06/07/2014 8:59PM

Belmont thoughts, and other notes


Belmont Stakes Notes

Even with the disappointment of the Triple Crown going unhit for another year, you have to offer kudos to Tonalist for delivering on the immense promise he had offered since early this year by winning the Belmont in determined fashion. A Belmont win is huge for any horse, and this is the biggest win so far for Tonalist’s trainer, Christophe Clement. Clement is so good that it’s surprising he doesn’t have many more victories of this magnitude.

::2014 BELMONT STAKES: Recap, video, chart, and more

But I can’t beat around the bush here. I don’t think this Belmont was particularly good. It was very strangely run, with the plodding Commissioner setting the pace, and Samraat, who has plenty of positional speed, somehow trailing the 11-horse field into the backstretch. This seemed so weird that if those two reversed their early positions, it would have actually made more sense.

And then, there is the final time. On the face of it, Tonalist’s time of 2:28.52 (after fractions of 24.06, 48.52, 1;12.84, 1:37.13, and 2:02.43) looks pretty good. But when compared to the final time posted by very average older horses in the Brooklyn earlier in the card of 2:27.13 (after fractions of 24.16, 48.73, 1:13.41, 1:37.87, and 2:02.47), it turns out to be a slow race. And when you consider that Belmont’s main track was heavily watered 19 minutes before the Belmont, which should have only sped up the track, and the Belmont’s final time suffers further by comparison.

I’m not going to jump ugly on California Chrome’s co-owner Steve Coburn for his unfortunate post-race comments. While it is important that you lose as well as you win, this had to be an extremely disappointing and emotional moment for California Chrome’s connections, and who among us can say we never did or said something we regretted in a pressure situation.

That said, the notion that the 20 horses who qualify for the Kentucky Derby are the only ones who should be able to compete in the Belmont is even more ridiculous than the idea of sticking a month between each of the Triple Crown events, and that, I strongly feel, is pretty ridiculous. Both are wrongheaded concepts. And oh yeah, if Coburn’s Belmont qualification was in effect Saturday, Medal Count would have been your Belmont winner.

I would have to think that if Victor Espinoza had it to do all over again, he might have ridden California Chrome a little differently. To me, the issue with California Chrome’s trip wasn’t about whether he should have gone on to the lead or taken back. To me, the big deal was staying inside and not getting out. I don’t know if California Chrome had enough left in the tank to win Saturday even with a perfect trip. No one does. But it does seem he’s more comfortable running outside of horses, and California Chrome would have been better served Saturday if he had a trip running outside of opponents. And it wouldn’t have mattered how he got there, whether by going to the lead and getting out, or taking back and getting out.

I’ve been on record several times to the effect that the Triple Crown is one racing tradition you don’t mess with. If you put more time between the three races, how could you ever compare a Triple Crown winner who won three races spread over three months, to an Affirmed or Seattle Slew, who won the three races over five weeks. You simply couldn’t, and it would undercut the history that is such an important part of the three Triple Crown races. But it does seem there is a growing movement to do something. Even Robert Evans, the owner of Tonalist, said in his post-Belmont Stakes press conference that he would like to see more time between the races, and Tonalist didn’t run in the Derby or Preakness.

Notes on the Belmont undercard stakes

My opinion of Close Hatches going into the Ogden Phipps was that she is a terrific filly, but just not quite on the same level as Beholder and Princess of Sylmar. Well, I was wrong. Close Hatches, a determined winner of the Phipps, is, right now, every bit the filly Princess of Sylmar is. Princess of Sylmar had a great set up in the Phipps and ran her race, and just came up short.

But as for how Close Hatches measures against Beholder, well, I’m going to reserve my mea culpas on that until a later date. Beholder didn’t have an obvious excuse finishing fourth in the Phipps. I suppose you could say that maybe she didn’t like the sandy nature of Belmont’s main track if you wanted to. But I think Beholder didn’t run anywhere near her “A” race Saturday, and I suspect it had more to do with her being much farther off the early pace than she is accustomed to. I realize being closer to the Phipps pace, which was fast, would have caused Beholder to expend more early energy. But hey, Close Hatches was closer to the pace, and it didn’t prevent her from gutting it out in the late stages.

For a strong favorite who was never far back, mostly inside, and got up in the final sixteenth of a mile, Palace Malice had a bit of an eventful journey in the Met Mile. Palace Malice was put in the game early from his inside post, earlier than he probably would have preferred, and that was absolutely the correct thing to do. The pace in this Met Mile was downright slow, not only in comparison to the way many past Met Miles have been run, but also in comparison to the paces seen in most of the day’s earlier main track races. Even if the rail was a nice place to be Saturday, I don’t think Palace Malice enjoyed being boxed inside horses, or eating the dirt he wound up eating. But Palace Malice is just so good right now, and was so much the best Saturday, that it didn’t matter. Palace Malice has become a very cool horse. To win the Belmont at 3 and the Met Mile at 4, well, that’s something.

You also have to tip your hat to Met Mile runner up Goldencents. That was a terrific effort first start back in more than six months, and without the aid of the sort of track bias Goldencents capitalized on when he won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

I have one word about Social Inclusion: Enough.

Social Inclusion had no excuse when third as the favorite in the Woody Stephens. He was cool and collected in the post parade by his standards, he went into the gate relatively smoothly, and he sat a perfect outside stalking trip. And yet after everything broke as well for him as anyone could have asked, Social Inclusion was thoroughly outrun in the Stephens by Bayern, and finished a weary third.

Social Inclusion rode the crest of an inside speed bias when he won his debut, and he got away with the easiest of early leads when he beat Honor Code in his second start. His Wood Memorial third was a legitimately good effort, but the time for making allowances for Social Inclusion on the basis of his potential is over. It’s now up to him to deliver, and he was found woefully wanting Saturday.

As for Bayern, all you can say is, Wow! Always highly regarded by trainer Bob Baffert, Bayern emphatically demonstrated why that was so with blinkers back on in the Stephens, making a show of his field after disputing a very fast early pace. And what’s especially intriguing about Bayern is, although the Stephens was a seven-furlong sprint, there is absolutely no reason to think he won’t be highly effective stretching back out to a route.

Sweet Reason was a perfectly plausible upsetter in the Acorn. She badly needed a cut back to a one-turn race like the Acorn after mediocre efforts going two turns in her first two starts this year. And let’s not forget that for a time after she won the Spinaway last summer, Sweet Reason was considered the top 2-year-old filly in the land.

The cut back to one turn did not work well for My Miss Sophia, the odds-on Acorn favorite. After running very well in slower paced nine-furlong races in her last two starts, My Miss Sophia gave it up in the stretch after attending the Acorn pace. The Acorn pace, while not especially fast given the pace in the Woody Stephens in the race before, was still much faster than what My Miss Sophia had seen lately, and she couldn’t handle being close to it.

I really felt Real Solution was the best horse going into the Manhattan. I also really felt that Real Solution wouldn’t pass me in the stretch if it meant actually finishing first in a race. His hang job when second in last month’s Man o’ War was beautiful in its strange way. But on Saturday, Real Solution rolled right on by his opponents in the stretch of the Manhattan without the slightest bit of hesitation. Maybe Real Solution’s hanging act is behind him. Or maybe the horses Real Solution steamrolled were so limited that even Real Solution couldn’t indulge them.

I hate to knock Coffee Clique, who gained a coveted Grade 1 win in the Just a Game by out-nodding Strathnaver, but the female turf division continues to want for someone who can really run. I mean, Strathnaver’s form is well established, and she is, at best, a Grade 3 mare.

And how weird was Stephanie’s Kitten’s performance in the Just a Game? She was being asked down the backstretch just to remain a distant trailer, but then she suddenly leveled off in the late stages, and actually galloped out past the wire with the leaders.