06/13/2011 12:58PM

Belmont Day-ja Vu


Deja VuAs the field for the 143rd Belmont Stakes slogged under the finish line Saturday, I suspect that many a horseplayer was seized with the same burning question that I was: Umm, who's the three horse?

Even if you could make out the silks of the first three under the wire through the mist and gloom, you might have been confused.

The pink and orange of George and Lori Hall? Weren't their Triple Crown horses supposed to be Pants on Fire and Nacho Man? The familiar blue and orange of Repole Stable? Remember Uncle Mo? The red dots on white of Live Oak Plantation? Weren't those the silks of To Honor and Serve?

Instead, it was the Ruler on Ice, Stay Thirsty and Brilliant Speed, the second-stringers or late bloomers from those three outfits, that ran 1-2-3 in this wet and weird Belmont Stakes. It was 5 1/4 lengths back from Brilliant Speed to the 1-2 finishers from the Derby and Preakness -- Derby runner-up Nehro in fourth, Preakness winner Shackleford in 5th, and Derby winner/Preakness runner-up Animal Kingdom in 6th after a wild journey.

It was deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said. A year earlier, a pretty formful Belmont Day had taken a sudden turn into unpredictable longshot territory when Winchester won the Manhattan and Drosselmeyer took the Belmont. This time it was Mission Approved and Ruler on Ice, who were even longer shots than their win odds of 21-1 and 24-1 would suggests. (The daily double of those two came back $1,988 for $2, a 993-to-1 shot.) Horses just don't seem to go off at higher than 30-1 in the win pool on these big days any more, and who can blame people for stabbing at horses with little to recommend them on paper given the outcomes?

Here's another similarity between last year's and this year's Belmont Day: The most impressive performance of the afternoon came in a six-furlong race and was delivered by Trappe Shot. Last year, the Mill House colt won an allowance race in sizzling time, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 105 on a day when D'Funyybone got a 100 winning the Woody Stephens and Drosselmeyer got a 94 in the Belmont. This time, Trappe Shot posted a stunning victory in the G2 True Borth, earning a Beyer of 112 and making him look like a serious challenger to Big Drama as the nation's top sprinter.

After five early races won by three favorites and two second choices, the stakes action began with the G1 Acorn, which may or may not be part of the New York Filly Triple Crown, or the Betfair Exchange Wagering Triple Tiara, or whatever we're calling the chaotically uncoordinated 3-year-old filly races this year. Turbulent Descent was beaten at 3-to-5, but she was sort of an odds-on favorite by default -- a very good filly with by far the most accomplished resume, but with no particular edge on the field and untested outside California. She ran an excellent race but It's Tricky ran right back to the dominant form she held at Aqueduct over the winter before throwing in a clunker in the Florida Oaks. It's Tricky may have benefiited from the wet track but she's very good in her own right.

Then came the True North, where Trappe Shot put on a dazzling show, thrashing multiple stakes-winners This One's For Phil, Calibrachoa and D'Funnybone by 8 1/2 lengths in 1:08.86. The Tapit colt showed last summer he can't extend his brilliance much beyond a mile, but is a seriously fast horse who's going to be a handful in any race at a mile or less. He wasn't quite ready for the Met Mile but I'd have loved to see what he might have done there.

Next up was the Woody Stephens, where no one but Justin Phillip did much running. The 3-year-old's final time of 1:23.56 for 7f doesn't look too good next to Trappe Shot's 1:08.86, but the track was getting goopier by the minute and he did go his opening half in a snazzy 44.45 while hellbent on denying Travelin Man the lead. To me the most surprising thing about the race was how it was bet -- Arch Traveler the clear favorite at 8-5?

The Just a Game was my lone wagering bright spot. I thought C S Silk was a serious ciontender as a classy front-runner in a paceless field, and thought 6-1 would be a square price, so 12-1 was a big overlay in my mind and a $145 exacta with Fantasia was unbelievable. I'm getting dangerously married to Fantasia, as I thought this was the third straight time that a race set up poorly for her and she rallied impressively anyway. I feel doomed to keep chasing her.

I had managed to screw up the pick-6 by then but was sitting pretty in the late pick-4 going into the Manhattan, 6x6 for 50 cents and with some $1 and $1.50 presses, but could not have come up with either winner if I'd gone 8x8. Nor can I whine about Mission Approved's or Ruler on Ice's perfect trips since my 8x8 would not have included the runners-up in either race, Bim Bam or Stay Thirsty. I can not redboard either result or say that I think handicappers missed anything or could have divined either winner with more or different study. You just turn the page and move on.

Before doing so, I will say that I thought Animal Kingdom, who obviously had no chance after the incident after the start, was as close to sensational as you can be while finishing 6th as the favorite. That run he made around the turn, picking off horses as he stormed from oblivion to a moment of contention before understandably tiring, was as impressive an effort as anything that happened during these Triple Crown races. If they ran the race again next month on a dry track, I would bet him without hesitation at 5-2 against this crew.

The one good thing about the Belmont outcome is that it's going to force these horses to run against one another this summer and fall. The Animal Kingdom camp had assumed they would win this race and could spend the summer doing unconventional things like running in grass races, the 3-year-old championship safely in hand after winning the Derby and Belmont. Now the Haskell and Travers take on greater importance, and the way is even clear for someone new to step up and step into contention.

I've taken only one quick look at Wednesday's Belmont card, where a $1.1 million carryover  awaits. It's a doozy, with five of the six races on the grass, three of them turf sprints, and not for the faint of heart. I'll take a swing with what's left of my battered bankroll, but even with whales and syndicates sending in five-digit plays, I won't be shocked if it carries again.