06/05/2017 12:00PM

Belmont Doings: Going from Derby to Belmont, once a rare move, has become commonplace

Barbara D. Livingston
Tapwrit (left) and Patch (right) are going right from the Kentucky Derby to the Belmont Stakes for trainer Todd Pletcher.

ELMONT, N.Y. – In 2000, in a Belmont Stakes that, like this year, did not include the winner of the Kentucky Derby or Preakness, Commendable scored an 18-1 upset that seemed utterly forgettable on the day. But he in fact ushered in a trend that has only gotten more pronounced in the years since.

Commendable had finished 17th in the Derby, then was kept out of the Preakness before trying anew in the Belmont. Since then, seven other horses have won the Belmont using that schedule, and those winners don’t include the filly Rags to Riches, who won the Kentucky Oaks in 2007 before winning that year’s Belmont.

That makes nine winners – eight exiting the Derby, plus Rags to Riches – in the last 17 runnings who won the Belmont after last racing on Derby weekend. So common is the practice that five horses – Gormley (ninth in the Derby), Irish War Cry (10th), J Boys Echo (15th), Patch (14th), and Tapwrit (sixth) – in this year’s race Saturday here at Belmont Park are being similarly campaigned.

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There were five such runners last year – including one-two finishers Creator and Destin – following four in 2015, four in 2014, and a record seven in 2013. The last time the Belmont was run without a horse being so campaigned was 1999.

Horses, in general, are raced far less frequently than they were three decades ago, but there are other reasons for this schedule, ranging from a horse who may be better suited to running at Belmont Park than at Pimlico, to a horse who had a rough trip in the Derby and simply isn’t ready to come right back two weeks later. In the specific case of J Boys Echo, trainer Dale Romans said it was “out of the question to wheel him back in the Preakness after what happened at the start of the Derby,” where J Boys Echo was bumped and lost position.

“You go through a lot of stages after the Derby, especially one like we had, where you’re eliminated at the gate,” Romans said. “It’s a tough grind getting to the Derby, with the preps, and to come back in the Preakness. Average horses start wearing out.”

Todd Pletcher, the trainer of last year’s Belmont runner-up, Destin, has been the most prominent trainer to embrace the current model, and it has brought him success. Since first sending out Balto Star to an eighth-place finish under that schedule in 2001, Pletcher has won the Belmont with Palace Malice as well as Rags to Riches and finished second with Bluegrass Cat, Dunkirk, Stay Thirsty, and Destin.

Pletcher is based at Belmont Park and believes having the home-field advantage, plus time to train into the 1 1/2-mile race, is beneficial. This year, Pletcher will run both Patch and Tapwrit off a five-week break following the Derby.

“To me, Tapwrit has a lot of similarities to Destin, aside from the fact they’re both gray,” Pletcher said Monday at Belmont Park. “They both took the Tampa route to the Derby, both have similar styles. Destin ran well in the Belmont off the five weeks after a similar type of race in the Derby. He missed the break, whereas Tapwrit was slammed at the start. It cost both a better finish. Hopefully, being here for the five weeks, training here, helps.”

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Patch was the least-experienced horse in the Derby, with just three starts, and then drew the outside post in the 20-horse field. Tapwrit has had three works since the Derby, whereas Patch has worked twice.

“We felt he needed a little extra time after the Derby,” Pletcher said. “Considering he had three starts and post 20, he didn’t embarrass himself.”

Pletcher’s first Belmont starter came in 2000 with Impeachment, who ran in all three Triple Crown races that year. He has not run a horse in all three Triple Crown races since that Belmont, the one won by Commendable. The line of demarcation with Commendable is stark. In the four years from 1996 through 1999, just one horse ran in the Derby, bypassed the Preakness, and ran in the Belmont. Of the 10 Belmonts run in the 1980s, there were five races without a horse campaigned in that manner, and the other five races never had more than two runners with that schedule.

There were seven horses campaigned that way in the 1980s, with none winning. There were 10 horses who had that schedule in the 1990s, again without a winner. But in the 2000s, starting with Commendable, 28 horses – not including Rags to Riches – ran in the Derby, skipped the Preakness, and ran in the Belmont, and already this decade, 30 have raced in the Belmont with that schedule, a number that will climb to 35 by Saturday night if all expected to run do so.

It’s a trend that only figures to be more popular if the current strike rate continues.

Classic Empire  Mark Casse Julien Leparoux Preakness, 2nd
Epicharis Kiyoshi Hagiwara Christophe Lemaire UAE Derby, 2nd
Gormley John Shirreffs Victor Espinoza Ky. Derby, 9th
Hollywood Handsome Dallas Stewart Florent Geroux CD alw, 1st
Irish War Cry Graham Motion Rajiv Maragh Ky. Derby, 10th
J Boys Echo Dale Romans Robby Albarado Ky. Derby, 15th
Lookin At Lee Steve Asmussen Irad Ortiz, Jr. Preakness, 4th
Meantime Brian Lynch Mike Smith Peter Pan, 2nd
Multiplier Brendan Walsh Joel Rosario Preakness, 6th
Patch Todd Pletcher John Velazquez Ky. Derby, 14th
Senior Investment Kenny McPeek Channing Hill Preakness, 3rd
Tapwrit Todd Pletcher Jose Ortiz Ky. Derby, 6th
Twisted Tom Chad Brown Javier Castellano Tesio, 1st