LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When presented with a horse coming off a victory aided by a perfect trip, a bet-against strategy is typically worthwhile. These types are often regression candidates at underlaid prices.
Next Saturday, one such perfect-trip runner – Preakness winner War of Will – runs in the Belmont Stakes, potentially creating mutuel value on his rivals, which as of this writing nine days before the race is expected to total around eight. What follows is a look at four of those opponents who most excite based on their form, workouts, and pedigrees.
Before diving into those four horses, let’s revisit War of Will’s Preakness. Breaking from the rail, he sat just off the early pace, just as he did when having a troubled run in the Kentucky Derby. But that is where the similarities end. Unlike in the Derby, when he was hampered by a drifting-out Maximum Security, this time he stayed inside and nothing came in his way. He shot through an opening inside pacesetting Warrior’s Charge into the stretch, and the race was over.
He surged to a one-length lead and seemed to idle a bit over the final furlong, crossing the wire 1 1/4 lengths ahead of deep-closing longshot Everfast, another horse who came up on the inside, a position on the racetrack that some observers felt was biased relative to the outside. If nothing else, it was the shortest way home.
I am therefore inclined to take a stand against War of Will in the Belmont, avoiding him in at least the win pool and in exactas, though I respect his accomplishments, which go well past the Preakness, and how competitive he remained in the Derby despite adversity. As for Everfast, another Belmont probable starter, he is a toss altogether with his surprising second in the Preakness seemingly the result of favorable circumstances.
So who to play as alternatives? Let’s examine four contenders.
Fourth in the Kentucky Derby before being promoted to third on disqualification, Tacitus is the most likely winner of the Belmont. He certainly shows the right profile, starting five weeks after running in the Derby – a path often used successfully since the turn of the century, most recently by Tapwrit in 2017 and Creator in 2016.
As a son of Tapit out of the five-time Grade 1-winning router Close Hatches, Tacitus’s pedigree would be appealing under any circumstances, and particularly so in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. Progeny of Tapit have won the Belmont three times over the last five runnings: the aforementioned Tapwrit and Creator, plus Tonalist in 2014.
Winner of the Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial, Tacitus recorded the best Derby finish of any horse pointing for the Belmont despite some challenges. By no means did he have an impossible trip, but he did toss his head when on heels in the opening stages over the sloppy going, and then was largely unable to secure a position that did not have him at least in mild traffic.
Still, what most caught my attention most was his stretch determination. Two-year-old champion Game Winner (fifth via disqualification) pulled alongside him down the stretch and seemed to be going on his way past, but Tacitus outfought him, indicating he was one of the stronger runners at the end of the 1 1/4-mile Derby.
He seems likely to go off in the Belmont at odds of around 2-1, depending on any additions or defections from the race.
Although they did not fare near as well as Tacitus in the Derby, Spinoff (18th) and Tax (14th) also spark interest. Belmont history is filled with horses who rebounded after distant losses in the Derby. In a couple of examples from recent Belmont winners, Tapwrit was sixth in the Derby, beaten over 10 lengths, and Creator ran even worse, ending up 13th, more than 18 lengths behind victorious Nyquist.
The Todd Pletcher-trained Spinoff, whose best race was a second in the Louisiana Derby, is not a graded winner like the Danny Gargan-trained Tax, the Withers winner and Wood Memorial runner-up, but that seems offset by the Pletcher factor. Pletcher has trained three Belmont winners: Rags to Riches (2007), Palace Malice (2013) and Tapwrit. He has also been second in the race five times and third three times.
Having one of the most talented and deepest stables of 3-year-olds in the country, Pletcher is adept at picking out which of his runners are best suited to this lengthy race, which also happens to be at his principal training base, Belmont Park.
Pletcher also trains the Belmont Stakes-bound Intrepid Heart, who after winning his first two races finished third in the Peter Pan after stumbling at the start. That Pletcher is running him in the Belmont is a show of confidence. He sees upside in this lightly raced 3-year-old and is hopeful the addition of blinkers will result in improvement. Intrepid Heart seemed settled and focused with blinkers in a May 25 workout.
A Peter Pan runner last won in the Belmont in 2014 when Tonalist and Commissioner ran one-two in the race after finishing in those same positions in the Peter Pan a month earlier.
Spinoff, Tax, or Intrepid Heart would merit price appeal if any start at odds in excess of 10-1.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.