05/30/2014 1:28PM

A Belmont Stakes trend that is difficult to deny


In 2000, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas won the Belmont Stakes with Commendable, a colt who had raced in the Kentucky Derby and then skipped the Preakness.

Lukas has been a trend-setter in many ways during his legendary career, but little could he know what he was starting that day. In the 14 runnings of the Belmont since 2000, a total of seven horses have done what Commendable did: lose the Derby, skip the Preakness, win the Belmont.

A search of race charts could find no other Belmont winners prior to Commendable with this identical race pattern – which makes the 50-percent strike rate since 2000 a remarkable one indeed. Throughout Belmont history, a fair number of winners have sat out the first two Triple Crown events, and others have had a similar four- or five-week break before winning the Belmont. But this particular pattern clearly has been the most successful in recent times.

After Commendable, those winners were Empire Maker (2003), Birdstone (2004), Jazil (2006), Summer Bird (2009), Union Rags (2012), and Palace Malice (2013).

Four prospective starters in the 146th Belmont Stakes on June 7 at Belmont Park fit this intriguing profile: Commanding Curve, second in the May 3 Derby; Wicked Strong (fourth); Samraat (fifth); and Medal Count (eighth).

Lukas said recently at his Churchill Downs barn that “probably the biggest factor in your favor is you get to train your horse into the Belmont, as opposed to tweaking or adjusting or fine-tuning, whatever you want to call it. You get back into the kind of rhythm you’d like to have going into any other race.”

Tim Ice, who won the 2009 Belmont with Summer Bird after the colt ran sixth in the Derby, said: “It’s got to be an advantage, maybe a slight one. You’re not having to run three times in five weeks against the caliber of horses that make these races so tough. You’ve got time to let the horse catch back up and be at its peak for the next one.”

Additional time between races probably is what has led Todd Pletcher, who won the Belmont last year with Palace Malice, to be more active in the Belmont than the Preakness. Pletcher, with 40 Derby starters, has run only seven horses in the Preakness versus 16 in the Belmont.

One of his Preakness starters was the 2010 Derby winner Super Saver, and, said Pletcher, “You’re pretty much compelled to run the Derby winner back at Pimlico. That’s not a bad situation to be in, obviously, because you’ve won the Derby, but in terms of getting the time you need for maximum performance, running three times in five weeks just isn’t something you’d normally do.”

California Chrome, the Derby and Preakness winner, will be conceding the presumed luxuries of time and rest to most of the opposition Saturday as he attempts to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

“That’s what makes a Triple Crown winner so special, that they can overcome so much, whereas the other trainers and horses have these other options at their disposal,” Lukas said.

A four-time Belmont winner, Lukas had his only shot at a Triple Crown in 1999, when Charismatic ran third in the Belmont.

“If you’re training horses, time is your ally,” he said. “Always has been, always will be. The Triple Crown puts a lot of pressure on trainers and horses because you’re going for the record books and doing things you might not do otherwise. The really good horses seem to benefit from more time. It’s really important for most of them.”

Dale Romans, who will saddle Medal Count in the Belmont, said he does not discount the advantages of having more time but that he “would’ve run in the Preakness and Belmont, but the horse had already run three times in four weeks,” ending with the Derby, “and I didn’t want to push it.”

Romans added: “I don’t like having pat answers for a general concept like this, and I don’t think running three times in five weeks like the Derby winner is doing is that big a deal. It’s been done before – quite a bit, actually. But you see how some of these Derby horses have done skipping the Preakness and running back in New York, and you think, yeah, maybe there’s something to it.”