06/07/2009 6:53PM

Belmont Day Recap


Belmont Stakes Day was a superb afternoon of top-flight racing and oustanding performances, though not so much in the main event itself. Don't get me wrong: I'm selfishly delighted the Belmont turned out the way it did, as I was alive to the eventual top three finishers in pick-4's and Summer Bird was the best result for my bankroll, but this Belmont was weirdly run and comes up a distinctly slow one once you modify the time of the race for the exceptionally quick racing surface Saturday afternoon.

The Belmont earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 100, the second slowest (Da'Tara got a 99 last year) since the figures were first published in 1991 and seven points below the average winning BSF during that time. If you want to be literal-minded about it, the Belmont was only the sixth fastest race of the day (and only the third best of the day by a 3-year-old colt) behind the winning efforts of Fabulous Strike (111 in the True North), Munnings (110 in the Woody Stephens), Just Ben (109 in a N1x allowance), Gio Ponti (106 in the Manhattan), and Diamondrella (104 in the Just a Game).

Belmont Day was about as perfect an afternoon as you could ask for, with sunny skies, temperatures in the low 70's, and a main track that was in astoundingly good condition after two preceding days of heavy rain. The first extraordinary performance came just seven minutes after noon, when Just Ben stamped himself a very serious 3-year-old sprinter with a breathtaking 13 3/4-length victory in 1:21.18. This Zayat/Zito Speightstown colt had looked good winning a Gulfstream maiden race by seven, had less than ideal trips in his last two, but jumped to a new level here in his fifth career start.

In the third, a maiden race at a mile, I got a completely undeserved good start to my wagering day when I made a seven-horse dime-super box ($84) because I thought even-money Convocation was being overbet. He won laughing, and with the third and fourth favorites also hitting the frame I wondered whether I'd get a $1,680-for-$2 payoff to get my $84 back, but somehow the super paid $6,997.

The stakes action, and the pick-6, began with the True North in the 6th race. Fabulous Strike and Forever Together looked like such standouts in the first two legs that I crafted a play leaning heavily on both of them -- the "main" ticket was an all a/b 1x1x5x5x5x3 for $750 -- with the thought that I could then reload in the 8-11 pick four if they tanked, or could use the pick-4 as a hedge if they both got home:

Fabulous Strike was fabulous in victory. The horse capable of bothering him early, Sixthirteen, broke poorly but then rushed up crazily and pushed him through an opening half-mile in an ungodly 43.62. Fabulous Strike shook him off and had a three-length lead after five frlongs in 55.28, but now Benny the Bull was gaining and for a moment it looked like he might reel him in -- but only for a moment, as Fabulous Strike had enough left to win by a length and a quarter in 1:07.85. It was a brave and well-deserved victory for Fabulous Strike and also a very encouraging comeback for Benny the Bull, returning from knee surgery and 11 months on the sidelines.

Obviously, I completely missed Diamondrella in the Just a Game, not that it would have mattered if I had made her one of my four C's behind Forever Together. I've always liked Diamondrella, now a winner of six straight, but I perceived her as a turf sprinter making her graded-stakes debut against much tougher than she'd ever faced. In retrospect, there was no reason to think this 5-year-old Rock of Gibraltar mare shouldn't have relished a mile as much as the Europeans I instead used as backups. In any case, while taking nothing away from Diamondrella, Forever Together had an awful trip -- blocked behind a wall at the top of the stretch and then unfortunately steered to the rail. A highly unfortunate pick-6 result, as it turned out, since I had the rest of it. I understand it would have paid a lot less than the $969,345 that it did had Forever Together won, but I wouldn't have thrown back a $40k payoff.

So I reloaded for the pick-4, putting in basically the same tickets I had in the pick-6 with a few more C's thrown in for insanity-insurance.

The sequence began with the Woody Stephens, and Munnings was tremendous in victory. Granted, he raced on the inside of the track, which may have been the best place to be all day, but he turned in an explosive performance. The pace was mild for the day (45.01) and Munnings was fourth behind it awaiting room on the turn, then exploded through the opening that finally developed and was smashing opening a a 1 1/2-length lead in 1:08.89 and stopping the timer in 1:20.63 while beating previously undefeated Everyday Heroes by 5 1/4 lengths. Munnings, a Coolmore/Pletcher production is (like Just Ben) a son of Speightstown and is being pointed for the King's Bishop at Saratoga.

Gabby's Golden Gal's Acorn victory obviously blew up all the mutirace payoffs. While technically, the seventh choice in a field of nine, she was one of five horses who went off at between 10-1 and 13-1 behind favorites Justwhistledixe (4-5) and Funny Moon (4-1). Once Dream Play didn't show up, Gabby was loose on the lead, and no one could catch her despite a slow final quarter of 25.79. Justwhistledixie just didn't have the sharpness she did in Florida this winter while again defeating Casanova Move. Livin Lovin should advance off a bumpy fourth in her first start since November.

GGG is by Medaglia d'Oro, as is Rachel Alexandra. So while Birdstone has sired the winners of the Derby and Belmont in his first crop, Medaglia d'Oro (bought last week by Darley) has sired the winners of the Kentucky Oaks, Preakness and Acorn.

The Manhattan confirmed the arrival of Gio Ponti as the best American grass male in training with the possible exception of Einstein. Gio Ponti now has back-to-back Grade 1 victories on two coasts, nailing Ventura to win the Kilroe Mile last time out and successfully negotiating two extra furlongs yesterday while showing the same powerful late kick. But the most pleasing sight in the race was seeing 10-year-old Better Talk Now getting up for third -- edging Court Vision, whom Ramon Domiguez got off Better Talk Now (after 20 straight rides together) to ride. It was Better Talk Now's 50th career start, and he joins what has to be a very short list of 10-year-olds who have hit the board in Grade 1 races.

On to the Belmont, where there were 5 to 7 pick-6 tickets alive to Charitable Man, Dunkirk and Mine That Bird and one each to Chocolate Candy, Summer Bird and Miner's Escape. (There would have been a $989k carryover at Belmont wednesday had Mr. Hot Stuff, Luv Gov, Flying Private or Brave Victory won.) My $2 pick-4 to Mine That Bird was paying $5838 and I had dollars to Dunkirk ($6875 for $2) and Summer Bird ($17,085 for $2.)

Dunkirk's going to the lead was a surprise to me, as was Borel's premature and overconfident wide sweep to the lead around the turn on Mine That Bird. As flawless as his Derby and Preakness rides were, this one made no sense. Borel later said the rail wasn't the best part of the track, but I'd be interested to hear how he came to that conclusion since he didn't bother to get a mount on the undercard (and hadn't ridden in a race of any kind while making the celebrity rounds in Manhattan all week.) Maybe it didn't matter, and Mine That Bird was just a little knocked out from the Derby and Preakness, but he would have had a much better chance of winning had he received the perfect inside-out ride that Desormeaux gave Summer Bird. Whatever the case, Mine That Bird regressed from Beyers of 105 and 106 in the Derby and Preakness to a 96 in the Belmont.

I think we can all agree that while this Triple Crown was entertaining and dramatic, it was not a vintage year for quality except when Rachel Alexandra stepped outside her division. That's no knock on Mine That Bird, a likeable and nifty gelding who emerged from the series as the clear leader of the 3-year-old males and who I hope will be racing for years to come. I also think we may have to be more careful these days than in the past about juding these crops in early June because these 3-year-olds are now so lightly raced in comparison to the way they used to be. After all, the first, second and fourth finishers in the Belmont were all making only their fifth career starts, and still have plenty of room for improvement.

On the other hand, both the figs and the gut say that this year's 3-year-old males who contested the Triple Crown races would have been fighting it out for minor awards the last five weeks behind the best efforts by Big Brown, Curlin and Street Sense, Barbaro and Bernardini, Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, Empire Maker and Funny Cide.