06/07/2012 3:34PM

Crist: In Belmont Stakes, odds call for an upsetter

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Barbara D. Livingston
The argument can be made that Union Rags, impressive winner of the Champagne last year at 2, has not progressed from his juvenile form.

If I'll Have Another wins the Belmont Stakes and becomes racing's first Triple Crown winner in 34 years, he will have done something rare and magnificent that a lot of excellent horses have tried and failed to do. This does not mean, however, that he is a good bet at 4-5 or that horseplayers should feel intimidated or unpatriotic for trying to beat him.

To oppose him at the windows is not to criticize him or his connections, or to deny that on paper he's the best horse in the race by a healthy margin. He has higher earnings, more victories, and more Grade 1 victories than any of his 11 opponents, and his Beyer Speed Figure of 109 winning the Preakness is tops in the field. He is relatively fresh, still eligible to improve, and by all accounts has taken well to Belmont Park and trained well there.

Another factor in his favor is that his chief rival on the Triple Crown trail will not be having another crack at him. Whether or not you think Bodemeister would have handled 1 1/2 mile, a battle-hardened runner-up from the Derby and/or Preakness has often been the Belmont winner over a Crown bidder - Bet Twice in 1987, Easy Goer in 1989, Victory Gallop in 1998, Empire Maker in 2003. With Bodemeister sitting this one out, the second, third, and fourth choices in this Belmont are the third- and seventh-place finishers from the Kentucky Derby and the fourth-place finisher in the Santa Anita Derby.

You can keep going down this road and convince yourself that something has to go terribly wrong for I'll Have Another to lose - and then you remember the recent history: Eleven consecutive horses have been in the same position as I'll Have Another, and all 11 of them lost the Belmont. You still want even money, much less 4-5, that the 12th time will be the charm?

This is always a treacherous race to handicap. Triple Crown bids aside, nine of the last 10 Belmont favorites have lost, and the last four winners paid $51.50 (Ruler On Ice), $28 (Drosselmeyer), $25.80 (Summer Bird), and $79 (Da' Tara). More power to you if you can talk yourself into one of the seven horses who are pegged at 20-1 or higher on the morning line, but I just can't make a case for any of them other than saying we live in a chaotic universe where anything can happen and sometimes does.

The more logical upsetters are Dullahan (5-1), Union Rags (6-1), and Paynter (8-1), though not necessarily in that order. My reservations about Dullahan are that he has never won a race on the dirt, may well turn out to be a better horse on grass, and that his third-place finish in Louisville may have looked better than it was. While he was beaten only 1 3/4 lengths by I'll Have Another, the Derby winner expended more energy early staying within striking distance of Bodemeister, and Dullahan essentially did his running when the race was over, passing tired horses down the stretch.

I'm very intrigued by Paynter, whose strong victory on the Preakness undercard earned a 106 Beyer, clearly second-best in this field (Dullahan's career best is a 98), and who may have the most room for further improvement with only four career starts. He also was beaten just 3 3/4 lengths by I'll Have Another in the Santa Anita Derby in just his second career start. He has a legitimate chance to be a seriously good horse and post the upset, but it's still asking a lot of him.

That leaves me with Union Rags, and I'm happy to give him another chance after a troubled Derby, a Preakness-skipping freshening, and a positive rider switch from Julien Leparoux - who just never seemed to fit him - to John Velazquez. There's a reasonable argument that he simply hasn't progressed or improved off his 2-year-old form, but there have been enough excuses in his last two starts to suggest that the improvement just hasn't had a fair chance to show itself yet. It's not as if he was a precocious speedball of a juvenile who never stretched out. His Champagne Stakes over the Belmont track last October was professional and masterful, and Champagne winners have a way of reasserting themselves in the classics after some uninspiring races in between - think Sea Hero in the 1993 Derby and Birdstone in the 2004 Belmont.

So let's call it Union Rags, Paynter, I'll Have Another, and Dullahan in that order, with no disrespect for the favorite intended - only the opinion that after 34 years and 11 failed bids for the Crown, you don't want 4-5 on what seems like a far more difficult proposition.

[BELMONT STAKES: Past performances, video updates, contender profiles, odds]