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Belmont Stakes selections and analysis
1. Ice Box
2. Make Music for Me
3. Game On Dude
4. Dave in Dixie
The inescapable Belmont favorite is the colt that would have won the Kentucky Derby with any luck. Ice Box ran into a traffic jam at the top of the stretch, got stopped, lost momentum, finally found a clear path, and flew late. By then, the perfect-trip winner was gone. It was too bad, because Ice Box was lengths best. Nonetheless, the runner-up Derby finish validated his Grade 1 victory in the Florida Derby.
Ice Box skipped the Preakness, and enters the Belmont fresh. Five of the last 10 Belmont winners came out of the Derby. Ice Box continues to work well for two-time Belmont winner Nick Zito. Although his deep-closing style might put Ice Box at a disadvantage, similar closers recently won the Belmont Jazil in 2006 and Summer Bird in 2009. Both were exiting the Derby and racing for the first time in five weeks. Ice Box will try to follow the pattern.
Make Music for Me also was compromised by his trip in the Derby. He was shuffled to last of 20, and then rallied into fourth. Plans are for him to be positioned closer to the pace against this easier group (no Derby or Preakness winner). The 4 3/4-length Derby loss by Make Music for Me compares favorably, and with a clean trip he could spring a surprise for trainer Alexis Barba.
Game On Dude is not good enough yet, but he is getting there. In his most recent start, only his second since joining trainer Bob Baffert, he crushed a soft field at Lone Star. He continues to work fast, and his front-running/pressing style could play well in a race short on pace. Game On Dude should be positioned in the first three early, and conceivably could make the lead.
Dave in Dixie has hinted he has more to offer. Though the colt is seemingly overmatched, trainer John Sadler already sent one apparently overmatched 3-year-old on the road this spring. That was Line of David, Arkansas Derby winner at 17-1. Dave in Dixie has been freshened for two months, worked super last week, and figures to run his best race first start back. He could hit the board at a big number (20-1 on the Belmont morning line).
The improving Fly Down is the second Zito trainee; he crushed last out over the track and may be placed too low. First Dude may have been flattered by the surface finishing second in the Preakness.1. Stately Victor
2. Fly Down
4. Ice Box
For a horse considered by many to be strictly a synthetic specialist, Stately Victor had every right to bring up the rear in a sloppy Kentucky Derby after racing in traffic throughout. But he didn't, finishing eighth, ahead of over half the field. His race was respectable under conditions that did not favor him, particularly in light of racing on three weeks' rest after easily the best race of his career, a 4 1/4-length triumph in the Blue Grass over Keeneland's Polytrack. Even if he had been racing back on Polytrack again, he would have been a prime candidate to bounce. So the fact that he only regressed slightly under adverse conditions is an encouraging sign that perhaps he is not strictly a one-dimensional synthetic sort.
If nothing else, there is value in this opinion - with Stately Victor 15-1 on the morning line.
Fly Down - one of two uncoupled Nick Zito-trained entrants in the field, with the other being Derby runner-up Ice Box - is already proven over the Belmont strip, having won the Dwyer by six lengths May 8 with a career-best 99 Beyer Speed Figure. Granted, he failed to threaten in the Louisiana Derby the last time he took a big step forward in terms of speed figures, but his ninth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby might have been more the result of struggling over an unfamiliar track than from bouncing. This time he is back racing on the big, sweeping turns of Belmont Park, which he has shown he likes.
Although Uptowncharlybrown has never finished better than third in three routes, he has raced competitively in quick races while having troubled trips. His worst trip came in the Grade 2 Lexington at Keeneland April 17. Off a step slowly, he was farther off the pace than usual, and then had to make a sweeping five- to six-wide rally on the second turn to grab third. He has also shown he can win on a dirt track, having done so twice at Tampa over the winter.
Morning-line favorite Ice Box ran into traffic problems in the stretch when second in the Derby, but had a highly favorable trip prior to that point, saving ground around the turns and rallying from behind a hot pace.
As the Florida Derby winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up, he is a contender - just an overbet one.1. Fly Down
2. Ice Box
3. First Dude
4. Make Music for Me
One way or the other, this seems like Nick Zito's Belmont, right or wrong?
But does Ice Box cometh in time, or does Fly Down get the jump on him?
For position handicappers, the choice between them is Fly Down, who was green as grass but still got the measure of First Dude at Churchill Downs last fall when both were second-time starters stretching out, and beat him again at Gulfstream Park nearly three months later.
Fly Down put in a nifty turn run in each of those victories, and though the margins were only a half-length and a head, those can be telling differences in sorting out the pecking order at the head of the class, as aficionados of the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry will attest.
Fly Down looked more polished winning the Dwyer, and gets the call in a squeaker.
Those who prefer Ice Box can point to his most recent Beyer Figures of 99 and 100, and the fact that no one else in the field has run that fast more than once.
Trip handicappers will go for Ice Box, but he is a deep closer and the main concern is the pace. Though he has more tactical speed than indicated by the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, as shown by bullet half-mile works whenever pressed for speed, those two big Beyer Figures came with late runs into race shapes that were fast early and slow late, which is an atypical scenario in the Belmont.
If First Dude gets comfortable on the lead, look out. As he showed in two prior meetings with Fly Down, and in the Preakness, he is a game individual who will battle back when challenged for the lead. His chances improve if Game On Dude and Uptowncharlybrown leave him alone early, so pay attention to the earlier dirt races to see whether inside speed is advantaged, as was the case on Belmont Day last year.
Make Music for Me has galloped out strongly in his races without fail, including three good performances against Lookin At Lucky. That said, he's never run on fast dirt, and apparently wasn't training over Big Sandy to the satisfaction of his connections, hence a shift to the training track for his final workout.1. First Dude
3. Fly Down
4. Ice Box
While it is true that First Dude might not have finished second in the Preakness if third-place finisher Jackson Bend hadn't had traffic trouble in the stretch, he still ran very well. Granted, First Dude's Preakness placing was a bit of a surprise - after all, he was 23-1 - but he previously showed flashes of real ability while being compromised by tough trips and poor set-ups, and he put together his best performance yet at Pimlico. First Dude set a stronger-than-expected pace and gave winner Lookin At Lucky all he could handle in the stretch before grudgingly giving in. Unless someone else in here goes crazy early at the risk of whatever shot he might have, First Dude should be in complete control of a pace that shouldn't be nearly as demanding as the pace he set in the Preakness, and he is taken to go wire to wire.
Interactif was a late addition to this Belmont Stakes cast, but he is dangerous. Interactif was a strong second two starts back in the San Felipe to Sidney's Candy, running every bit as well as that one considering the way he gained ground into the winner's slow pace. While Sidney's Candy flattered Interactif when he came back to dominate the Santa Anita Derby, Interactif himself came back to fail as the favorite in the Blue Grass, a performance I'm writing off as one of those wacky Keeneland Polytrack things. Interactif has a bit of positional speed. He might be in closest attendance early to First Dude, and can complete a two-speed number.
Fly Down did edge the pick in an allowance race three starts back, but with the aid of a very favorable pace setup. Although he doesn't figure to get as good a pace set-up this time, Fly Down must still be respected because his big win in the Dwyer over the track most recently suggests he is improved.
Ice Box was a fast-closing second in the Kentucky Derby, but he should have won it. He was twice the victim of serious traffic trouble in the last five-sixteenths of a mile. That said, Ice Box, a deep closer, was aided by the strong pace in the Derby, just as he was when he narrowly won the Florida Derby two starts back. This time, it does not look like he'll get fast fractions to enhance his late run.1. Fly Down
2. First Dude
3. Ice Box
4. Game On Dude
I can still remember trainer Nick Zito predicting Fly Down would be his Belmont horse while standing in the winner's circle after the colt's gritty entry-level allowance win over First Dude earlier this winter at Gulfstream Park, and lo and behold here are the same pair perhaps slugging it out for the top prize in the final leg of the Triple Crown. Obviously Fly Down has been brought along over the past several months with this race specifically in mind, and his performance in the Dwyer suggests everything has gone according to plan for Team Zito. Might just be ready to step up and assume leadership of a relatively weak 3-year-old division on Saturday. First Dude actually was more impressive in defeat than Fly Down in victory when succumbing to that nemesis by a head when they last met in south Florida. He was hard-used on the lead and forced to fend off a couple of stiff challenges. That was the second of two tough setbacks at the hands of Fly Down for First Dude, who finally put it all together and nearly pulled off the upset when allowed to relax on the lead in the Preakness. A similar pace scenario could make him tough to catch despite the added ground this time around. Ice Box is another Zito runner who has peaked at the right time and there is little doubt he could have won the Derby with any racing luck. Love the fact he's been given ample time to recuperate from that effort, like the six weeks he got off following his game decision in the Florida Derby. On paper, this looks like his race to lose, but the price just may not be worth the risk as he's certain to be overbet as a result of his well documented ill fortunes in the Derby. Game On Dude was no match for Ice Box or even First Dude in the Florida Derby, but that was only his third start and he's received some valuable experience since being purchased privately and switched to Baffert's barn. Showed marked improvement winning at Lone Star, and he has enough speed to race close up and force the issue here from the outset. Could prove the livest of the longer-priced players in this lineup.1. Ice Box
2. Make Music for Me
3. Fly Down
4. Stately Victor
Ice Box was 19th early, 24 lengths behind the leader in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field, so it wasn't a surprise to see that he was steadied multiple times, blocked, and had to rally outside of most of the other horses in the field down the stretch. It would have been surprising if most of that hadn't happened to him as a deep closer in a field that large. While I don't expect a perfect trip for him in the Belmont, there is an excellent possibility that he will experience less traffic trouble and won't have to lose as much ground racing wide. Based on the way he ran in the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby, the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont seems made to order for him. He is at the top of his game now, and he is likely to be fresh thanks to the time off between the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont. His sharp 46.60 half-mile workout nine days ago is an indication that he is poised to deliver a big performance. I look for him to kick past the leaders down the stretch and win this race comfortably. Make Music for Me didn't have to work quite as hard as Ice Box did in the Kentucky Derby, but he still had traffic trouble and was forced to rally very wide. He is less accomplished than that opponent and less consistent, but if you are willing to take his good fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby at face value, the improved trip he is likely to have in this race should give him a good chance to complete this exacta. Fly Down made a strong move to win the Dwyer by six lengths, but he had a much easier journey in that seven-horse field than my top two selections did in the Derby, so he'll have to continue to improve to beat them. Stately Victor looked good winning the Blue Grass, and finished a respectable eighth in Louisville. He can add betting value to the exotics. First Dude will attract good betting support based on his sharp second in the Preakness, but it is interesting to note that he lost ground to the leader from midstretch to the finish in all four of his races at 1 1/8 miles or longer. I'll revise my opinion on race day if early speed is dominant in the earlier races on the card, but without that benefit he could be vulnerable at underlaid odds going 1 1/2 miles. Game On Dude is peaking at the right time and might find his way into the exotics at overlaid odds.