Belmont race shape not flattering the heavy favorite

Profile Picture: James Scully

June 3rd, 2016

Pace dynamics have shifted dramatically through the 2016 Triple Crown and the Belmont Stakes appears extreme with no confirmed front-runners among prospective contestants. Barring any surprise additions, the 1 ½-mile Belmont shapes up to be a complete 180 from the Preakness three weeks earlier when the majority of the 11-horse field preferred to race on or close to the lead.

A dawdling Belmont pace may be 20+ lengths slower than the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. And the latter showed how important race shapes can be, with Nyquist sustaining his first defeat as the 3-5 favorite.

Exaggerator benefited from the pace theatrics at Pimlico, posting a convincing 3 ½-length victory after Nyquist got caught dueling through the fastest opening quarter-mile in the event’s 141-year history. With Nyquist on the sidelines, Exaggerator is a probable odds-on favorite at Belmont Park.

As trainer Keith Desormeaux has pointed out, Exaggerator became a different horse when learning to settle off the pace this year. He became a one-run closer and the game plan doesn’t figure to change in the final leg of the Triple Crown; Exaggerator won’t be in the second flight regardless of how slow they’re traveling up front. Whether he settles behind fellow come-from-clouds types Brody’s Cause, Cherry Wine, Creator, Lani, Suddenbreakingnews and Trojan Nation remains to be seen.

The glut of Belmont late runners is reminiscent of the Kentucky Derby when at least 12 of the 20 horses could be classified as “sustained” types. Exaggerator bided his time toward the tail of the field, 15th entering the far turn at Churchill Downs before launching his move. He rallied boldly through the final furlongs but the Curlin colt ultimately left himself too much to do, winding up second after Nyquist accelerated clear into the stretch.

Exaggerator won’t have to catch an unbeaten champion (Nyquist) but a speedball like Danzing Candy, who established hot fractions before retreating on Derby Day, would still help. In fact, it would be a significant advantage for every closer in the Belmont field. I keep waiting for new speed, but recent Belmont additions of Forever d’Oro, Seeking the Soul and Wild About Deb don’t meet the criteria.

Exaggerator is the best horse and supporters will take their chances regardless of pace/early positioning, but circumstances appear favorable for an upset given the present make-up of the field.