06/08/2013 7:08PM

Post-Belmont Stakes Thoughts

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There were many storylines in the 2013 Triple Crown, but from a handicapping standpoint, the main storyline was pace. A wickedly fast pace in the Kentucky Derby set it up for deep closers. A trotting-horse pace in the Preakness enabled that classic to be won wire to wire. In Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, the pace was strong and quick. But it wasn’t crazy-fast over a track that was glib, and it certainly wasn’t anywhere near pokey. And that set the Belmont up to be won by a species that was endangered in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, one that was burned by the fractions in Louisville, and couldn’t make any headway because of the fractions in Baltimore: the close-range stalker.

Ironically, Palace Malice, the close-range stalker who made off with the Belmont, was the one who blasted off in the Derby with blinkers on, and set that impossible pace. But the blinkers were off Saturday, Palace Malice willingly rated, and he demonstrated why trainer Todd Pletcher was always expecting this colt by Curlin to blossom once he had the chance to go a distance.

Of course, before Saturday, Palace Malice had four previous starts around two turns, but even if his route history was somewhat extensive, it was also inconclusive. He had no excuse when a close third in the Risen Star in his two turn debut. But after that, he had no chance to run in the Louisiana Derby, he was a narrowly beaten second in the Blue Grass over a Polytrack he didn’t and still doesn’t necessarily have to like, and then he cooked himself in the Derby with that impossible pace. But under more patient handling this time from Mike Smith, Palace Malice, waited, pounced, and scored as a plausible 13-1 shot. In other words, he got the kind of perfect trip you could have laid out for him on paper. It’s kind of the way I saw it, only I saw Orb getting Palace Malice late, and that obviously didn’t happen.

Right here, a reality check is necessary: Let’s not gloss over the fact that the final quarter mile of the Belmont was 27.58. This group of 3-year-olds is well-matched and entertaining. But what they aren’t as a group is strong, at least at this point in time.

Anyway, Oxbow, winner of the Preakness, deserves almost as much credit as Palace Malice for gamely finishing second in the Belmont. Oxbow was right on that lively early pace, and it is worth noting that the two others most involved on the lead, Frac Daddy and Freedom Child, finished last and next-to-last in the field of 14, beaten margins approaching a zip code. So Oxbow did some very fine work Saturday to finish where he did.

Orb, on the other hand, was a disappointment finishing third. The Kentucky Derby winner got the honest pace he lacked when fourth in the Preakness, not to mention the outside trip. But after making a big, menacing move on the far turn, Orb flattened out. Actually, it was obvious in upper stretch that Orb wasn’t doing enough to get the money.

So now, the debate on Orb begins in earnest. There are some who might have been willing to forgive his loss in the Preakness who will now say the pace and the wet track in the Derby made him look better than he actually is. And those folks will now severely discount him. Maybe they are right, and maybe I have too soft a spot in my heart for him, but I think it was probably more the Triple Crown grind that got to Orb in the Belmont. I say that because even if you want to discount his Kentucky Derby, Orb ran too well winning the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth to say he is just a fast-pace, wet-track opportunist.

A couple of quick thoughts on the graded stakes on the Belmont Stakes undercard: That was a very nice comeback for Fast Bullet in the True North off a six month absence. He is a serious race horse … Stephanie’s Kitten’s decision over Better Lucky in the Just A Game was entirely due to the trips both got. Stephanie’s Kitten got a dream run and a huge opening on the rail. Better Lucky was three wide on the far turn and four wide into the stretch … I think if the main players in the Woody Stephens met seven times, you might bet five different results. That said, I fear I’m going to do nothing but lose money with Clearly Now this year. I liked Clearly Now Saturday and he finished a close third in the Stephens after again being too close to the early pace, so in the hopes that he will finally get a relaxed trip, I have to bet him back … Point of Entry is all class. I completely buy into the notion that he really doesn’t like off turf, and I think the two who were close to him at the finish of the Manhattan wouldn’t be close to him in a race run on firm turf.