The odds-on failures to start the Triple Crown

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Ron Flatter

June 17th, 2020

Belmont Stakes odds and trends

Tiz The Law is on the verge of making some Triple Crown history even before the gates fly open Saturday for the 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes.

If pari-mutuel bettors follow the trend established in futures markets, the horse with the Belmont field’s only two previous Grade 1 victories will be an odds-on favorite. The best price to be found early this week on Tiz The Law was 4-5, the odds set by four bookmakers based in London. At Circa Sports in Las Vegas his backers were asked to lay $135 to win $100.

It certainly looks like Tiz The Law will be the first odds-on favorite for the first race of a Triple Crown in 28 years. Including coupled entries (remember those?), this will mark the eighth time it has happened in the last 72 racing seasons.

Of course all those other times were in the Kentucky Derby. Now that the abridged Belmont has temporarily taken on the task of raising the curtain, it inherits a history that has not been kind to those big favorites. Other than Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid, the other six since 1949 all lost.

These are stories that have a common thread of misinterpreted form, bad luck, familiar names like Day, Valenzuela and Jones, and maybe even an old politician.


The last time it happened was 1992, when Arazi came into the Kentucky Derby. His five-length victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) over the same dirt track six months earlier made him all the rage. When Santa Anita Derby winner A. P. Indy was scratched because of a bone bruise the morning of the race, bettors practically ignored the other 17 horses. Florida Derby winner (G1) Technology was the only other starter in single digits.

Bettors ignored Arazi’s travel from his base in France, his whopping one prep race on turf back home, a condensed training schedule, his wide draw and, oh yes, the operation he had right after the Breeders’ Cup to clean out chips from both knees.

Despite all that Arazi was 9-10 at post time. About 1 1/2 minutes later, he looked like a boy among men. The undersized, underlaid favorite was overtaken in the stretch by a late charge led by Lil E. Tee, a colt that had been sold for only $2,000 when he was a yearling. The 16-1 long shot held on for a one-length victory over 29-1 Casual Lies and 33-1 Dance Floor, giving jockey Pat Day his first and only victory in what would be 22 Derby rides.

With jockey Pat Valenzuela taking him wide through the final turn, Arazi was left to finish eighth, the worst result for an odds-on favorite in Derby history. Afterward trainer François Boutin joked to the media that “you made this horse a super horse, not me. You explain how the super horse got beat.”

Easy Goer

For Day and Valenzuela, it was a reversal of fortune from the odds-on disappointment of 1989. That was when bettors felt confident in the coupled entry of Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring. Both owned by Ogden Phipps and trained by Shug McGaughey, they arrived at Churchill Downs fresh off Grade 1 wins at opposite ends of the east coast. For Easy Goer, it was his third overall Grade 1 triumph, and the champion 2-year-old was the main reason they were bet down to post-time odds of 4-5.

Sure enough, the Phipps entry finished the Derby just a head apart, with Day and Easy Goer getting the benefit of the nod. The only problem was that Valenzuela and Sunday Silence beat them both, carrying 3-1 odds to the winner’s circle, leaving Easy Goer in second and starting one of racing’s all-time great rivalries.

After losing to Sunday Silence in what may have been the greatest duel in Preakness history, Easy Goer went on to win the Belmont before defeating older horses that year in the Whitney (G1), Woodward (G1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). In one of the finest seasons for a non-champion 3-year-old, Easy Goer validated the faith bettors had in him on Derby day, even if all those tickets turned into trash.

Those odds-on 1980s losses were part of a 20-year run of failures for Derby favorites that began after Spectacular Bid’s win as a 3-5 choice in 1979.

Eventual Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew was a 1-2 winner before that in 1977, part of a decade that yielded three sweeps of the classics.

Honest Pleasure

While three favorites won the roses in the ’70s, there was a glaring exception involving another 2-year-old champion. Honest Pleasure went 4-for-4 in 1975 and 4-for-4 to start 1976, collecting five Grade 1 victories in the east for trainer Leroy Jolley. All the while Bold Forbes was breaking his maiden in Puerto Rico before stumbling into his 3-year-old season with a pair of wintertime losses at Santa Anita. But after recording three straight wins, including the Wood Memorial (G1), he began to earn some positive attention from bettors.

Both were pure speed horses, and they were the clear choices at the Churchill Downs windows in 1976. With his undefeated record, Honest Pleasure went off at odds of 2-5; Bold Forbes was 3-1. Living up to their form, they ran 1-2 the entire race. Even though Honest Pleasure was poised to catch up in the stretch, jockey Ángel Cordero Jr. and Bold Forbes never blinked, finishing a length ahead at the wire.

They both wilted to Elocutionist in the Preakness, and then Honest Pleasure did not run in the 1976 Belmont. Neither did Elocutionist. So it was left to Bold Forbes to absorb most of the wagers and win the race. In doing so he left a mark that Tiz The Law figures to take from him. He was the last odds-on favorite to start a Belmont that did not have a Triple Crown there for the taking on race day.

Before that, your grandfather’s Kentucky Derby provided the two most recent odds-on, Triple Crown-opening failures. The only loss of Native Dancer’s career came in 1953 as a 7-10 favorite (coupled with Social Outcast). He fell victim to a bumpy trip and lost by a head to pacesetting 24-1 long shot Dark Star. And back in 1949, Olympia won five consecutive races before wilting as the 4-5 favorite, finishing sixth to 16-1 Calumet Farm afterthought Ponder. Even legendary trainer Ben Jones was surprised to have gotten the fifth of his record six Derby triumphs.

The takeaway lesson...

If there is a lesson to take from all this – other than there is no such thing as a sure thing – it is that the public can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or whatever the opposite of that is.

Perhaps these odds-on losses to start Triple Crowns actually started with a very different campaign by Thomas E. Dewey. He was widely regarded by pollsters and the nation-at-large as a can’t-miss favorite to win the 1948 presidential election. If the late gambler Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder was to be taken at his word, he bet $10,000 at 17-1 that President Harry S. Truman would deliver the upset victory. And he cashed.

Maybe it would be appropriate, then, if Tiz The Law changes the trend in the uniquely run, nine-furlong, one-turn race that will be this year’s Belmont. Because it will be run in New York. That is after all where Dewey served as governor.