes for New York-breds at the Spa last Aug. 27, this colt ran one of the more visually appealing Breeders' Cup preps for 2-year-olds despite coming up short in the Oct. 7 GI Breeders' Futurity S.

That Keeneland stakes was The Wine Steward's first try around two turns, and he drew the rail while entering the race off a 3-for-3 record. He saved ground, advanced to lead a quarter-mile out over a short-stretch configuration, got accosted by the odds-on favorite, then gamely snatched back the lead for a sixteenth of a mile in deep stretch before that fave re-rallied to nail The Wine Steward by half a length.

The Wine Steward | Sarah Andrew

The Wine Steward was entered in the GI Juvenile, but had to scratch the morning prior to his Breeders' Cup start because of an allergic reaction. The issue then delayed his return over the winter, but this colt has since posted a pair of seconds, beaten three-quarters of a length each time, in both the GIII Lexington S. over 1 1/16 miles and the Peter Pan S. at nine furlongs.

The Wine Steward's Beyers have plateaued at roughly the same level from age two to three (last three starts 92-92-91), but he's always in it to win it in deep stretch, an intangible that could matter more than speed figures.

10) PROTECTIVE (c, Medaglia d'Oro–Grace Hall, by Empire Maker). O-Repole Stable; B-Alpha Delta Stables, LLC (KY); T-Todd A. Pletcher. Sales History: ($250,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP). Lifetime Record: 4-0-1-2, $121,920. Last start: 3rd May 11 GIII Peter Pan S.

Protective has crossed the wire second and third in two recent stakes and also in two earlier maiden tries (once DQ'd to fourth). But he remains winless entering the Belmont S.

Judging by beaten lengths, he's been within striking range of Resilience (in the Wood Memorial) and Antiquarian (in the Peter Pan). But he has yet to face the likes of the horses ranked 1-2-3 in this write-up.

Both of Protective's stakes tries had a “best of the rest” flavor that suggest he would need to run the race of his life Saturday in conjunction with most of the other major contenders coming up empty in order to orchestrate an upset.

But still, if you take a look at this colt's stout pedigree, trainer Todd Pletcher's overall success, and factor in a switch to a different rider (Irad Ortiz, Jr. to Tyler Gaffalione), all the ingredients are there for the redboarding should Protective break his maiden in the Belmont S.

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