06/09/2011 12:06PM

Belmont favorite worth looking past

Barbara D. Livingston
Master of Hounds training at Belmont Park.

Animal Kingdom deserves to be the favorite in the 143rd Belmont Stakes on Saturday. He was a dominant winner of a cleanly run Kentucky Derby, outfinished the rest of the field while narrowly failing to catch Shackleford in the Preakness, has trained well since, and appears to be sitting on another big effort. He soundly beat 7 of his 11 Belmont opponents in the Derby, figures to catch Shackleford this time with an extra five-sixteenths of a mile at his disposal, and the four who didn’t run in the Derby look hopelessly overmatched on paper.

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The primary reasons to pick against him are greed and contrarianism. He will probably be less than his 2-1 morning-line odds – if the forgettable Ice Box was 3-2 last year, can Animal Kingdom really be a higher price? – and there are good reasons to doubt the only two other Belmont entrants who are less than 10-1 on the line, Nehro at 4-1 and Shackleford at 9-2. So I’m going to be greedy and contrary, take a small shot against the three favorites, and take a stab with Master of Hounds at 10-1.

Master of Hounds was fifth in the Derby, beaten 5 1/2 lengths. He and Animal Kingdom were both making their first starts on a dirt track, but while Animal Kingdom was in the clear on the outside throughout the race, Master of Hounds was stuck inside most of the way and took a lot longer to hit his best stride. He ran the same final quarter-mile time as Animal Kingdom, seeming to show real interest when he finally saw some daylight.

There are things not to like about him. He has won only 1 of his 8 career starts and has logged a worrisome amount of frequent-flyer miles since winning a maiden race at Tipperary last July, travelling from Ireland to Kentucky to Ireland to Dubai to Ireland to Kentucky to Ireland and now to New York. On the other hand, this will be just his third start as a 3-year-old, and he should be poised for his best effort yet. We still don’t know whether he’s really a top-class colt, and if he doesn’t run well Saturday he may never try the dirt again. At double-digit odds, however, he has enough possible upside to make him more appealing than horses who will be half his price.

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Nehro has been second in three derbies – Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky – and horseplayers always overbet chronic bridesmaids. This time, the thinking goes, he’s due to get there. He’ll be in the mix, but it’s not as if he was unfairly deprived of victory in any of those races. He fell short without excuse in the first two, and failed at two crucial points in Kentucky despite a perfect trip: Shackleford repulsed his bid at the top of the stretch, and then Animal Kingdom ran by him like he was standing still. He was a step away from being caught for second by Mucho Macho Man, who did not have as clean a journey.

Shackleford is a more dangerous horse as the potential lone speed of the race, but the Belmont distance just seems beyond his scope. He ran a gutsy race in the Preakness, contesting a sharp first quarter before slowing things down under an outstanding ride from Jesus Castanon that left him with enough to hold on. Going just a bit longer in the Derby, though, he was passed by three horses in the final sixteenth of a mile, and he will have to go an extra quarter of a mile on Saturday.

Even if you’re sold on Animal Kingdom, ducking the second and third choices could prove profitable in exactas and trifectas involving the favorite, Master of Hounds, Mucho Macho Man (10-1 on the line) and Santiva (15-1). Mucho Macho Man has been a disappointment on the classic trail but has been compromised by shoeing problems that have apparently finally been corrected. Santiva, second to Mucho Macho Man in the Risen Star in his season debut, missed a subsequent start, squandered his final prep with a non-effort on a Polytrack surface he disliked, and may finally be set to fire his best shot.

Parimutuels aside, there’s a lot to like about this Belmont, with a rubber match between the Derby and Preakness winners and an unprecented return by the first seven finishers in the Derby. It’s the upside to what otherwise by any objective standard – raw times, adjusted speed figures, career records, Grade 1 accomplishments – has been an ordinary year at best for American 3-year-olds in the Triple Crown races. They may not be superstars, but they put on a pretty good show.

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